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Airbnb from Hell
The perpetrators in horror films are usually inexplicably horrible, like any guy wielding a chainsaw, or the crazed flesh-eaters of “Night of the Living Dead.” The victims, on the other hand, are often flawed, or morally suspect, or have done something that can be understood to have brought on their demise—the young couple having premarital sex in the barn; Johnny, an overly calculating rationalist who claims to have forgotten his father, the first to die in George Romero’s 1968 classic; Marion Crane (the unforgettable Janet Leigh behind the shower curtain) of Hitchcock’s 1960 “Psycho,” who pays dearly for embezzling $40,000.
Right, Tess (Georgina Campbell), who, improbably, keeps going
into the basement of the Airbnb.
For the most part "Barbarian" offers the typical moral divide.
There are exceptions to the rule—and the early scenes of “Barbarian” are a case in point—but for the most part the film offers the typical moral divide. Tess, who’s identified with Detroit (though we don’t know where she’s from), is selfless to a fault, ready to try to help anyone in distress, no ethical questions asked. AJ, a fast-talking, arrogant but almost likeable Californian who’s in the “business” (Justin Long, a Fright Meter award winner, is excellent in the role), is on the other end of the spectrum; it’s all about him. And, less than a minute after we’re introduced to AJ (he arrives as a form of comic relief, surfing a convertible down the Pacific Coast Highway while beating out a tune on the dashboard), we learn, as he does, that he’s been accused by a co-star of rape. A final scene, though not believable in the most obvious way, makes his moral culpability clear, and in more ways than one. As the story’s only multivalent character—he asks himself if he’s even capable of being moral—AJ is at the center of the film.
Left, Keith (Bill Skarsgård) appears understanding, charming and nice—maybe too nice, like Anthony Perkins’ motel clerk.
The setup is long but compelling. Tess (Georgina Campbell, perfect as the naïve but courageous potential victim) has arranged for an Airbnb in Broadmoor, a near-in suburb of Detroit (and a real place damaged by white flight) that’s presented, almost comically, as burned out, post-apocalyptic and post-suburb, a dystopian fantasy of a threatening, dangerous neighborhood—though Tess seems not to notice, or care. Keith, who answers the door, has booked the same small one-story, an ordinary-looking building any of us might rent, today’s version of the Victorian haunted house. Keith (Bill Skarsgård, the menacing clown in 2017’s “It”), appears understanding, charming and nice—maybe too nice, like Anthony Perkins’ motel clerk one imagines, and so does Tess.
The comfortable bungalow proves to be more elaborate than its compact floor plan would suggest. There’s a basement (of course!), and a room with—well, you’ll find out—but then, again ludicrously, a deep and incredibly complex, catacomb-like sub-basement, containing—well, you’ll find out. In another scene, played successfully for laughs, AJ, who owns the place, excitedly takes a tape measure to the dungeon, thinking the extra square feet will increase the sales value of the property, ignoring the stained bed and video camera (evoking “Room” , Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” and other real and fictional horrors embedded in the modern psyche).
"Barbarian" is still another filmic indictment of motherhood, in this case a suffocating, fetishized devotion to the feeding of infants.
There are two perps, one of the standard serial-whatever variety, who collects videos of his prey (Richard Brake, another Fright Meter winner). The other, an enormous woman with pendulous breasts (Matthew Patrick Davis!), apparently his daughter, represents still another filmic indictment of motherhood, harkening back to Philip Wylie’s 1942 book, “Generation of Vipers,” with its searing critique of “pathological mother love”—in this case a suffocating, fetishized devotion to the feeding of infants (or whoever finds the sub-basement), whether by the bottle or, better yet, the breast.
“Barbarian” succeeds because it takes the genre seriously.
“Barbarian” succeeds because it takes the genre seriously, while offering enough in the way of ideas—thoughts about white flight, East (Detroit) vs. West (the inauthentic, untrustworthy Hollywood), sexual assault and MeToo, mothering excesses—and enough in the way of humor to allow an anxious viewer to relax, now and then. Its lightness of touch steers clear of the more serious, searing social commentary underlying Jordan Peele’s “Get Out!” and “Us,” and the unrelenting anxiety and terror of “The Exorcist” or “Silence of the Lambs.”
Tess (Georgina Campbell) tries to teach
the uneducable AJ (Justin Long) how to survive in the basement.
Director and writer Zach Cregger (mostly known for TV) takes some liberties, introducing a contemporary automobile in a scene out of the 1960s (for what reason we’re not sure) or, in that last scene, indulging the fantastical in order to make a moral point while bringing the drama to a satisfying conclusion.
The film’s comic moments—among them, descending some 60 steps, carved out of solid rock, with only the light from a cellphone, knowing that what’s happening below can’t be good—may be over the top, but they don’t interfere with the story, the horror story, that we’ve come to the theater to see. There’s some occasional irony, yes, but “Barbarian” is no spoof.
Director: Zach Cregger
Starring: Georgina Campbell, Bill Skarsgård, Justin Long, Richard Brake, Matthew Patrick Davis
Country: United States
Runtime: 102 minutes
Other Awards: None to date