BARBARIAN **** USA 2022 Dir: Zach Cregger. 102 mins
One of the prominent “sleeper” horror hits of the latter half of 2022, writer-director Zach Cregger’s picture offers everything from ironic needle drops and incidental social commentary to a couple of surprising narrative shifts in line with modern genre milestones as diverse as PSYCHO and AUDITION. The movie suggested by both the opening stretch and the (clever) marketing is not quite the one you get – and it’s all the better for it.
The first half an hour is a masterclass in nervy tension, and it nods directly to the Hitchcock classic, with Bill Skarsgård’s carefully pitched performance cannily playing on our wariness of charming, likeable but socially awkward young men. He and plucky, likeable aspiring-documentarian Georgina Campbell somehow end up double booked at the same Airbnb for the night in a nice house in a gone-to-seed part of Detroit. The street represents part of the fallout from one of the shamefully neglected and impoverished parts of modern U.S.A.
There’s some flirtation and the sense that Campbell is a smart, resourceful heroine prepared for potentially dangerous situations, while the two-handed set-up succeeds as a marvellously uneasy, self-contained mini-movie on its own. What follows involves seemingly unrelated characters whose importance to the narrative only becomes apparent as the script tracks toward its intense finale: disgraced celebrity Justin Long (expertly shedding his appealing screen persona to play an irredeemable sleazeball) is busy denying a costly, looming rape charge from an actress, and a superbly understated Richard Brake – so impressive in Rob Zombie’s work – occupies his own stretch of the plot until all becomes clear.
The denouement showcases a genuinely alarming (and pitiful) central threat, dashes of #metoo-era justice and some suitably icky incidental detail. Occasionally, it falls back on jumpy jolts, but the characters are well crafted, the script is witty and pithy and the tension is sustained throughout. Key contributions come from composer Anna Drubich, whose recent credits include WEREWOLVES WITHIN and the FEAR STREET trilogy and cinematographer Zach Kuperstein, whose expertise was previously evident in THE EYES OF MY MOTHER and THE VIGIL.
Review by Steven West