Photograph: Courtesy of 20th Century Studios‘Barbarian’
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4 out of 5 stars

Twisty, scary, funny – Zach Cregger’s horror debut is a terrifyingly good time

Olly Richards

Time Out says

This is the sort of horror movie that’s best to go into almost clueless. If you prefer it that way, just know this: Jesus Christ, it’s terrifying. And funny. And you’ll never guess where it’s going. Take someone who won’t shout at/sue/divorce you if you crush their hand to mush in fear.

If you can stand to know a little more, Zach Cregger’s movie, already a sizeable sleeper hit in the US, is one of the most thrilling horror debuts in years – inventive, constantly surprising and so pant-spoilingly, throat-shreddingly frightening that we can only recommend it to those of either a robust constitution or a love of hiding under chairs.

It begins innocuously enough, with a young woman, Tess (Georgina Campbell) arriving in Detroit for a job interview. She gets to her Airbnb, late at night in the pouring rain, and discovers there’s been a double-booking. Keith (Bill Skarsgård), a handsome location scout, is already inside. As Tess has nowhere else to go and Keith doesn’t seem dangerous, the pair agree to share the place. Then something happens in the basement…

This is where I’ll leave you, plot-wise, but whatever you think is going to happen, you’re probably wrong. Cregger plays brilliantly with your expectations throughout. The characters constantly make the wrong choices – peeking round dark corners, going back to check out a noise – but those choices don’t go in the usual directions. Cregger isn’t smug or sly about that. He isn’t winking at the audience. He’s using your horror knowledge against you by rarely giving you what the genre has conditioned you to anticipate.

Take someone who won’t shout at you if you crush their hand to mush in fear

Cregger’s background is in comedy – he’s part of a successful sketch group called ‘The Whitest Kids U’ Know’ – which makes sense the longer the film goes on. It has plenty of well-timed laughs, mostly following up some massive screams, but it’s just as much in the way his entire structure shows impeccable timing, a deep knowledge of how long to let a yarn go on, when to flip it all on the audience and when to call back to previous events. 

If he doesn’t 100 percent land the final punchline, letting things get a touch conventional at the end, it’s a small criticism of an otherwise spectacularly well-made horror. In Barbarian, you won’t know what’s coming from one minute to the next, but you’ll almost certainly come out eager to see what Cregger does next.

In UK cinemas Oct 28. Streaming on HBO Max in the US now.

Cast and crew

  • Director:Zach Cregger
  • Screenwriter:Zach Cregger
  • Cast:
    • Georgina Campbell
    • Bill Skarsgård
    • Justin Long
    • Matthew Patrick Davis
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