Ah, Halloween. It's the time of year when the ghosts, ghouls and goblins return to the mortal plane and walk the earth... and take over our cinemas. For better or worse, the studios also try to appease the horror-inclined, with a mish-mash of scary and subpar offerings served up every year. In the mix this year is the very adult offering, 'Barbarian' - and while it's committed to a fresh take on the genre, does it live up to the promise?
On a dark and stormy (but surprisingly rain-free) night in Detroit, Tess (Georgina Campbell, Apple TV's 'Suspicion', TV's 'Broadchurch') has found her way to a less-than-pleasant neighbourhood to spend the night in an Airbnb ahead of a job interview. Unfortunately it's been double-booked, and Keith (Bill Skarsgård, 'It' franchise, 'Deadpool 2', who also serves as an executive producer) has already settled in for the evening. With all accommodation in town booked out they both decide to share the space - but as they discover, there's a lot more to the house than meets the eye. A hidden room in the basement leads to a buried dungeon - as well as a dark, twisted and deadly history.
With his feature film debut, writer and director Zach Cregger (creator and writer of 'The Whitest Kids U'Know') has crafted a different beast. The structure is smart and refreshing, dropping in and out of characters' storylines as suits. It also doesn't fall into the trap of so many U.S. horror films, avoiding blatant shock value and gore, instead choosing to draw its thrills from the anticipation of the unknown (or in some cases, known) of what waits at the end of dimly-lit corridors.
SWITCH: 'BARBARIAN' TRAILER
The reason this is so successful - besides the fact the film relies heavily on point of view shots, so we're forced to stare down these dark passages ourselves, awaiting the inevitable - is that we're so invested in the characters. With just three main players (the troupe is rounded out later in the piece by AJ, played to a tee by Justin Long, TV's 'F is for Family', 'Jeepers Creepers'), Cregger is afforded the opportunity to comprehensively develop their quirks and personalities, allowing a connection to be maintained. The use of humour - particularly from Tess - negates the issue of the audience yelling at the cast as they make obvious horror mistakes; rather than making decisions that don't make sense just to move the plot along, Tess' motivation comes from her being a strong female character and wanting to provide assistance, even when she knows it's a poor personal choice.
These character connections are only further amplified by the cast members. Campbell as our constant figurehead is fascinatingly watchable, spending a substantial amount of time alone on screen but keeping the tension at a peak and the reality firmly in place. The chemistry between her and Skarsgård is equal parts spiky and sultry, and in another universe it would be wonderful to watch their relationship unravel. On the flip side, Long's portrayal of AJ as a privileged white man comes off as complicatedly smarmy without being loathfully sleazy.
With just three main players, Cregger is afforded the opportunity to comprehensively develop their quirks and personalities, allowing a connection to be maintained.
All of this, at least, is the case until the film's final act. As the horror storyline continues trying to reach unexpectedly outrageous levels, the script begins grasping wildly and unnecessarily for straws. It feels like it either desperately needs to fill in some holes before the story's end, or tell rather than show us plot points (or worse still, plot points it had previously subtly laid down are now blatantly spelled out). This leads to our much-loved protagonists performing actions without any real motivation, with all that hard-earned character development thrown out the window simply to keep the scares coming.
While we are breaking a few horror tropes with the storytelling - the defenceless female running about aimlessly and Black characters dying first - it doesn't manage to avoid them entirely. The big twist we encounter has touches of Alfred Hitchcock's 'Psycho', but is more closely lifted from a 1996 episode of 'The X-Files' (I'll negate the specific episode to avoid any spoilers) - which managed to handle the gore and tension in a much more extraordinary way while subject to more stringent television ratings. 'Barbarian's' revelation is not original, but more so, in 2022 it isn't particularly shocking as far as monsters go. Even more unsatisfactorily, a character foreshadows things that are "worse" than our monster that resides beneath house, yet we never get to experience anything that lives up to that promise.
While 'Barbarian' offers an interesting twist on the horror genre, and for the best part of the film manages to subvert some of the worst traits, it does end up stumbling and falling as it comes to its finale. There's enough in there to give you the odd jump - and there's absolutely no shortage of jump cuts - but a masterpiece this is not. It's a nice addition to the 2022 Halloween filmmaking assortment, but it isn't going to be the year's horror standout.