Sometimes, no matter how hard you try to think otherwise, a movie is just plain stupid.
This is one of those times.
BARBARIAN (2022), a new horror movie by first time director/writer Zach Cregger, who’s known mostly as an actor, is getting lots of buzz and love from fans and critics alike, and I have to admit, I’m scratching my head over all the excitement.
BARBARIAN opens well with a promising premise when Tess (Georgina Campbell) who is in Detroit for a job interview arrives at the Airbnb house she’s renting to find out that someone else is already there, and that someone is Keith (Bill Skarsgard), and he’s there because the rental was accidentally double-booked. Not knowing what else to do, Keith tries to be the gentleman and invites Tess to spend the night, promising to sleep on the couch, and that she can have the bedroom. Tess hesitates at first but eventually agrees, which sets up some nice early tension as Keith while certainly doing his best to seem friendly, does have that Norman Bates vibe about him, and so, the audience, like Tess, isn’t exactly sure what to make of him.
Later, things grow creepier when Tess discovers a hidden room in the basement as well as a series of very scary looking underground tunnels. When she tells Keith, he wants to investigate for himself, and when he doesn’t come back upstairs, Tess decides to go looking for him. When she hears him crying out for help….
…the film makes a dramatic shift from dark underground tunnels in a rundown neighborhood of Detroit to sunny California where we meet an actor named AJ (Justin Long) who’s flying high until he learns that his co-star on a new TV show that is about to launch has just accused him of sexual assault and rape. His life is suddenly turned upside down, and his assets are about to be liquidated as he will be spending lots of money on legal fees, and his job options in light of the accusations against him come to a screeching halt. He decides to sell some of his properties, some of which are located in Detroit, and he goes there to check them out before he sells them.
Yup, it turns out that AJ owns the house in which Tess and Keith were staying. When he gets there, he finds their stuff, but the house is empty, and so he believes he has squatters, but then, he hears noises coming from the basement…
There’s more, which I won’t go into here.
BARBARIAN has a strange story structure, and even stranger characters, which all add up to a mess of a movie that I’m guessing is receiving praise for its combination of violent scenes and some semblance of social commentary. But none of it worked for me.
The first third of the movie did work. I really enjoyed Georgina Campbell’s performance as Tess, and I bought into her plight of being stuck in a crappy situation, having to stay in a house with a man she didn’t know at all. Likewise, I enjoyed Bill Skarsgard’s performance as Keith. He possessed just the right balance of nice guy vs. too nice to keep the audience guessing as to which one he really was. And of course, his recent performance as Pennywise in the two IT movies tilted opinion towards the latter, that maybe there was something secretly sinister about him.
All of this worked well, and both Campbell and Skarsgard shared good chemistry together, so the start of this one was firing on all cylinders, and once Tess discovers the shadowy underground rooms and tunnels, the film really does enter some frightening territory.
But then just when the story is about to go to some very dark places, the action cuts away to the sunny west coast and the character of AJ, who at first seems to be providing comedic relief, and Justin Long is more than up to the task of generating some laughs. The scene where he takes a tape measure to the underground tunnels, trying to measure the square footage for financial purposes, had some folks in the theater laughing out loud. But the more we learn about AJ, the more we realize he’s an arrogant creep, most likely guilty of the rape he’s been accused of.
And he becomes a central character.
Now, and this is where the social commentary comes in, the film makes it known that he is a creep, and the commentary seems to be that this kind of person doesn’t even seem to realize the harm they are doing. Somehow, I didn’t really find this point all that interesting. I mean, so what, and who cares?
Then there’s more back story, as there’s a flashback to the 1980s where we learn about the original owner of the home, and we see how all this stuff started, as the guy is a genuine monster.
And lastly, there’s the main threat in this film, which is a being that seems to be there only as reason to give the story a menace. I thought this whole story and explanation was ludicrous, ridiculous, and without merit. The point seems to be there are some men who are monsters. True. And the “creature” here is the result of these male monsters’ actions. It’s a simple point, dragged out to create a supposed novel menace which in reality is a far-fetched plot point.
I also found the violent scenes of murder in this one to be all rather disappointing. They’re way over the top— arms being torn off, for instance— and they are not scary. In fact, other than a creepy first third, the rest of the movie in terms of scares falls way flat.
The scariest part of BARBARIAN is its setting. The underground room and tunnels are disturbing. What happens inside them is not.
And while critics and some fans are loving it, I know I’m not alone in my opinion that this one just didn’t work, as I saw it in a fairly crowded theater, and most of the folks on their way out were either shaking their heads or saying out loud, “That was stupid!”
The film’s title is most likely a play on words, as the house in the film is located on Barbary Street, while several characters in this movie act like barbarians.
Some are calling BARBARIAN one of the best horror movies of the year.
I completely disagree. For me, BARBARIAN is one of the worst horror movies of the year.
Conan the Barbarian would not approve.
I give it one star.