When you’re an established director in British television it must be important to time your leap into films. It could be a matter of waiting for the right opportunity to come along. You might have a brainchild of your own to nurture into life. However you go about it, mistakes could be fatal for your aspirations. Do you stick to what you know or strike out boldly to get yourself noticed?
Colm McCarthy adopted the practical approach of a bit of both. Born in Edinburgh, his debut feature is set in the city and packed full of bleak, grey vistas. They’re similar to the gritty tone of one of McCarthy’s previous credits, Murphy’s Law. And McCarthy relies on the star of that show, James Nesbitt, to head up a strong line-up of British acting talent in Outcast. The director also co-wrote the film, which is a shocking and dramatic departure from glossy programmes like Hustle, The Tudors and Spooks which also adorn his CV.
Outcast is the tale of Mary (Kate Dickie) and Fergal (Niall Bruton), a mother and son pair that find themselves settling into a dingy, dirty flat on a rough estate on Edinburgh’s outskirts. As the film progresses it’s clear that Mary is fiercely protective of her son and that she and him are running and hiding from something dark in their past. Connections which link them to Cathal (Nesbitt) gradually surface, who arrives in the city on a primal hunt to kill. It doesn’t take long before members of the recognisable British cast start dropping like flies, but the culprit remains ambiguous right up until the climax of the story.
From the start Outcast tries too hard to establish its weird, horrific credentials. Rather than subtly revealing the occult aspects to the story, the clunky script hammers them home. We watch as Nesbitt’s character endures the application of painful ritualistic carvings to his back and immediately afterwards, Dickie’s mysterious mother drawing blood from her own naked chest and daubing ancient symbols over the walls. Later when Fergal’s teen love interest Petronella (Hanna Stanbridge) barges into the flat and discovers these odd images, Fergal simply explains his mother has different beliefs, rather than panicking or struggling more realistically (and interestingly) to keep the secret burden from his friends. Equally bizarrely Petronella isn’t fazed.
With so much blood and gore on show, Outcast needs strong, engaging and believable characters to be watchable. Unfortunately a weak script again lets down the cast. Most of the characters are nothing more than stereotyped caricatures. The highly sexed yobs on the estate are entirely predictable, as is Doctor Who’s Karen Gillan’s small role as an estate slut. Petronella’s simple brother is also a cardboard cut-out of a character. Her relationship and eventual love for Fergal, a key pillar of the plot, is not at all convincing. Another faulty key ingredient is Nesbitt’s miscasting as the menacing pursuer. Most of the time he appears baffled and far from frightening. Christine Tremarco gives a good performance as a rather pointless housing inspector and Dickie’s genuinely mysterious mother is just about the only character with the capacity to deliver proper scares. She does so a number of times, springing out from nowhere on her wandering son, issuing warnings and cursing Tremarco’s character so that she loses her mind.
For a horror film Outcast is far too predictable and its execution is heavy handed. All the pieces of a really gripping, frightening story are there but they simply don’t fit together in the right order. The crucially important occult influences are both overused and not ever satisfactorily explained. Grand themes like repressed sexual desire, forbidden fruit and ancestor’s sins returning to haunt the next generation, never quite come off. Brutal sacrifices and attacks, potentially original elements of the story, are uncomfortable to watch but never truly shocking. When more traditional scares arrive in monster form, the special effects look amateurish and almost laughably like a parody of a classic.
Most of the praise heaped upon McCarthy’s debut feature seems severely misguided in my view, although one review is right to hail the project an “ambitious” one. Sadly for the British film industry, Outcast lacked both the polished script and the resources to pull off what it was attempting. Throughout the whole thing you’re never quite sure what’s going on, but you’re never shocked or scared either. Outcast’s two dimensional plotting and characterisation means that a handful of sexy scenes, the charms of rising star Hanna Stanbridge and continuous gore are all that’s left to endear it to the (I suspect male) teenagers keen to get hold of it on its release, despite the 18 certificate.