"Barbarian" already takes 2022's spot for most surprising and imaginatively fucked-up horror movie

Barbarian (2022)

There is some major real estate in setting a horror movie in an Airbnb. Some have already gotten the trend started—like “The Rental,” “Superhost,” and "Gone in the Night"—but none of them have quite gone for broke like writer-director Zach Cregger's “Barbarian,” a fearlessly conceived, nightmarishly creepy, take-no-prisoners jolt with something to chew on thematically besides a Russian nesting doll of diabolical reveals. Bucking genre convention and letting its freak flag fly, this is one of the weirdest mainstream horror releases since, well, last year’s insane-in-the-membrane “Malignant,” and that’s a very, very exciting thing.

When any movie refuses to let you know where it’s going next, you know you’re in for a rare treat. As with any story that hinges on the element of surprise, the deceptively simple setup is all you’re going to get here. Gearing up for a job interview in the morning, a young woman named Tess (Georgina Campbell) has booked a renovated Airbnb in a rough Detroit neighborhood. When she arrives at the house on a rainy night and accesses the lockbox, the key is already gone. Someone else is home, and it happens to be Keith (Bill Skarsgård), a nice-enough stranger. Since two rental companies double-booked without knowing, the man and woman make the best of a less-than-ideal situation. Being the gentleman that he is, Keith tries making her comfortable, even washing the sheets so Tess can take the bed. He even waits to open a gifted bottle of wine in front of her. After a promising night, let’s just say Tess later finds a secret passage in the basement and it doesn’t look good.

Unfolding as a triptych that keeps reinventing itself, “Barbarian” is economically told, efficiently paced, and anything but pedestrian. There is an ingenious method to Zach Cregger's infectious madness as everything in his setup zags when you think it will zig before eventually clicking into place and coming full circle. Not far off from the big artistic swing filmmaker Kevin Smith once made with “Red State” and then even more so with “Tusk,” one of the co-creators of TV sketch comedy show “The Whitest Kids U’Know” has gone and made 2022’s most consistently surprising and imaginatively fucked-up horror movie. To think that this is Cregger’s solo directorial bow following up his 2009 co-directing debut, the raunchy teen sex comedy “Miss March,” is wild. Between his smart, unpredictably constructed script and confident direction, Cregger makes a throughline about gender power dynamics and wraps it all up in a sick, twisted cinematic love child between Wes Craven and Larry Cohen.

Front and center, Georgina Campbell (2022’s “All My Friends Hate Me”) is fresh-faced and instantly appealing as Tess, whom we feel like we know in such little time. In getting Tess down into that basement, expectations are repeatedly flipped in dread-inducing yet humorous fashion, beginning with her initial “don’t go in there” reaction. We think she’ll make every possible foolish decision out of her own selfless instincts, but Tess actually surprises with her resourcefulness. Bill Skarsgård also makes the most of his screen time, giving us a full sense of who Keith is, and it’s nice to see the actor out of the malevolent Pennywise ensemble without completely losing his weird, possibly untrustworthy energy. Justin Long then turns up in a karmic setup we won’t even begin to explain how it connects, but he’s very funny as assholic, obnoxiously selfish L.A. actor AJ, especially when it comes to him using a tape measurer. Anyone who’s followed Long’s career since “Jeepers Creepers” will find some twisted amusement that can’t be coincidental on Cregger’s part.

This may be Cregger’s first horror film we’ve seen from him, but the confidence in his direction shines through every collaboration in every creative department working on its optimal level. Cregger and director of photography Zach Kuperstein (2021’s “The Vigil”) have a lot of fun with stylish, elegantly immersive camera movements (and an off-kilter wide-angle lens in a later section of the film), all while taking full advantage of shooting in the catacombs of a subterranean basement with minimal lighting (often reminiscent of found-footage terrifier “[REC]”). The score by Anna Drubich (2021’s “Fear Street: 1994”) is rattling in a fresh way, with classily eerie whispers over the title card, and The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” is an inspired choice for the film’s end-credit button.

“Barbarian” is more proof that horror can cover a whole spectrum and be a lot of different things: darkly playful, suggestive, ruthless, gripping, perverse, outrageous, and topical. An audience’s suspension of disbelief will be tested a couple of times (even in the moment), but when a movie manages a tonal tightrope, shredding the nerves one minute and then finding both humor and an unexpected kernel of tenderness in the darkest of situations, those moments have little consequence when it comes to the big picture. In a halfway-there calendar year of several notable horror films, genre fans have something original to celebrate. Just go in knowing next to nothing and don’t let anyone spoil “Barbarian” and all of its demented delights. It’s a wild ride getting there.

Grade: B +

20th Century Studios is releasing “Barbarian” (108 min.) in theaters on September 9, 2022.