It may be best to perform a background check on your Airbnb
How comfortable do you feel heading into this Airbnb booking? Did this question make you panic and double down to read your next host’s reviews? Good, Barbaric might inject some anxiety the next time you do it. Tess Marshall (Georgina Campbell) checks into a cozy Airbnb in a heavy thunderstorm before her next job interview. When she goes to get the key, it’s not in the safe. As Tess calls the host, a light comes on in the house. It is there that she meets Keith (Bill Skarsgård), a stranger from New York who has also booked the same Airbnb and moved into his home.
You can imagine this is quite the predicament – it’s raining, the house is in a run down neighborhood, and it’s late. These are landmarks where previous horror films begin their stories. Why on earth would Tess even think about staying with this person? This is where writer/director Zach Cregger moves to constantly subvert expectations to confuse audiences. Keith is eager to show Tess that he’s not a threat. He offers her tea (which she didn’t ask for), insists on drinking wine left in the house, and even gives up the bedroom for Tess to sleep. These openings seem a little weird, making the audience notice that SOMETHING terrible can happen at any time. However, things happen in the background.
The doors slowly open and the camera pans to a basement door. As Tess and Keith bond lightly, that unease remains. When you feel you are in control of what is happening, the secret of what is hidden at the bottom of the lower level is revealed. The “scary thing in the basement” trope has been done a number of times – this is how Cregger leverages it to freshen things up. At points, Barbaric feels like a haunted house, where viewpoint switches beg you to move quickly from room to room. The rhythm does not allow logic to take hold of the story that the film seeks to tell until the third act. Some may find it exhilarating, while others might find it tedious.
The evil within the Unsuspecting House (I’ll let you find that out) is harshly macabre. It all starts to form in a narrative sense once Hollywood actor and rental owner AJ (Justin Long) slips into the fold. He drives high and sings in his convertible until he gets a call from his agent informing him that an actress is accusing him of doing something horrible. AJ’s entire world immediately unfolds as his focus is on salvaging his career rather than atone for what he may have done. To lay low, he goes to his property to sell it in order to recoup funds — but we all know it won’t be that easy.
On the surface, Barbaric looks like a fun hedge maze of “what could go wrong now?” Cregger strives to leverage 80s and 90s themes to its advantage in a fun way. Cinematographer Zach Kuperstein combines the thick atmosphere of the house and the untended and somewhat dangerous environment that contains it as double images of each other. Anna Drubich’s musical choices dance between the spaces as your mind guesses what exactly is going on here.
Who exactly is the Barbarian? With each male character introduced, the definition of the word means something different. Given another side to Detroit’s decaying neighborhood and a throwback to 1980s Reagan America, Cregger also ventures to show how evil can lurk in plain sight until that it can no longer be contained. Barbaric falters slightly when he has to take a breath or two, but not enough to derail the scares and laughter. Why do we feel so at home in other people’s homes? Well, you could take a second look (or two).
Photo credit: 20th Century Studios