Producers: Arnon Milchan, Roy Lee, Raphael Margules and J.D. Lifshitz Director: Zach Cregger Screenplay: Zach Cregger Cast: Georgina Campbell, Bill Skarsgård, Justin Long, Matthew Patrick Davis, Richard Brake, Jaymes Butler, Kurt Braunohler, J.R. Esposito and Sophie Sörensen Distributor: 20th Century Studios
Parse “Barbarian” from a logical perspective after it’s over and the movie doesn’t make a lot of sense, but Zach Cregger’s horror thriller generates considerable tension, contains some solid jump shocks, and offers laughs and chuckles besides. The result is ludicrous, but undeniably effective as a cinematic roller-coaster ride.
It wouldn’t be fair to reveal the picture’s secrets in a review, but it’s not unreasonable to say that it falls into several disparate parts that come together in the end. In the first, lasting for nearly half the movie, Tess Marshall (Georgina Campbell) drives up to a Detroit Airbnb she’s rented for the night before an interview to join the staff of a documentary filmmaker. In the dark and rain, she can’t really see how bad the neighborhood is, but the house itself seems nice and pleasant. Unfortunately, when she uses her code to unlock the porch box to get the key, it’s gone, and a call to the renting office gets only voicemail.
As it turns out, the key’s gone because the place has apparently been double-booked. Keith Toshko (Bill Skarsgård) is already inside, but is awakened by her attempts to get in. Initially both are wary of each other, but eventually they mellow out, and Keith, a genial, accommodating guy, offers Tess the bedroom for the night, taking the couch himself. They even enjoy a nightcap before hitting the hay, separately of course.
Things are not totally uneventful. The bedroom door creaks open, and Keith, apparently having a nightmare, makes some noise. But though Tess is a bit unnerved, she falls asleep. The next morning she has her interview and, in the daytime, sees how devastated the neighborhood is, her house alone standing untouched amid the debris of others. She’s also accosted on her return by somebody before she hurriedly rushes inside the house, and once safe she calls the police, to no avail (the operator simply tells her no units are available—only first instance in which the DPD gets slammed). Noises in the place lead her downstairs, where she gets locked in and makes a shocking discovery–of a a stark hidden room with a bed, a bucket, and a carefully-positioned movie camera–before Keith returns and frees her. A further investigation of the basement ends with a horrifying….
Then suddenly at the forty-five minute mark or so, the story abruptly shifts to a California highway, where AJ Gilbride (Justin Long) is driving his convertible, gleeful that the TV pilot he’s involved with is going to series. But he receives a call informing him that he’s been charged by somebody on the show with sexual harassment and rape, and that in all likelihood he’ll be fired. A visit to his business advisor adds that the case also means that his financial future is bleak.
No, the projectionist hasn’t gotten the reels mixed up. It turns out that AJ owns the Detroit house, and travels back to his home town to see if he can get the place ready for sale, since he’ll need cash to cover his legal costs. When he arrives, though, he finds Tess and Keith’s clothes and suitcases in the place, and starts looking around to find out whether he’s got squatters. One of the places he investigates is the basement, and though he’s glad to find more square footage to add to his ad, he’s less happy with….
Suddenly we’re ripped to a flashback to the Reagan years, when the Brightmoor area that’s now a derelict hellhole was still a middle-class suburb of brightly-colored little houses and chummy neighbors. The camera follows one of the residents, Frank (Richard Brake), then owner of what now is AJ’s place, as he goes to a store to collect items he’ll need for an at-home childbirth. Frank’s tall, lanky, and decidedly scary, especially when he spies a dark-haired woman, follows her home, and impersonates a city worker to get into her house and arrange things so he’ll be able to sneak in again later….
Then it’s back to the present, where we’ll find out what’s been happening to Tess, Keith and AJ, and, to some extent at least, how and why, even though all the elements hardly click perfectly into place. Frank makes a return appearance, as do another ominous figure played by Matthew Patrick Davis, the local man (Jaymes Butler) who tried to warn Tess about the house earlier, and, to top it all off, two cops who prove to be just about the most unhelpful policemen on the face of the earth.
This final act, to be honest, is likely to raise some irksome questions in your mind about all the bric-a-brac it features and details of what might be called the Detroit underground. You might also wonder how it is that, in an area of town that looks like a war zone, two new cars manage to remain untouched for a couple of days, neither stolen or looted.
But while you’re watching, such things probably won’t matter. “Barbarian”—a title that might also leave you scratching your head—builds a good deal of suspense in the opening act, with Campbell and Skarsgård doing a nifty pas de deux of suspicion and friendship, and then in a first jocular and then nerve-wracking session with Long, playing a character a step further down in sleazebaggery than the one he essays in this week’s “House of Darkness” and earning both grins and scorn in the process. Brake and Davis add genuine creepiness to the finale, which certainly doesn’t mind piling climax on climax. The crafts team—production designer Rossitsa Bakeva, costumer Kiril Naumov and cinematographer Zach Kuperstein—do yeoman work in dealing with the chronology-shifting demands on what was probably a limited budget, and editor Joe Murphy keeps things relatively clear while refusing to play down the deliberately brusque transitions. Anna Drubich’s score adds to the ghoulish atmosphere, as well as the last-act frights.
Like “The Black Phone” from earlier this summer, “Barbarian” doesn’t reinvent the horror genre, but uses well-established tropes in a clever way. Given its portrayal of Detroit and the DPD, it will be especially interesting to hear how it plays in the Motor City.