Would you still stay there if you were a young lady and you arrived late at night at a rented property in a badly run-down area only to discover that it was already occupied by another renter? You’d think the heroine would flee the apartment as soon as she learned the other renter was Bill Skarsgard, who played the evil clown Pennywise in the two Stephen King It movies. However, there wouldn’t be any scary movies. Particularly one that goes to such far as Zach Cregger’s solo feature debut to send viewers into a scared frenzy.
Due to its reliance on surprise story twists that confound your assumptions, Barbarian is challenging to discuss. It would be a spoiler to discuss practically everything that occurs after the first act. And by the spoiler, I mean the kind that would seriously undermine the movie’s twisted shocks. It should go without saying that anyone prepared to go along for the twisted ride will be more than happy with this vintage effort that so expertly evokes Wes Craven’s early masterpieces. The old 42nd Street grindhouses would have killed for this movie.
The narrative starts when Tess (Georgina Campbell) arrives at her rental property on a Detroit street lined with dilapidated, abandoned homes (the movie is not a successful promotional tool for the city’s Chamber of Commerce or police force). She is surprised to find that Keith (Skarsgard) has already moved in and is living there. Keith is kind and gracious enough to invite her to remain regardless and offers her the bedroom while he sleeps on the sofa. She first resists, but after learning that there are no hotel rooms available because of a medical convention taking place in the area, she accepts his offer.
There are foreboding indicators of worse things to come. Tess is sound asleep until her bedroom door opens on its own suddenly, and she hears Keith yelping aloud while having a bad nightmare. However, things don’t start to go wrong until she comes home after a job interview the next day. She discovers herself trapped in the basement, which is a labyrinth of secret passageways and chambers. The discovery that she and Keith make down there changes the course of the movie completely.
Additionally, a surprising subplot featuring a smarmy, self-centered actor (Justin Long, fantastic) who is accused of sexual assault by a female co-star and needs money to pay for his defense raises the stakes. And a protracted flashback that takes place decades in the past and is shot in a smaller aspect ratio, focusing on the horrifyingly sinister previous owner (Richard Brake).
Cregger, a director, and screenwriter, clearly delights in leading spectators through his absurd turns of events. The extremely dark climax, which would have made George Romero grin, will warm the hearts of cynics even though the last disclosures involving a really scary guy (Matthew Patrick Davis, in a virtuoso turn) veer toward the conventional. Oh, and nursing will never again be something you feel the same way about.