Grosse Pointe Blech

‘Barbarian’ teaches us to not pull the creepy rope

My partner refuses to see Barbarian. In the first 90 seconds of the trailer, she’s counted nine things a sane woman wouldn’t do:

1. Press the doorbell incessantly on an AirBNB when the key isn’t in the keybox to a house they rented.

2. Accept a stranger’s invitation to come into a double-booked house to call the owners. It’s 2022, there are cell phones.

3. Crash in the house with a strange man when calling the owner doesn’t work.

4. Go exploring after someone opens the bedroom door in the middle of the night.

5. Look for the stranger who’s now disappeared in a double-booked AirBNB, including yodeling their name into the darkness at the top of a creepy staircase.

6. Descend the stairs into the darkness.

7. Pull the creepy rope hanging out of the basement wall.

8. Go into the secret, dark room the creepy rope opens.

9. Go down more, darker, creepier steps when a grown-ass stranger calls for help.

These are fair dings but, like the idiots in the world of Barbarian, I was sucked in by my own godforsaken curiosity. Also, I had to find out what’s up with that snuff-film-lookin’ room with a camcorder and the creepy rope.

Barbarian starts with an aspiring documentary filmmaking assistant, Tess (Georgina Campbell), shows up to find her AirBNB already occupied by Keith (Bill Skåsgard), a semi-awkward but seemingly kind guy who booked the same house on a different rental website. (No shout-outs to Vrbo? Barbaric!) Campbell’s face displays every alarm bell that would, could, and should go off for Tess in this situation. Ultimately she decides to spend the night there because, hey, it’s raining, she’s got a job interview in the morning, and the Detroit neighborhood the house is in looks like it was hit by a poo-filled nuke. It’s not a remotely believable set-up, further undermined by a gentle nudging of the situation toward a meet-cute for Tess and Keith. Of course, nobody’s buying it because they already know there’s an oh-so-creepy-but-very-pullable rope in everyone’s future.

BARBARIAN ★★★(3/5 stars)
Directed by: Zach Cregger
Written by: Zach Cregger
Starring: Georgina Campbell, Bill Skåsgard, Justin Long
Running time: 102 min

A former member of The Whitest Kids U Know and mind behind the forgotten Playboy Mansion romp Miss March, writer-director Zach Cregger breadcrumbs enough doubt and anticipation to push the audience along even though they’re watching characters walk into situations that they should drive away from at a very high speed. Cregger is smart enough to know that the audience is there to see what’s on the other side of the rope, not to watch prudent decision-making.

Along the way, there’s a sharp and funny second act turn to introduce Justin Long as a scuzzy #metoo’ed actor doomed to check in on his Michigan rental property. That’s not the last of the movie’s puzzle box discursions. Some delight, but not all of them work. Topical dives into #metoo, aggressive policing, and white flight feel glancing and half-baked, as does the neighborhood’s origin story. There’s a part of the movie that wants to live up to the heights of It Follows but it has more in common with exploitation flicks like Don’t Breathe” or “House of 1,000 Corpses. Where Barbarian works best is heaping on gonzo twists and oogy splatter of varying viscosity. And creepy ropes. It should win the Best Creepy Rope Oscar.

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Jonpaul Henry Guinn

Jonpaul Henry Guinn is a freelance writer, Jeopardy also-ran, pub quiz host, and U.S. army veteran. He lives in Austin, Texas, where he oversees staffing and training for Geeks Who Drink.

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