Movie Review: The Simple, Sinister Charms of “Barbarian”

Simple is better. Less is more.

And never explain anything the camera can let the viewer figure out.

“Barbarian” is a horror movie that gets the basics right. All of them.

Well-cast — in a cast-against-type way — sparing in its use of music and so utterly uncomplicated that most everything you use to describe it is a “spoiler,” actor-turned-director Zach Cregger keeps things basic, sinister and funny (he directed TV’s “The Whitest Kids You Know”) in what could be his breakout feature.

There’s this house in a dark, isolated neighborhood. Two people find themselves booked into it as an AirBnB, seemingly by accident. Bad things happen.

The owner shows up sometime later. He goes through some things.

That’s it. Cregger peels away layers, gives us information, drip by slow drip — the location of the house, the true state of the neighborhood, a flashback that shows us how things were until they changed for the worse under the Reagan administration.

Yes, it’s political. Justin Long plays a bubbly, upbeat version of himself, an instantly likable actor. He gets “canceled,” the first of the “things” he goes through.

And yes, it’s smart. “Barbarian” puts Georgina Campbell of TV’s “Black Mirror” and “Suspicion” in the house with Bill Skarsgård. “Tess” is at a loss about what to do about their double-booking situation. But she’s not stupid.

He invites her in. She’s very reluctant. She’s seen a horror movie or two. It’s as if she knows “Keith’s” credits (Skarsgård was “It!” — aka Pennywise).

He is right there with her. “I totally get that…There’s a lot of bad dudes out there” — anticipating what she must be thinking or worried about. “Would you like tea? I’ll make some.” She won’t drink it. “Wine? I waited to open the bottle” so that she can see him.

Their elaborate feel-each-other-out is like a courtship pas de deux, boxers warily circling each other in the ring, or a game of cat and mouse.

Long’s actor seems like those rare innocent guys caught in a sexual trap that is blown way out of proportion.

And that house. It’s a 1940s style bungalow, nicely refurbished and kept up. But for the love of God, don’t look in the basement.

Anna Drubich’s score can give us shrill choral music, “Jaws” bass and cello references and pulse-pounding electronica. Cregger masterfully uses just enough of it. The scenes between Campbell and Skarsgård are at their most suspenseful when silence highlights the awkwardness and the “stranger danger” elements of their encounter.

The bursts of violence are gory, explicit and are beautifully-timed, coming after steadily rising tension has reached a breaking point.

“Barbarian” is disorienting right up to the over-explained third act, where too much of its mystery is given away and characters survive violence which no human could. It’s at its best wrong-footing the viewer, tripping us up with the casting. not letting us get our bearings. We guess where this might be taking place, and guess again. Even after we’re told, the actual filming location undercuts that.

The whole experience makes this a must for horror fans, a bracing example “getting it right” to everyone else, and a movie easily spoiled. So don’t ruin it.

Rating: R for some strong violence and gore, disturbing material, language throughout and nudity.

Cast: Georgina Campbell, Bill Skarsgård and Justin Long

Credits: Scripted and directed by Zach Cregger. A 20th Century release.

Running time: 1:42

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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