|Courtesy of 20th Century Studios
After years of working in television, namely as an actor-director of The Whitest Kids U’Know as well as the satirical comedy The Civil War on Drugs, Zach Cregger went away for about nine years before reemerging in television around 2020. Which brings us to arguably his first real fully fledged debut as a writer-director of a theatrical feature, the freakish Detroit, Michigan set and shot gonzo horror-comedy flick Barbarian. All over the map as a cinematic wacky mess, the film represents another Michigan-centric horror ala It Follows or The Wretched while also being the nuttiest mainstream horror film of its kind since James Wan’s Malignant.
Tess Marshall (Georgina Campbell) is headed for Detroit for a job interview and lands a rental home via Airbnb when she discovers there’s another tenant already booked in her place, a strange young man named Keith Toshko (Bill Skarsgård). Out of options thanks to an unresponsive landlord, Tess reluctantly agrees to stay the night and resolve the booking conflict the following day. But soon she discovers a hidden room deep within the walls of the basement leading to a cavern of untold, unspeakable horrors far worse than anything she could possibly imagine.
Something of a quasi-anthological horror film which jumps freely between concurrent characters and storylines including but not limited to a hazy flashback rendered in fullscreen against the otherwise widescreen frame, Barbarian is truly all over the place. Working in a subplot involving a shady Hollywood actor AJ Gilbride (Justin Long) in the midst of a MeToo scandal which sends him fleeing to Detroit where he crosses paths with the film’s protagonist, the film is tonally jarring as it shifts freely from elongated scares to goofy gross-out sight gags.
Visually the film is an arresting if not labyrinthine production, lensed handsomely by Zach Kuperstein in long, unbroken takes letting the unease and dread of the environment soak in. The score itself by Anna Drubich is an electronica drenched sonic nightmare that is positively unnerving married to the sound design and vistas onscreen. Then there are the performers with Georgina Campbell making an excellent scream queen, Skarsgård is dependably creepy and awkward and Long, a veteran of horror himself, offers up his most complex and despicable character yet.
A mostly good if not a little insane mixture of horror and comedy in ways that go together and don’t, Barbarian generally gets the aura and attitude of Detroit, Michigan right while also treading similar ground as the recently-released The Black Phone which also dealt in fears of caverns and imprisonment. Though not as successful as the Ethan Hawke starring horror with the rules and seriousness of Barbarian being tossed out the window as it presses on, those looking for a wild, gross, scary and funny ride if you don’t think too hard on it will find much to enjoy here.