HomeReviewsBarbarian’s layered secrets make it horror-movie catnip

Barbarian’s layered secrets make it horror-movie catnip

The horror movie Barbarian is best approached by an audience that knows as little as possible about it. The film’s trailer encourages this to a degree that may turn some viewers off: It divulges little beyond the film’s initial setup.

Even in our spoiler-phobic times, keeping secrets makes sense for a horror movie — it’s simply scarier if viewers don’t know what’s coming. But the true test of a well-constructed movie comes when there are no surprises left. At the end of its 102-minute run time, with its secrets laid bare, Barbarian still has so much to offer. And part of that is something for viewers to be scared of beyond its initial ominous portrait of the quiet terror that can lurk inside a house when two strangers are forced together on a dark and stormy night.

Written and directed by Zach Cregger (formerly of the sketch comedy group The Whitest Kids U’ Know), Barbarian starts off simple enough. Tess Marshall (Georgina Campbell) arrives at an Airbnb in the outskirts of Detroit, where she discovers it’s been double-booked and that a man named Keith (Bill Skarsgård) is already staying there. Stuck in a storm with no other options readily available and an important job interview in the morning, Tess makes the risky decision to stay the night.

[Ed note: While this review preserves most of the movie’s surprises, some minor setup spoilers follow.]

Tess is a great modern horror-movie protagonist — doe-eyed but not naive, a guarded but kind young woman who just wants to land a good job and go back to wherever she’s from. Her bad decisions — the kind every horror protagonist has to make, from staying in the house to exploring its depths — mostly stem from her kindness and wanting to believe the best about others.

Keith peeking out of an open door in the horror movie Barbarian

Keith, to his credit, is aware of how all this looks. He’s savvy enough to know that Tess has no reason to trust him, and every reason to expect the worst. And he tries to ameliorate that awareness by going out of his way to make sure she’s as comfortable as she can be. There’s nothing he can really do, though; the weight and history of too many women threatened by too many men hangs heavy in a situation like this, and casts a shadow over Barbarian as a whole. Even as Keith continually attempts to put Tess at ease, she — and the audience — can never really trust him. (Even if Skarsgård sans makeup isn’t recognizable as the man who played Pennywise in the recent It movies, the unsettling energy is still there, and put to good use.)

This is where Barbarian begins: as a suspenseful tale about two strangers forced to ride out a storm together, told from the perspective of a woman who must constantly worry whether the man she’s sharing a house with is dangerous. Even with the modern Airbnb spin, this is classic horror-movie stuff, enough to support a quick-and-dirty exploitation film. But Cregger merely uses the premise as a foundation for something more ambitious, delivering a lean, surprising film with effective thrills, while also giving viewers plenty to contemplate afterward.

No filmmaker makes any decision lightly, but every creative choice made in Barbarian is astoundingly well-calibrated in a way that rewards close watching, while also not detracting from a more casual, thrill-seeking experience. From its Detroit setting — initially arbitrary, but eventually given reasons beyond aesthetic decay — to the sharing-economy snafu that gives the film its initial premise, there’s a methodical execution of setup and subversion that’s just subtle enough to shift away from what viewers might expect. Still, it’s never so dramatic that Barbarian ends in a wildly different place from where it began.

Tess stands atop a staircase leading to a dark basement in the horror movie Barbarian.

That’s the film’s greatest strength: For all its twists and turns, Barbarian is more a movie about recontextualizing what’s on screen than about big reveals. Its script never calls attention to that dynamic, but it is constantly toying with viewer sympathies. It quietly poses questions, goading the audience into defending their assumptions at every turn. Is Tess in danger from Keith? Are they both in danger from the house? If they are, whose fault is that? Does it matter whether you think they’re good people? Is your gendered view of the world warping your perception?

Barbarian’s visual simplicity gives the mind freedom to wander. The Airbnb home Tess and Keith are in is dingy and dimly lit. With a little grace and imagination, the house doesn’t even look that bad — but why would anyone watching a horror film be that gracious? Especially when presented with the familiar iconography it hides, from a seemingly endless dark tunnel to a rooms that looks like something horrible happened there.

These are familiar images, and Barbarian uses them as fuel for speculation that fills the first viewing with dread, and orients further viewings around the characters. While Tess, Keith, and the few others they encounter are archetypal, they aren’t blank slates in a nondescript nightmare town.

They’re characters visiting Detroit for a reason, and the history of that city — and its late-20th-century turn toward decay, as it was abandoned by a wealthy white community that could no longer mold it to their idyllic middle-class vision — is an unspoken weight on the film and its horror. Like Skarsgård and Campbell, who deftly convey quiet shifts in the energy of a scene with the smallest facial expressions, Cregger’s camera reminds viewers of Barbarian’s setting with small, careful shifts, gesturing at the whole of a place by carefully regarding a narrow slice.

This is where Barbarian transcends its secrets. Twisty stories are hard to calibrate for; knowing a film has one or more hard left turns coming can goose expectations, which are often rooted more in what any given viewer wants, not in the storytellers’ ultimate goals. Barbarian’s shifts, fortunately, are subtler and scarier. As the film sinks deeper into the house it begins in, its best trick is one of the oldest in cinema. Cregger makes sure the biggest scares are in your head, and in what you might learn about where your sympathies ultimately lie. 

Barbarian Cast: Where You’ve Seen The Actors Before

When it comes to horror movies, this year has been filled with them. Indeed, the 2022 movie release schedule has been packed to the brim with some amazing additions to the world of horror, from the gory A24 flick, X, to The Black Phone, which added to the long list of amazing horror movies from Blumhouse Productions. And now, we’re about to get another horror entry from 20th Century Studios – Barbarian.

The film, which has been highly anticipated all this year, is finally out in theaters for all to enjoy, and some of those cast members might be looking a little familiar to you. For those who are wondering exactly where they’ve seen the Barbarian cast before, here are some of their most-known projects.

Georgina Campbell (Tess)

Starting off with the star that you’ve most likely seen in many other projects, we take a look at Georgina Campbell, who plays Tess in Barbarian. The actress has appeared in a variety of films and television series prior to her part in Barbarian. Some of her biggest film roles thus far have included playing Kay in King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, as well as Fig in All My Friends Hate Me.

Campbell has appeared more in television. She had the recurring role of Whitney Landon in Sadie J, played Rochelle in the miniseries, One Night, Jasmine in After Hours, a detective in Broadchurch, and was even featured in the fantastic Black Mirror episode, “Hang the DJ.” Earlier in 2022, she was featured in the Apple TV+ miniseries, Suspicion. 

Justin Long (A.J.)

Moving on, we now take a look at Justin Long, who plays A.J. in Barbarian. Long is actually a horror movie veteran, and has been in movies such as the first Jeepers Creepers, which started a franchise, as well as Drag Me To Hell. However, Long has appeared in many other popular movies, ones that you’ll most certainly recognize. 

Some of his biggest roles have been in Dodgeball, Accepted, Idiocracy, Serious Moonlight, 10 Years, Comet, Dear David, and more. He also voiced Alvin in a series of Alvin and the Chipmunks movies. Long has also appeared in plenty of television as well. His biggest role was as Warren P. Cheswick in the TV series, Ed, and he voiced Kevin Murphy in F is for Family. 

Bill Skarsgård (Keith)

Next up on the cast list for Barbarian is Bill Skarsgård, who plays Keith. If you recognize that name as a horror movie fan, you’ve got a good memory, as Skarsgård (at least to me) is horror movie royalty for his portrayal of modern horror movie villain, Pennywise, in both IT films, a role he is going to be reprising in a new prequel series, according to Variety

However, Skarsgård is a very talented actor and has done much more than just horror films. Some of his other big roles in movies include voicing Deviant Kro in Eternals, appearing in Simple Simon, The Divergent Series: Allegiant, the Charlize Theron-led spy thriller, Atomic Blonde, and the independent film, Nine Days, among others. 

He’s also had much success in television. He portrayed Roman Godrey in the horror series, Hemlock Grove, and several characters in Castle Rock (which was unfortunately cancelled, but I love it anyway). He also portrayed the main role of Clark Olofsson in the TV show, Clark, in 2022. 

Matthew Patrick Davis (The Mother)

Moving on, we take a look at the next cast member of Barbarian, Matthew Patrick Davis, who portrays The Mother. The actor has primarily played smaller roles in his time in Hollywood, but has appeared in several TV shows as a guest, including Days of Our Lives, Joan of Arcadia, Veronica Mars, Jane the Virgin, American Dad!, and more. He was also a recurring guest star on the fantasy comedy series, Dwight in Shining Armor.

Richard Brake (Frank)

Next up on the list, we have Richard Brake in the Barbarian cast, who plays Frank. Brake is also what you would consider horror royalty in my eyes, but not for his movies. While he may look different without all the makeup, Brake actually portrayed the ultimate villain, The Night King, for both Seasons 4 and 5 of Game of Thrones. 

However, he’s more than just that iconic villain, and Brake has done plenty in the world of movies and television. Some of his biggest parts in films have been in Batman Begins, 31, Mandy, Water for Elephants, Thor: The Dark World, The Death of Stalin, 3 From Hell, and more. Other than Game of Thrones, Brake has appeared in several television shows, including Peaky Blinders, Mob City, Ray Donavan, Cursed and others. 

Brake also had a guest role on the hit Disney+ original showThe Mandalorian, and also had a regular role on Absentia. 

Jaymes Butler (Andre)

Jaymes Butler is the next cast member of Barbarian to take a look at, and he plays Andre. For most of his career, Butler has been in supporting guest roles for many television shows and movies. Some of his biggest parts for television have been in iCarly, Special Unit, Southland, Missing, and NCIS. 

In terms of movies, a few of his supporting guest roles have been in big flicks such as Snowden, the first film in the Resident Evil film franchise, and more. 

Kurt Braunohler (Doug)

Last but not least, we take a look at Kurt Braunohler as part of the cast of Barbarian, who plays DougWhile he is primarily known for his comedy, Braunohler has been in many movies and TV shows. You may have seen his name several times on the hit TV show, Bob’s Burgers, where he has voiced several characters throughout the series’ run. 

But, Braunohler has been in plenty of other TV shows as a guest star. Some of his biggest include The Good Place, American Housewife, Mr. Mayor, Lady Dynamite, Take My Wife, Gravity Falls, and more. 

He’s also had minor appearances in films like The Big Sick and Long Shot, as well as B-Roll. 

While the cast for Barbarian is small, in my personal opinion that usually indicates that a film is going to knock it out of the park. We can better focus on the characters, instead of keeping track of a large ensemble that many other movies tend to have. And I, for one, can’t wait to see what they all do next after this film’s release. Another horror movie, perhaps?  








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