Barbarian Review– An Instant Classic that Subverts Expectations

Horror has turned the twisting of clichés into a cliché itself. Barbarian may not reinvent the wheel, but that is where the beauty lies. This review looks at how the expected becomes the unexpected in this layered horror film.

Barbarian Review- An Instant Classic that Subverts Expectations

The trailers show next to nothing for the new horror movie Barbarian. In a day and age when the coming attractions tend to show the biggest scares and creepiest moments, going in mostly blind is a rarity and delight. This particular scary screening will not be every genre fan’s cup of tea, but those who appreciate and find joy in the simplicity of change will surely love it.

In short, the story follows Tess Marshall (Georgina Campbell) as she arrives at a short-term rental to find Keith Toshko (Bill Skarsgard) already staying there. Hidden rooms become uncovered. The property owner AJ Gilbride (Justin Long) arrives to begin liquidating his properties. The original inhabitant Frank (Richard Brake) comes into play. The history of the house and the horrors that remain unravel at a brisk and unnerving pace.

This review contains minimal spoilers.

Barbarian is now playing in theatres.

Story – A House Haunted by the Living

Barbarian is a complicated movie to explain, especially without spoiling major plot points. The best way to describe the movie is by listing the tropes it turns on its head with each and every step.

Home invasion films tend to hit a little too close to home, but how about when the protagonists are, by all accounts, welcome and the antagonists have been inside all along? Revenge movies give the audience someone to feel and cheer for, but that is not necessarily the case when the protagonist shows questionable moral character, to begin with. A classic monster movie is all good fun unless the creature featured is a tragic existence. Unless the original Frankenstein is being considered.

Characters & Performances – Perfectly Imperfect

In the genre of modern horror Skarsgard (It), Long (Tusk), and Brake (31) are all familiar names. Campbell may not be known throughout the genre, but she may very well be after Barbarian. Each portrays perfectly imperfect people in outlandish circumstances, whether by chance or by choice. They are annoying and anxious, brave and fumbling at believable moments. No character comes across as too bumbling to believe or so perfect as to not exist.

Keith (Skarsgard) answering the door to an unexpected visitor.

Keith (Skarsgard) answering the door to an unexpected visitor.

Awkward conversations when Skarsgard begins rambling and stumbling over his own words feel all too natural. Finding out that the house has been double booked leaving Skarsgard and Campbell to force, at first, mutual respect is just as odd and tense as one would expect.

Long encapsulates the out-of-touch star oblivious to the world around him in an all too believable fashion. His sins and misdeeds are mirrored in the tense evil that Brake brings to most roles. Even when the two are acting almost likable there is an aura of creep cloaking them.

Editing & Pacing – Quick and Dirty

Barbarian easily follows the traditional three-act structure. Where it separates itself from tradition is how this is done across four distinct sections that seamlessly overlap the three acts. The movie plays out more like a four-part limited series.

Part one focuses on Tess. Where she is, why she is there, and how the initial horrors befall her all fit into the first twenty or so minutes. AJ’s connection to the house and why he is pulled into the strange happenings come next. The way that Frank fits into all of this comes in part three. Finally, all of these tangential stories culminate in the fourth part to spiral into a joyous absurdity that ties together.

AJ seeing the horrors of the house for the first time.

AJ seeing the horrors of the house for the first time.

Quiet moments linger but rarely overstay their welcome. There are a few moments outside of the house that provides necessary exposition, but involve people discussing a little more than they really need to. Action sequences are usually fast and unforgiving while mostly refusing to rush what the audience needs or wants to see. Occasionally something brutal occurs in a flash and then is mulled over, but these instances are few and far between. Whether this was a conscious decision or due to budget constraints is unknown.

Cinematography & Sound – Think About the Angles

Barbarian keeps things relatively quiet for a horror movie. Sudden and jarring dissonant orchestral chords are avoided. Instead, the gentle pitter-patter of bare feet slapping against a stone floor in the dark decorates the time. All is not silent in a cheap and unnatural way to force tension. Noise is kept gentle and atmospheric.

Something that is often not discussed in movies and television, but seems to become a more regular problem is the audio mixing of dialogue. When the characters whisper it is quiet but ultimately audible for the vast majority of audiences. Sound is not lost in the droll of silence to set some un-required mood.

Use of lighting, distance, and angle to convey tension and uncertainty.

Use of lighting, distance, and angle to convey tension and uncertainty.

Another aspect of films that needs to be considered is overall cinematography. Lighting seems to be methodically planned. Dark spots are only cast across the screen when needed and saved for future use. Every scene captures the main focus clearly while leaving just enough negative space to let the imagination wander and wonder if something could be lurking there.

Overall, Barbarian makes good use of camera angles to compose the shot. A lower view of someone running down a deserted street from a distance gives a scoop on the insignificance of the people at play. Head-on views of angry or aggressive parties make it clear that all attention is on them. A few instances occur in which a different angle is used to make a point and then never touched again. Cutting to the first-person view of nearly disembodied arms holding a knife is both video-game-like and only implemented once, distracting from the scene overall.

Barbarian – A Conversational Classic

With all things considered, Barbarian is a wonderful film. It will undoubtedly be welcomed into the pantheon of Must-Watch Horror. Despite all of its flaws, which when viewed through the scope of the genre, are few it delivers an outstanding piece of creepy cinema. There are plenty of twists and piles of social commentary that viewers will find additional hours of enjoyment from after the credits roll.

Overall, Barbarian is a horror film that subverts expectations by keeping a relatively simple premise. Story sections peel back the unknown and offer a new slew of questions. Eventually, all paths meet and culminate in a wonderful story peppered with genuine scares and plenty of social commentaries.
  • Layered and captivating story
  • Fantasticly flawed acting
  • Genuine scares
  • Focused and digestible scale
  • Occasionally distracting camera choices
  • Moments of drawn out exposition