The campaign for gnarly, mostly one-location horror Barbarian has been scarily subdued. Just the one trailer – light on plot, heavy on mystery – and that punchy one-word title, a rare example of restraint, crafty less-is-more marketing we don’t see often enough in the exhausting era of trailer teases, teaser trailers, trailer countdowns, digital trailers, extended trailers and final trailers.
I’m going to remain as tight-lipped about the specifics, and not just because a strictly worded pre-screening email insisted upon such, but because there are depressingly few pleasures to be had here, and one of them is at least, for a while, playing detective trying to figure out just what on earth is buried at its centre. It’s in the opening stretch, the set-up laid out in the hugely effective preview, that this game works so well.
It’s late, and Tess (Georgina Campbell) is arriving at her Detroit Airbnb in the middle of a rainstorm, only to find that there’s someone already in it. Double-booked Airbnbs have weirdly become something of a trend of late, from Katie Holmes’s Covid comedy Alone Together to Winona Ryder’s gonzo thriller Gone in the Night to last week’s Netflix romcom Love in the Villa, but it’s explored with the most thought-through detail here, the awkward ins and outs of how to then cope with such an aggravating clerical error (or is it? etc). Tess is stuck with Keith (Pennywise himself, Bill Skarsgård), who is being disarmingly nice about it all, and after realising that other options aren’t possible for the night (a convention is in town and hotel rooms have all been snapped up), she reluctantly agrees to stay.
It’s obviously a recipe for disaster, but writer-director Zach Cregger initially works hard to sell us on the “nope” of it all (Tess even says “nope” at one point, when considering a risky move). She takes a picture of his ID, she locks the bedroom door, she refuses to drink anything she hasn’t seen him prepare, she’s … aware of the danger she could be in as a woman (the two have a discussion about the differences they face in such a situation). It then makes the ensuing descent into the basement and into full horror that much more mystifying, as Tess, a recently smart and careful woman, turns maddeningly dim-witted, acting in ways that make no sense outside of the construct of a horror movie written by someone unable to find justifications for why a character would act so foolishly. Each eye-roll and head-shake takes us further away from the film, losing us and any real suspense, characters downgraded to chess pieces.
The reveal of what lies down below is less surprising than the structure Cregger then chooses to deploy as we are taken to different periods, locations and viewpoints (there is more Justin Long than one would expect), interestingly bold until one realises such diversion is merely that, a way of distracting us from what is essentially a pretty ineffective monster movie. It’s competently made (Cregger could perhaps work better with a script he hasn’t written) but curiously flat, and in recalling films from Don’t Breathe to The People Under the Stairs, only serves to remind us how devoid this is in comparison.
The way Cregger casually drifts close to hot-button topics and then decides to avoid them completely could almost be a knowingly middle-fingered statement on how he’s deliberately choosing not to fall into the “elevated” horror trap, the what-if-we-just-lived-in-a-society option over what-if-I-told-you-how-we-all-lived-in-this-society thesis. But even that extremely generous reading would require a writer-director with a firmer hand on his material, and here it feels more like someone blindly throwing a net out wide, hoping something might get caught in the process. It’s a defiantly unscary lump of Midnight Madness schlock that gains nothing from showcasing an awareness of the #MeToo reckoning or the damage of gentrification other than box-ticking.
It’s a shame that Campbell, an actor of immediate intimacy and warmth, hasn’t found a breakout more deserving of her talents. I’m still haunted by her devastating, Bafta-winning work in Paul Andrew Williams’s BBC3 drama Murdered By My Boyfriend, one of the most effectively gut-wrenching and nuanced stories I’ve ever seen of the specific horrors of domestic violence, and while she gives this her very best, the material never reaches her lofty level. It’s frustrating to watch an actor of clear intelligence glumly navigate a character of deep stupidity, and Cregger’s thin attempt to explain her decision-making as based on the trauma of a toxic relationship is an on-paper construct rather than anything that makes sense for a real person.
As Barbarian progresses, and as my interest diminished, it becomes clear that the secretive trailer is less artful withholding and more deliberate deception, because if more cards were laid out on the table, the majority would balk at the very silly game being played. The big secret here is that sadly it’s not very good.
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