Almost one month into spooky season, I’ve watched my fair share of horror movies, both new and old. With a 92% score on Rotten Tomatoes and a cast including Bill Skarsgård (a.k.a. Pennywise the dancing clown from the “It” series), “Barbarian” has been on my list since its release in early September.
“Barbarian” follows Tess Marshall (Georgina Campbell, “Suspicion”), a young 20-something who rents an Airbnb for a job interview in Detroit. When she arrives, she finds the house occupied by Keith (Skarsgård). The rental is double-booked, and with no other houses or hotels available in the not-so-safe neighborhood, Tess reluctantly decides to stay with stranger Keith after seeing proof of reservation.
As a conscious horror movie viewer, I was immediately skeptical of Keith, as I assumed everyone else in the theater was as well. The context of Skarsgård as Pennywise contributes to this distrust. Will he play another creepy villain? The suspense built from the question of whether Keith has ill intentions drives the first act of the film. His nervous mumbling, in addition to what seems like a repetitive forced display of concern for a young woman in an unsafe neighborhood, seems off, almost as if he’s feigning a show of distress. But his warm demeanor is calming. Skarsgård’s performance is on point — he’s mysterious, concerning and charming all at once. His intentions are later revealed in the film’s best scene.
“Barbarian” is a wild ride unlike most traditional horror films. New characters are introduced midway through, helping to maintain a quick yet suspenseful pace, and the transitions between these new introductions are jarring in a perfect horror movie way. AJ’s (Justin Long, “Dodgeball”) introduction, when he speeds down a California road in a convertible while scream-singing, adds humor to the film at a much-need time, and his role effectively sets in motion a new story arc explored for the remainder of the film.
AJ is an interesting character, one that should be considered the villain of “Barbarian,” even if he’s not technically the “monster.” He’s accused of sexual assault yet seems to take this notice lightly until he realizes it might affect his acting career. He’s wealthy yet blows enough of his money so that hiring a lawyer brings him close to bankruptcy. He sets out to explore the possibility of selling one of his properties — the Airbnb in Detroit. It’s difficult to properly discuss his character without spoiling the story. However, I will say that AJ’s exploration of his so-called guilt is well done. Would AJ reach redemption? There were moments that made me question whether or not I was supposed to feel sorry for him. The way “Barbarian” investigates his wrong-doings adds another layer of suspense — are we supposed to feel sympathy for an awful character like AJ? The film answers that loud and clear in another one of my favorite scenes.
“Barbarian” is a lot of fun, but there are moments where it gets a little dumb. There’s a fine line when it comes to “monsters” in horror. One step too far, and the creature that was supposed to scare you just doesn’t do the job, like the half shark half octopus thing in “Sharktopus.” That’s how I felt about the monster in “Barbarian.” Whenever it was on-screen, I couldn’t help but laugh and feel as though I wasn’t supposed to be laughing. I felt more anxious and scared in moments that involved the typical people in the film, like the reveal of Keith’s intentions and AJ’s potential redemption, than I did in the dark basement of the Airbnb, and that just doesn’t seem right.
I enjoyed “Barbarian” for its humor and suspense more than for its jump scares and dark basement scenes. The film has a strong mix of complex characters that make for a refreshing horror movie, one I would recommend to those looking to get in the Spooky Season spirit without too much of a scare.
Daily Arts Writer Laura Millar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.