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Proof that he is a genuine jack-in-the-box horror filmmaker, writer/director Zach Cregger starts “Barbarian” with what could happen to any of us — a double-booked Airbnb. Documentary researcher Tess (an excellent Georgina Campbell) arrives at night in the pouring rain at a little house in a forgotten part of Detroit, and a sleepy guy named Keith is already staying there. He eventually convinces her to stay until they can get this sorted: she can see his proof of reservation, he’ll take the couch, and she can watch him open the bottle of wine someone left before he pours.

Cregger, formerly of sketch group The Whitest Kids U’ Know and their Playboy magazine frat comedy “Miss March,” knows well what he’s playing with here. The optics of this woman putting herself in certain vulnerability are uncomfortable, and his economic filmmaking nudges it just so. Soon enough, it’s time to check out the basement, which, no big spoilers here, but you probably wouldn’t want to go down there, or past the door that can be opened with a strand of rope. Effective dread comes in various sizes in this story, sometimes due to pushy plotting. And yet the creepy mysteries and wacky reveals are plenty visceral in “Barbarian,” even when they get willfully dumb.

Did I mention that the other Airbnb guy is played by Bill Skarsgård of “It”? For further proof that casting is a vital part of moviemaking, consider Skarsgård’s inclusion as one of the film’s unsettling pieces — unsettling like those secret dark corridors connecting various parts of the house. Here, former Pennywise the Clown uses his casual presence, those circular eyes and that imposing figure takes on nervous rambling mode after AJ Long shows up at house saying things about caring for Tess feeling safe etcetera etcetera Is it just an act? Is Skarsgård another luring creep? “Barbarian” gets a fair amount of adrenaline from that question, and answers it in one of the film’s best scenes.

Speaking of which, later on, Justin Long shows up at the house. His Hollywood dude AJ is introduced zipping down some coastal road in a convertible, only to find out in a phone call that he’s being accused of doing something horrible to an actress. As someone who very likely did said thing, AJ is more concerned with his career and putting this behind him. Long is adept at playing the sincerely terrible nature of the guy, down to a good laugh-out-loud joke in how he gets involved with this mess at the Airbnb (“Barbarian” could be funnier, and its lack of more comic relief is a copout). A movie like this flourishes on the choices that characters make, and Long’s slick creep is its most sound construction.

“Barbarian” is not particularly new or unique, and its use of Detroit as a murdered character does little to differentiate it from “Don’t Breathe,” but what Cregger’s project lacks in novelty it makes up for in artistry. The film knows when to suddenly cut and throw us from one shocking moment to another time zone or decade, giving us room to breathe before switching attention to how the latest life story fits in. And there’s an ambition to these new parts, which are like vignettes made out of different aspect ratios and long shots by cinematographer Zach Kuperstein all filling the movie’s thick atmosphere. It is throughout titled “Barbarian,” like Anna Drubich’s score with its wailing choir and screeching strings; its significance creates a metaphorical house of mirrors, and that is terrifyingly true. 

It nearly works too well, this busyness — it almost distracts from how the first two acts of “Barbarian” lack the locked-tight cleverness that would make this a great horror script. The movie drags when Cregger falls back on convenient (for him) decisions of every kind — in a story that renders ominous doors redundant, he sure can be pushy about getting characters to open them up, peer inside and snoop around, sacrificing believable behavior for our genuine engagement. Eventually “Barbarian” just wants to go as bananas as possible, and the devolution shows.

And still: For all his straight-ahead pathways sometimes feel for his characters, Cregger does right by their haunted darknesses — especially when seeing something wild like this at a theater. Lots of pitch-blackness in “Barbarian” isn’t fun to look at, nor might your heart rate agree.

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