“Barbarian”, which is currently available on Disney+ in South Korea, is a darkly amusing horror thriller which skillfully toys with our expectations on its genre from the beginning to the end. I thought I knew where it was going during its first act, but, like many of good genre flicks, it actually surprises me as changing its direction more than once, and the result is often entertaining with some naughty amusement.
The movie begins with the arrival of a young woman named Tess (Georgia Campbell) in one seemingly plain rental house located in the rundown Detroit neighborhood of Brightmoor. For her important job interview, she is going to stay there for a few days, but, alas, she cannot go inside the house due to a little problem with the lock of the front door of the house, and she cannot even contact with a rental agency which provided her this house.
Fortunately, there is someone in the house, and Tess is perplexed because she is supposed to be the only person to stay in the house, and the same thing can be said about that person in the house, who is a young man named Keith (Bill Skarsgård). It is apparent that the house is somehow double-booked, and Tess considers going to any other suitable place to stay, but, alas, as Keith belatedly tells her, most of local hotels are already booked fully due to some big convention to be held in the area.
Because it is already quite dark outside, Tess has no choice but to accept a little kindness from Keith, who generously suggests that she should stay with him in the house at least for one day. As a matter of fact, he is willing to give up his bedroom for her, and Tess appreciates his generosity as interacting more with him, but she also cannot help but feel nervous mainly because he is still a total stranger to him. He does not seem to lie about himself or their current situation, but, as a young woman, Tess remains rather guarded even during their following casual conversation.
Mainly because Bill Skarsgård, who serves as one of the executive producers of the film, previously played that murderous clown figure in “It” (2017) and its following sequel, we also wonder whether there is anything hidden behind Keith. On the surface, he is just an overtly nice guy, but I must say that he looks like a fairly good candidate for the Norman Bates award, and we are not so surprised when Tess comes to have a rather unnerving moment in the middle of the night.
Now I should be more discreet about describing what follows next for avoiding any potential spoiler. As already announced to us by the ominous music on the soundtrack in the opening scene, there is indeed something wrong with the house, and Tessa subsequently comes to see more of what a bad place it really is. For example, its neighborhood is full of numerous abandoned houses, and there is even a mysterious figure who frantically warns her about the house. Georgina Campbell, a young British actress mainly known for appearing in several notable TV drama series including “Broadchurch”, is believable as her character is disturbed more and more along the story, and we certainly brace ourselves when her character eventually goes down to the basement of the house later in the story despite numerous bad signs around her.
Once Tess comes to face the unspeakable sides of the house, the movie promptly shifts onto the other narrative line like Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” (1960). We are introduced to another main character in the story, and this figure, played by Justin Long, also does not have any idea on how dangerous the house really is, even though he is the owner of the house. Because the house is supposed to be empty, Long’s character is naturally perplexed by a number of personal stuffs left in the house, but then he gets intrigued when he discovers something hidden inside the house. Because he is in a big legal trouble involved with his alleged sexual assault, he is willing to go further for any chance for getting more money, and we soon see him virtually following the footsteps of Tess.
In contrast to Tess, Long’s character is not someone we can easily care about or fear for, but the movie keeps holding our attention as we behold more of what is being hidden right below the house. Steadily maintaining the level of tension and spookiness along the story, the movie gives us a series of morbid scenes as Long’s character discovers more and more of the unspeakable secret of his property, and Long willingly throws himself into more horror and twisted amusement for us. We are surely scared at times, but we are sort of amused because what happens to his character can be interpreted as a punishmenhe richly deserves, considering how impertinent he is just like many real-life celebrities accused of sexual assault during last several years.
In conclusion, “Barbarian” is a modest but effective genre piece which does its job better than expected, and I appreciate the competent handling of story, character, and atmosphere by director/writer Zach Cregger, who is incidentally the founding member of the New York City-based comedy troupe The Whitest Kids U’ Know and also co-directed two feature films before making a solo directorial debut with this film. As far as I can see from the film, he is a good genre film director who does know one or two things about how to play against our expectation, and it will be interesting for us to see what he will do next after this successful starting point.