Following in the footsteps of Jordan Peele, writer-director Zach Cregger transitions from comedy for his horror feature debut, a brutal and cautionary tale that combines the modern Airbnb trend with a return to simpler times when people lived under the stairs and rotting ladies enjoyed taking baths. For good measure there’s a creepy basement, Justin Long getting the short end of the stick, and a female antagonist (Georgina Campbell) who’s in it to win it. “Barbarian” is scary as hell loads of fun.
If people didn’t make mistakes in horror films, they would be over in 10 minutes. Ignorance is bliss becomes fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. Bad decisions will be made, but a good horror film knows how to avoid becoming the next Geico commercial by waiting for just the right moment to reach its turning point. It may not happen until the very end so it’s vital to keep the audience in suspense with the right amount of plausibility and a few surprises along the way. It’s refreshing to watch a horror film that doesn’t rely on cheap jump scares and overblown CGI. “Barbarian” gets it right with a few minor stumbles along the way.
When Tess (Campbell) arrives at the Airbnb she rented in Detroit, it’s the middle of the night, and pouring down rain. Nothing fancy, just a small yellow home, the word “cottage” comes to mind. Upon entering her passcode in the lockbox, she discovers there’s no key. Being late at night, no one is answering at the company that manages the rental property. Tess heads back to her car pondering what to do next when suddenly light on the inside of the home indicates someone is inside. What would you do?
Being a female alone in a strange city late at night, Tess goes back to the house and bangs on the door (strike one) only to find the home is occupied by Keith (Bill Skarsgård) who insists that he also rented the home. He questions if she’s at the right home on the right date, so she shows him the booking on her phone. Keith invites her in so they can sort it out and of course, Tess obliges (strike two). However, in a smart move, she also asks to see his reservation.
Skarsgård, who played Pennywise in the recent “It” films, has a boyish charm that exudes innocence if you don’t look at his eyes. Cregger loves to amuse the audience with inside jokes. In one scene Keith exclaims “I’m not a monster” while flashing those Pennywise eyes, and wait until you see how our writer-director decides to pay tribute to “Jeepers Creepers.”
Eventually, the two conclude that the home was double-booked. There’s a convention in town so hotels are at capacity and with nowhere to go, Keith offers to let Tess spend the night (strike three?). He’s a gentleman so he gives Tess the bedroom and offers to sleep on the couch. Things go bump in the night; doors seem to open by themselves. Is the house haunted? Remember, there’s a creepy basement and if you’ve seen the trailer, it feels like Cregger is paying homage to the 2008 found footage thriller “Quarantine,” a remake of the much better 2007 Spanish film [*REC].
A flashback scene takes us back to the 80s as Asia’s “Heat of the Moment” rocks the airwaves and wonderful character actor Richard Brake joins the cast, fresh from a couple of solid back-to-back horror performances in last year’s “Offseason” and “Bingo Hell.” It’s another puzzle piece that adds mystery to the plot without divulging the film’s secret.
Back in the present, a homeless man named Andre (Jaymes Butler) plays the messenger of doom role, and finally Justin Long enters the picture as an a-hole actor named AJ who’s in jeopardy of sinking his career after sexual abuse allegations arise from a costar. AJ owns the Airbnb home which he’s looking to liquidate to defray his legal fees.
I won’t reveal any further details, the fun lies in not knowing what’s ahead. Cregger, a founding member of the comedy troupe The Whitest Kids U’ Know who later went to appear in the sitcoms “Friends with Benefits,” “Guys with Kids,” and “Wrecked” takes the same path as Jordan Peele by ditching his comedy roots for an impressive horror debut. The difference is Peele went the Rod Serling route while Cregger headed straight for Wes Craven territory.
The score by composer Anna Drubich (“Werewolves Within”) is what I like to call industrial dirty. Distorted, loud, and the perfect accompaniment to Cregger’s film. The story for the most part is set in the present, but it feels like 80s horror with a bit of Ti West’s “House of the Devil” serving as inspiration. Georgina Campbell is the heroine we didn’t know we needed. Giving off Rosario Dawson vibes, the English actress ditches the accent, delivering a strong performance as Tess. Grotesque prosthetic effects over artificial CGI images add to the throwback feel of “Barbarian” a refreshing horror film that is scary and fun.
(3 ½ stars)
Now showing in theaters