Barbaric starts out like a traveler’s worst nightmare: that Airbnb you were counting on has been double-booked. It’s a dark, stormy night in a rundown neighborhood when Tess (Georgina Campbell) arrives at the house she’s rented online. She opens the trunk and finds that the key is missing, but as she searches for it, a light comes on inside the house. Keith (Bill Skarsgård) opens the door and asks who she is and what she is doing here so late. He also rented this house and he invites Tess inside so they can figure something out. Tess is cautious at first, but learns she has a lot in common with Keith. All seems well until the doors begin to close on their own, footsteps echo through the hallways, and a dark maze of tunnels is discovered beneath the house.
As many have noted, Barbaric is totally out of control. It’s the kind of wild ride best taken without much prior knowledge. The film also collects comparisons to James Wans clever from 2021. Immediately leaving the room at the end of the film, the comparison makes sense. Both have twists that are impossible to guess right off the bat (and even as the film progresses) and both are unfathomable on the wall. The problem with Barbaric is that it is not a controlled chaos. Of course, “controlled chaos” is antithetical to the definition of chaos, but for a “seeing is believing” movie to work, there needs to be some level of discipline.
Barbaric has an amazing set up and first act. Tess and Keith’s encounter begins like a popcorn horror movie, with dramatic musical bites when something scary happens. Then, miraculously, Barbarian turns into romance. It’s pretty awesome to take the circumstances that brought Keith and Tess to this house and turn it into something lovely. For a moment, audiences forget they’ve signed up for a horror movie. The transition to the second act presents a perfectly jarring cut, immediately moving from the horrors below to the sunny Pacific Coast Highway. Unfortunately, this jump is the signal that things will go downhill. It is simply not enough to be unbridled in the narration, to show the most confusing and grotesque images possible. The film must create the illusion that the plot is derailing, while maintaining control throughout. Barbaric achieves this duality in the first act, but is unable to maintain it for the remainder of the film.
While some suspension of disbelief is always required for the horror genre, Barbaric requires a lot of mental gymnastics. Medically, some characters suffer from what appear to be life-threatening injuries that only force them to limp. Intellectually, it makes no sense why Tess would stay at this Airbnb after discovering the horrors below, any more than the logistics of the basement maze make sense. But again, some disbelief is needed, and it would be easier to forgive them deficiencies if the film had managed to stick the landing.
What Barbaric excels in the ebb and flow of tension. None of the big scares feel cheap or unwarranted because they’re so scattered. The moments of terror seem truly deserved because there is nothing lurking around every corner. The public knows Something hides somewhere, they just don’t know where. The music does not crescendo to reveal it, the horror appears from the darkness, leaving the audience to strain their eyes to see if they can find the terror before it reaches them. The camera is tight, adding to the claustrophobic feeling of being trapped in the basement maze. Despite all the logistical issues, it’s hard not to get lost in the ever-escalating fear. When Tess’s flashlight starts flashing and the whole theater is flooded with flashes of darkness, this basement feels very real.
Without revealing the brutal twists of Barbaric, it’s safe to say that two of the film’s central themes are toxic masculinity and motherhood. They’re not really explored, however, just lightly touched upon before returning to non-stop crude spectacle. It’s exhausting to a certain extent. After Jordan Peele get out, the number of horror movies trying to hide heavy themes under the masks of their monsters is skyrocketing. None are able to reach the heights of Peele’s films and instead ask audiences to do the work of blending horror with social criticism. Barbaric clearly wants to say something about Reagan-era politics, Detroit’s urban decay and sexual assault, but isn’t he interested in expanding on his metaphors.
There’s no denying the mad rush that awaits anyone pushing the game Barbaricbut having high expectations can spoil the fun.