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Tunnel Vision

Zach Cregger’s horror debut Barbarian is a carefully crafted reminder to never go into basement.

Barbarian is the best horror film of 2022. Filmed on a budget of just 4 million dollars, Zach Cregger’s solo feature debut thrives because of its total subversion of expectations.

Everything about the film, from its choice of location, to the implications of the premise itself, even down to the casting of each character, is done with the self-aware intention of undoing every familiar Hollywood trope, as well as upturning a recent subgenre as a whole: the Airbnb thriller. It’s a master class in dangling the carrot before the audience, before tossing out the carrot completely and feeding us something far more substantial.

The film begins as Tess (Georgina Campbell) arrives at a modest Airbnb in the middle of a rainy, dark night in Detroit. The surrounding neighborhood is bathed in darkness, and Tess stands alone on the house’s porch as she discovers the key that’s supposed to be waiting inside the home’s lockbox is gone. After calling the property manager to no answer, she sees a light inside turn on. Tess knocks until a young man answers the door. They quickly discover that the Airbnb has been double-booked, and despite her trepidation and fear of this stranger, upon his urging she steps inside to start calling hotels in the city to find a new place to stay.

The man introduces himself as Keith (Bill Skarsgård), and immediately the film begins leaving breadcrumbs for something sinister on the horizon. Keith is awkward and overly friendly, insisting first that Tess shouldn’t go back outside, as the neighborhood is dangerous, and next, after telling Tess that there’s a convention in town and thus it’s unlikely she’ll be able to find any other lodging, that she should just stay in the Airbnb with him. He’ll take the couch, naturally.

As a spectator to their conversation, the film makes ambiguous nudges for you to make your own assumptions about Keith’s true intentions. He is chivalrous to the point that it becomes uncomfortable, making mentions that a lady shouldn’t have to sleep on the couch, a lady shouldn’t have to take her own bags, and he warms up to Tess quickly enough that alarm bells start going off – not just in the mind of the viewer, but in Tess’s as well. Tess herself is no airy scream queen. She knows the possibility of danger in this situation. She knows she doesn’t want to be there, and that she shouldn’t be there. Keith offers her first a cup of tea that she leaves untouched, as she didn’t see him make it. After washing up she returns to the living room to find Keith sitting down at a table with a single, warm light overhead, and two glasses with an unopened bottle of wine. Keith, stumbling on his own words trying to appear as non-threatening as possible, tells her he wanted a glass but in case she too wanted some he was waiting for her to watch him open the bottle.

The cinematography is claustrophobic and subtle, the lighting effectively feeding the mood of unease, the low and ominous score dragging the atmosphere of these initial scenes into the territory of reality for Tess. This is a very real and frightening situation for any woman, requiring Tess to remain in a state of vigilance as she walks on eggshells, aware of how trapped she is. Regardless of whatever we as the viewers think is coming, this encounter on its own is anchored by an all too familiar sense of terror, and Barbarian plays to that instinct.

Trying to push through the awkwardness of their ordeal, Keith asks Tess about herself. She tells him she’s in town for a job interview to be a researcher for a documentary filmmaker. This leads to several revelations that the two have things in common, and over time the tone shifts from tense wariness to romantic tension, as the viewer begins to question their own preconceived notions about who Keith may or may not be.   

As Tess warms up to the stranger, one specific point in their conversation highlights a key theme of Barbarian. Of course she was nervous, Tess tells him. She has to be careful. If they switched the roles, and she were already there, Keith wouldn’t have the same fear of her that Tess did of him. He’s a man; he would have just burst right in. Keith doesn’t have to be so aware of the things that Tess does. This very much comes into view when the next character is introduced.

What follows in the narrative is pivotal, and one of the greatest uses of light I’ve ever seen in horror. Tess walks outside for her job interview the following morning to find the neighborhood she’s staying in for what it really looks like: destroyed, dilapidated, graffitied, foreclosed buildings on all sides. Overgrown weeds and broken down, shattered cars litter the abandoned lawns. Her Airbnb is the single pristine house in an apocalyptic-like landscape.

Where most horror films use darkness and shadows to their advantage for eliciting fear, Cregger used it as a source of protection. This neighborhood finally seen in the light of day is far more terrifying than it had ever been in the dark. Tess sees for the first time where she really is, the danger it presents, and what Keith meant when he told her it would be safer to be inside the house. This scene alone sets the viewer up for the rest of the film: What we present to you is not what it seems.

It’s also a fantastic and subtle commentary on the ramifications of companies like Airbnb on marginalized and neglected communities. The outskirts of Detroit are in disrepair, and wealthy investors are taking advantage of the low prices of homes that this brings about, fixing one up and renting it out for a quick and easy profit, only thrusting that neighborhood’s population into further financial inequality as they are pushed out to make room for more fixed-up homes that then drive prices back up.

Cregger, to his credit, does not impose his agenda upon us too strongly. Like the film’s implications of gender roles and a patriarchal society’s effect on the mentality of those who benefit most, these themes are hovering just under the surface; a shadow lurking behind the motivations and actions of every character involved.

That being said, enter: AJ Gilbride (Justin Long). AJ is introduced after a jarring and abrupt scene change from one of the most terrifying and violent in the film, to a bright and sunny California highway. AJ is a sitcom actor – brash, cocky, unlikeable. His agents call as he sings along to a peppy Brit pop tune while coasting down the shoreline, to tell him he’s been booted from the pilot of his new show after his female costar has come out to the police and the press, alleging that he raped her. As the viewer you are immediately thrust into confusion. Who is this guy? What the hell does he have to do with this story? What happened to Tess? Is he the main character now?

 After talking to his financial advisor about the necessary lawyer fees to combat the allegations, AJ learns that he’ll have to sell off some of his properties to stay afloat. One of those properties? An Airbnb house in Detroit.

So AJ heads to the property, where he finds the luggage of someone who’s been living there. Someone who is no longer there. But he soon discovers the hidden door in the basement, and the hidden room with a camera and a bucket. And the massive, pitch-black, labyrinthine tunnel system beneath the home. The same tunnel system that Tess and Keith had discovered – and never returned from.

Where any other character, including Tess and Keith, would be terrified and incredibly wary of this new discovery, AJ is the perfect encapsulation of the male mentality that Tess highlighted in the film’s introduction. He heads straight down with a measuring tape in hand, excitedly weaving down the tunnels to map out how much more square footage – i.e., value – his property now holds, nonchalantly passing by bloodied cages and an empty room filled with filth, clutter, and an old television playing a VHS tape on how to take care of an infant.

It isn’t until it’s far too late that AJ realizes what exists in the tunnels, and what took the previous renters, and the real villain of Barbarian that lurks behind it all. Even that is not what the viewer expects it to be.

If Barbarian is among the best horror films I’ve seen in a decade, it may also be the most divisive. Its careful crafting and toying with our expectations is equal in proportion to its sheer gruesomeness which seeks a place alongside, if not above, Audition, The Descent, and Don’t Breathe. Indeed, a posthumous writing credit might be due Gary Heidnik, whom you should not Google for many reasons.

Still, fans with the stomach for its many twists will find intelligent depictions on what it means to be evil, and meditations on trauma, overcoming that trauma, and how those who perpetuate the abuse sometimes never change.

There is so much left unsaid in this review, because Barbarian demands the viewer to question everything, to never know what’s coming next, and to throw out everything they think they know about what makes a horror film. Barbarian is a work of originality without reinventing the wheel, horror without falling back on tactics used in the past, and leaves you thinking, “What the hell did I just watch?” while understanding that there is far more than one answer to that question.

Lots more where that came from.