The “person-in-the-walls” genre of horror has been done to death — I’m not sure there is a take on it remaining that can make it seem fresh and new. Zach Cregger’s “Barbarian” certainly does not convince me otherwise. Spoilers ahead.
The film follows Tess Marshall (Georgina Campbell), who is staying at an Airbnb in a sketchy neighborhood of Detroit while she interviews to be on the crew of a documentary, in which only the house she is staying at is not blighted. That’s all well until she realizes that the Airbnb has been double-booked — Keith Toshko (Bill Skarsgård) checked in earlier via HomeAway. The house’s owner also cannot be reached. She initially tries to sleep in her car, but Keith insists that he take the couch and they make the best of the situation, given the state of the neighborhood.
The first third of the film is great. Skarsgård is awkward, yet charming, and his strange demeanor makes the viewer think that he is going to be the villain of the film — he’s not, he’s just a little odd. Both characters are very understandably uncomfortable with the arrangement given the fact that they’re strangers to each other, but they eventually gel and have great on-screen chemistry together. Keith is a very likeable guy, which makes it such a shame that he is disposed of very early on to make way for the real threat which is (*sigh*) a person in the walls.
Well, specifically a person who lives in a tunnel under the house, but close enough. If you intend to watch this movie, read no further.
The main threat is a dirty, naked tall woman who lives in terrible conditions who has superhuman strength. The film’s IMDb page refers to this character as The Mother (Matthew Patrick Davis), though I’m not sure she’s actually given a name in the film. She’s the product of the house’s previous owner, Frank (Richard Brake), who abducted women into the tunnels and had children with them, and then had “babies with the babies” as a local homeless man aware of the dangers of The Mother and the house later says. She is technically innocent, unable to process the severity of her actions or any form of reality, as all she really knows is her tunnel walls; the true “Barbarian” of the film is clearly Frank, the root of evil in the house.
The Mother, as her name suggests, abducts people to treat as her babies, but when they get upset, she kills them (which is how Keith is dispatched). After Keith’s death, weeks pass in which Tess is being held captive, and the house’s current owner — a sitcom star named AJ Gilbride (Justin Long) who is liquidating his properties to pay for his legal defense against rape allegations — finally comes by, bewildered by Keith and Tess’ luggage. He eventually stumbled upon The Mother’s lair, and must work with Tess to escape the house.
The weakest part about this film is The Mother in design and concept. The film portrays her as a deformed monster hinted to be the product of decades of incest that can’t be reasoned with except in the simplest of terms; if the film’s characters stay calm and play her mother game, they will be fine. There is a deep sadness to this character — The Mother herself is a victim — though Cregger, has left no room for further nuance in this character. For the purposes of creating cheap scares and horrific, gory sequences, she is a simplistic and almost unstoppable force who has the ability to quite literally rip people limb from limb with ease.
“Barbarian” starts off promising, but it disappoints once it starts revealing its hand. Especially given the caliber of the film’s cast, I expected more from it. While I enjoyed the first third of “Barbarian” and enjoyed how it slowly built up suspense and intrigue, the rest of the film is derivative at best and offensive at worst.
“Barbarian” gets a 3/10