But “Barbarian” does something unusual. Writer-director Zach Cregger’s script takes these various paint-by-number horror elements — a vulnerable debutante, an unfamiliar house, a hidden room — and colors outside the lines.
Cregger, who was born in Arlington, is part of the comedy troupe the Whitest Kids U’Know. But while “Barbarian” is dryly funny, his foray into fright isn’t exactly a horror comedy, and that’s a good thing.
Winding through as many twists as there are secret passages in the basement, the script is more than just clever — it’s intelligent, and its characters, for the most part, are more emotionally shaded than usual. They don’t behave the way horror victims are supposed to act; when Tess first discovers a secret passage, she doesn’t immediately enter it. “Nope!” she tells herself, though her tune changes, if only out of necessity. This is a film that respects its audience; instead of over-explaining every turn, Cregger places enough clues so you can figure it out yourself.
Cinematographer Zach Kuperstein works with Cregger to immerse us in this spooky living space. The house, which is in a rough part of Detroit (the city’s long decline and attempted resurgence are part of the plot), is the most dangerous place in the movie, and we get to know its layout, from the plain, utilitarian furnishings to the horrifying (and perhaps biologically symbolic) underground passages. It becomes so familiar that when the action calls for a change of venue, it’s unsettling since we no longer know where we are. That which scares us is exactly what draws us in — like a typical horror character, we want to see what’s in those hidden spaces.
The cast sells the film’s tangled conceit. Campbell takes what seems like a run-of-the-mill woman in distress and invests her with not just toughness but maturity. Skarsgard plays his part with the right level of ambiguity; he seems sensitive but shifty enough for us to wonder whether he’s the eponymous brute. And it would be a spoiler to explain how Justin Long’s character is dragged into this hell: On one level, he’s a mustache-twirling cartoon villain — all the better to root for his demise — but he’s given a chance to break out of his glib arrogance.
In the end, one wonders who the barbarian really is. Is it Detroit? Is it America? Is it us? Through its parade of screams, “Barbarian” asks an important question: Can we trust anyone to keep an eye out for us — parents, law enforcement — or do we need to learn to fend for ourselves?
R. At area theaters. Contains some strong violence and gore, disturbing images, strong language throughout and nudity. 102 minutes.