Rated R. At AMC Boston Common, Regal Fenway, AMC South Bay and suburban theaters.
“Barbarian,” a low-rent, at times risible freak show, joins the ranks of such newly evolved Airbnb-horror film titles as “The Rental” (2020) and “You Should Have Left” (2020). How many times do we have to shout internally, “Do not go into the basement!” to young women in horror films written by oblivious men? The second feature from writer-director Zach Cregger (TV’s “Newsboyz”), “Barbarian” starts out with a bit of tantalizing promise. Tess (Georgina Campbell), who has a literary name and is reading “Jane Eyre,” parks her black Jeep Cherokee in front of a small yellow house in a blighted suburb of Detroit (the film was shot in Bulgaria).
Unfortunately, Tess discovers that the home has been double-booked. A young man named Keith (Bill Skarsgard, the big screen’s Pennywise) is already inside. But it’s late. Tess has a big interview early the next day, and it’s pouring rain. Eventually, Tess agrees to stay in the home, sleeping in the bedroom, while harmless-seeming Keith takes the sofa.
The plot will further involve a pesky basement door, a secret passageway leading to a dungeon-like room equipped with a metal bed, a stained mattress and a 1980s-era VCR camera, steps leading further down into the darkness (yes, we will have unreliable flashlights) and something twisted, powerful and murderous in the depths.
Among other things, Cregger appears to have been inspired by HBO’s “True Detective” series. Some of his film’s elements are elemental. The word “barbarian” could be applied to a person (Richard Brake) we meet in a flashback to the neighborhood in the 1980s. Otherwise, the film’s title has little resonance. Oddly enough, Tess gazes into the darkness in one scene and utters the word, “Nope,” not unlike Daniel Kaluuya in the current film of the same title. Also well into the action of “Barbarian,” we meet a new character, a Los Angeles film director named AJ (Justin Long of the “Jeepers Creepers” series), who is accused of rape and flies to Detroit to liquidate a property he owns.
Also in the mix is a homeless Black man, who at first seems like a threat to Tess, but who turns out to be a helpful expert on the house and its basement. In one scene, Detroit policemen treat POC Tess like the homeless person she appears to be instead of like a citizen deserving their help. “Barbarian” frequently does not make any sense. The explanation for the existence of the film’s mysterious presence does not add up at all. Sometimes, the nightmarish quality of the action and the atmospherics offset such issues, but not in this case.
Remember how Jane Eyre encounters something shocking in Thornfield Hall? Well, think bigger and nuttier. This is Detroit. BAFTA Award-winning Englishwoman Campbell is appealing as the resourceful and courageous Tess.
I suppose “Barbarian” has a shot at cult status, but such status is often overrated.
“Barbarian” contains extreme violence, gruesome images, profanity and mature themes.