Airbnb is evil. That’s not the thesis of Zach Cregger’s Barbarian but arguably an objective fact. Though the concept of Airbnb is a neutral one–homeowners can rent out spare rooms or entire apartments to travelers who are visiting their area—it has over the years become a capitalist nightmare and a blight on local communities. The proliferation of Airbnb has led to skyrocketing rent, supercharging gentrification, and making the already serious housing crisis even worse. So it feels both timely and appropriate that Cregger’s nightmarishly entertaining feature debut centers around a mix up at an Airbnb. Even more fitting is that the home sits in a rundown neighborhood of Detroit that the 2008 financial crash devastated.
It’s here that our story begins on a rainy night, like the best ones do. Tess (Georgina Campbell) arrives at her crash pad for the night. However, she discovers someone else is there. Keith (Bill Skarsgård) is already settled in for the evening. He too booked a night at the cute and cheerful home. We can’t say much more about the story of Barbarian without ruining its terrifying charm. What we can say, though, is that Cregger comes out blazing in his horror debut. This is the kind of surprising, unexpected, and horrifying flick we know will become a cult classic. Ramping the atmosphere up to 11, Cregger cranks every ounce of tension possible out of what is a very contemporary nightmare. But wherever you think that Barbarian is going, I promise it isn’t.
At the story’s heart is Campbell as Tess. Her performance keeps the film grounded at all times even when Cregger really throws us into the deep end. She’s a perfect in-character, an appropriately apprehensive woman who knows she shouldn’t go into that house with a man she doesn’t know but also doesn’t really have a choice. It’s the kind of situation that’s easy to imagine getting into. But while Tess makes a lot of decisions that’ll have you screaming at the screen—definitely see this one with as many people as you can/you feel comfortable with—Campbell always makes Tess’ choices seem like the right one for her, even if we know it isn’t. It’s hard to dig into all the things that Skarsgård does right in this performance without spoilers, but this is another stellar genre turn. Together, he and Campbell are horror dynamite.
Like every great scary movie, Barbarian lives and dies on its use of sound and score. And it excels in both. The film utilizes chilling and sometimes near overwhelming sound design to amplify its many shocks. Adding to that are Anna Drubich’s stunning compositions that bring to mind both Carpenter and Ennio Morricone. Definitely two of the best composers to ever do it. But Drubich’s achingly cool score is in no way derivative and adds consistently to the tension and horror on screen.
Horror has always been a genre filled with politics, messaging, and analogous stories for us to learn from. In a landscape where contemporary horror is leaning into that more than ever, Barbarian comes from a place of subtlety. That’s a very funny thing to say once you’ve seen the film. But Cregger’s exploration of the horror of being a woman, the nightmare of keeping yourself safe, and the lengths we have to go to everyday to do so make Barbarian pack a punch. The best thing about writing this review that is it still tells you nothing about the true joy, perfect pacing, and unexpected horror of Barbarian. Composing this review is the best kind of puzzle. You should absolutely see this movie, but you also need to go in knowing as little as possible. I hope that this review has managed to convince you of both things.