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March 2011

Outcast

cast: James Nesbitt, Kate Dickie, Niall Bruton, Hannah Stanbridge, and James Cosmo

director: Colm McCarthy

94 minutes (18) 2010
widescreen ratio 1.78:1
Momentum DVD Region 2

RATING: 7/10
review by Paul Higson

Outcast

The sink estate horror film looks set for a bizarre downer heyday. It's earthier than the earth, you know and what with the shrinking British natural landscape and the noise of traffic never far away, the supernatural as little choice but to be re-housed by the council. There is no real fear of it and the majority of British horrors will still as assuredly alight upon country piles or pretend a copse is a forest. Scottish housing estates seem to be particularly subject to supernatural onslaughts. There was the BBC's Govan Ghost Story in 1988, followed by a vampire plague in Bruce Naughton's Blood Junkies (completed in 1999), and Genevieve Joliffe's Urban Ghost Story (1998).

Even if they could avoid the outr´┐Ż Scottish estates could not escape terrorist action as seen in Kenny Glanaan's Gas Attack (2000), or the vengeful psychological chess game of Red Road (2006). Modern British horror sees more new filmmakers debut on the stark paving, rundown recreation spaces and dingy rented council property. It could have picked up earlier had Clive Barker's Candyman been adapted with its Liverpool locations intact and not been relocated to an American ghetto. Welcome II The Terrordome (1992) was British SF that envisioned miserable rundown existence in a British ghetto, which was in turn ineptly reconfigured in the recent future schlock of Shank (2010).

On television assassin and associates are tucked away on a drab estate in the underrated The Fixer (2009). It is in part due to The Disappeared (1999), and Heartless (2000), that the estate horror has now taken hold and carved a distinct trend and this continues with Colm McCarthy's Outcast (2010), which brings us full circle to Scotland. As someone who has worked on sink estates it is a wonder that they have not featured more in horror films before now. I think I can safely recount actual scenes going back 16 years now, hearing the real horror stories and seeing the genuine misery that some were trapped in and continue to be so. This is, of course, too grim and horror movies are there for escapist purposes, and social realist horror will rarely give us films like The Whisperers (1971), Cold Light Of Day (1989), or Tony (2008).

But I feel that I am deliberately digressing because for once I am unsure of what we have in Outcast, which ultimately wins me over but more so on the startling and frightening figure of the monster in full reveal at its climax rather than the remote game of cat and mouse that takes us there. Whereas earlier horrors Blood Junkies and The Disappeared were deep in lore, Outcast is a glut of magic. Intrinsically set out as the rites are the film is let down by small cheats besides the magic, decisions taken to allow the story to progress. We would overlook that in a more honest and daft-hearted thriller but not in one which takes itself so earnestly.

The story opens on an Edinburgh housing estate focusing on new arrivals Fergal (Niall Bruton), and his mother Mary (Kate Dickie). Fergal has just come of age, and with it comes a frightening metamorphosis. His mother, for most of the running time, in lieu of the actual appearance of the monstrous lycanthrope, is the scariest thing in the film. She is his protector and allows no-one else near him, for the valid reason that he is deadly to others, though no matter how true that may be there is the suggestion that after 16 years of just the two of them, the relationship goes potentially deeper for her into something verging on the incestuous. The relationship suggests Mick Garris' Sleepwalkers (1992) as the possible template for this new film, one that it must then try and step outside of.

Meanwhile, Liam (Cairan McMenamin) escorts Cathal (James Nesbitt) to a caravan in the woods where the latter has an elaborate runic tattoo tapped into his back which will help render him a sensorial invisibility to his quarry including over distances. He is to track down the boy Fergal and kill him. Liam acts as mentor, for example, teaching Cathal how to divine a direction with a slain crow, and how not to leave the vulnerable avian carcass behind. This warning is not heeded by the rash, indeed stupid, Cathal, who in his only moment alone chances upon Mary, losing her, foolishly scattering a blackbird's intestines for instruction and then leaving the bird behind for Mary to employ to foggy up the pursuit again. The magic provides some enticing moments like Mary's spell on a placement officer that renders the flat invisible. When later confronted in the open by the same officer she is vexed enough by her threats to hex her further into completely losing herself without end, a fate curtailed by the talons of the shape-shifter now taking for itself a nightly victim under three consecutive full moons.

The script gives Fergal a beautiful young neighbour in Petronella (Hannah Stanbridge) who is rarely out of the company of her mentally disabled big brother Tomatsk (Josh Whitelaw). The exotic looking Stanbridge looks like she may be more at home on some island paradise, her big eyes and bee-stung lips even making her movie best friend, Ally, played by Doctor Who star Karen Gillan, in invisible chav by comparison. Stanbridge is dressed throughout in mini-skirt and boots with as much screen time and glimpses for her thighs as the director can work into it. That she latches onto the insipid and dopey Fergal promptly falling in love with this dullard stretches the credibility of the film more than any of the supernatural elements do. But we need this incredulous romance for the predictable final twist.

The film fails to introduce us to a more likely suitor but then it doesn't introduce us to many other people on the estate, full-stop. Stanbridge doesn't fit and the accents of the few residents on the estate that we do meet are irregular too. It feels like the estate characters are only there to collect their chits and wait in line for their inevitable bloody removal. The romance proves to be a weak distraction (eyes and lips and thighs aside) from the occult business wherein the true interest in this film lies.

The schismatic camerawork and the heavy post-production decolourisation to a dishwater hue of the cloudy estate are typical and obvious modern movie making affectations that add dishonestly to the vision. The early part of the film moves like a slug but it shifts gear in the second half when Cathal is revealed to be nothing more than an idiot animal that does not realise how ultimately out of his depth he is. The final sequence of events is satisfying and rescue the film in a way in which I cannot go into without spoilers. The monster when seen in full is a wondrous werewolf, more misshapen then any lycanthrope seen before and a believable and disturbing giant as tall as the wolf-folk of The Howling (1980), or Silver Bullet (1985), and as brutal and indeterminate as any shape-shifter before, too. It cannot overcome its flaws immediately, but it could over time, as there is plenty to appreciate as novel in this debut effort.



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