Barbarian has a slam-dunk premise: A young woman checks into an Airbnb late at night and there's something in the basement. But to pull off some legitimate scares, what's in the basement better be terrifying. And it is. But what makes this film special is what else it does, taking some unexpected satirical turns, delivering sharp character work and some truly repulsive scenes.
Zach Cregger, a former member of comedy troupe the Whitest Kids U'Know, creates an atmosphere of dread and misdirection early on, and keeps it up. Tess (Georgina Campbell) has arrived in Detroit for a job interview, but finds Keith (Bill Skarsgard) sleeping in the house she's rented. He's kind, but the fear of the situation registers immediately. While nothing untoward happens that night, things become more clearly frightening in the light of day.
Saying much more would give away the film's many twists and scares, so I'll tread lightly. The introduction of Justin Long's A.J. is the film's masterstroke. Seemingly disconnected from the horrors deep below the suburbs, he becomes a key part of the action. Long is absolutely incredible in this performance, which requires him to be angry, cowardly, frustrated, selfish and occasionally self-reflexive. He perfectly tweaks his nice guy persona into a shrewd riff on the many bad men in Hollywood.
The film also excels with its hand-held cinematography during the underground scenes. Often lit with just a flashlight or phone, DP Zach Kuperstein ratchets up the tension so we often catch just a glimpse of the horrors inside. But he also makes sure we get a close-up of some of the grosser moments, daring us to look away. The sound design only adds to the audience's unease. Noises like doors closing, a tape measure recoiling or a gun discharging bring welcome jolts.
But Barbarian will only work on you if you avoid as much information as possible before seeing it. Don't read too much about it. Just check in and enjoy your stay.