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Barbarian review – surprising studio horror subverts expectations at every turn

A woman arrives at her Airbnb to learn it has been double-booked in Zach Creeger's unpredictable and unsettling thriller

Well done original horror can often feel like a precious commodity. This year alone we’ve had more than a few entries join the fold by way of bold, inspired storytelling, though none have packed quite the same punch as Barbarian, the mysterious new feature from writer-director and Whitest Kids U' Know alumnus Zach Creeger. It’s certainly a film to go into completely blind, and a welcome addition – the likes of which we have not seen in some time – to the expanding horror canon.

Barbarian follows a young woman named Tess (Georgina Campbell), who arrives at an Airbnb on the outskirts of Detroit, only to find another man named Keith (Bill Skarsgård) has also booked the property for a stay. The pair decide to wait out the raging storm overnight in order to claim a refund for the mix-up, though Tess quickly discovers there is more to this home than meets the eye.

The first half of the film is genuinely unsettling and intriguing, and also truly scary when it chooses to be. This is the sort of movie where the audience is constantly in a state of trying to decipher what's happening, and the opening section masterfully builds the tension in perfectly tiered succession. It’s hard not to feel exactly what Tess is feeling as she uncovers things better left hidden, pulling back the facade of the double-booked Airbnb. Creeger’s script, paired with Campbell’s acting, skilfully shape a story full that subverts expectations at nearly every turn.

The best thing about Barbarian, though, is the way that it chooses to throw all that tension away as the second half begins. Justin Long, who was consistently mentioned in the film’s marketing but rarely seen in trailers or clips, comes into the fold as a bro-tastic and deeply selfish caricature of the classic L.A. actor. A complete tool named AJ, his involvement fully pushes the story’s established narrative into complete and utter disarray.

As if we weren’t curious enough where this was all going, Creeger brings in a whole second scenario that is borderline ridiculous in how simple and true to the current cultural moment it is. It meshes with the pre-established storyline seamlessly, giving way for the larger mystery to unfold into the viewer's lap. The final act of the film continues to up the ante while tying in both backstory and the real time plot line. It's a movie that truly keeps you guessing until the very last frame – we need more just like it.

Barbarian is released in UK cinemas on October 28.

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