A mother and her teenage son are on the run from malevolent occult forces and something nasty might be lurking in the shifting shadows of a rundown Edinburg estate in Colm McCarthy’s intriguing debut feature “Outcast”, an atmospheric Scotch-Irish co-production that’s tuned in to the same raw sense of the environment it embodies as is the similarly dark and moody working-class world evoked by filmmaker Andrea Arnold. But here the gritty real-life council estate locations are permeated in a miasma of supernatural dread and brooding paranoia, running parallel with the detailing of the normal coming-of-age confusions indicative of any budding teenage sexuality.
Although the name might not be familiar, most UK audiences will have seen something of Colm McCarthy’s work before: previously, he’s been involved a great deal throughout the past decade on a range of British TV shows, and has been a director for some of the highest profile and the most popular, such as “Spooks”, Murphy’s Law”, “Hustle” and “The Tudors”. Consequently, he brings a great deal of confidence and assurance to this evocative contemporary Brit horror delve into mysticism, folklore and the supernatural; couched, unusually for such material, in the convincingly stark milieu of social realist drama. “Outcast” is effectively “Night of the Eagle” meets “Red Road” – with some of Neil Marshall’s popular horror sensibility thrown in, doubtless in the hope of increasing its chances of placing bums on seats. The film works best, and is at its strongest, though, when the director and his screenwriter brother, Tom McCarthy, set aside playing to the gallery with standard monster horror tropes and concentrate instead on accentuating the film’s peculiarities -- building on some of the more genuinely original material that comes out of this melding of two such diametrically opposed genres.
The “Red Road”/Andrea Arnold connection is an inevitable one, not just because of the film’s concrete, grey-brown landscape of Scottish tower blocks and the drab, sink estate culture of working-class poverty within which the screenplay pitches most of the action, but because, like Arnold’s mesmerising and powerful film, it also plays host to another (in this case literally) spellbinding performance from Kate Dickie as the dark, mysterious and determinedly protective mother, Mary. First seen driving through the familiarly dull warrens of glum housing estates and imposing tower blocks with a strange-looking occult talisman swinging above the dashboard, she moves into a criminally neglected flat on one of the upper flights of an anonymous block of Edinburgh slum dwellings, with her taciturn teenage boy Fergal (also a very convincing debut feature performance by Niall Bruton). Kate Dickie soon leaves us in no doubt whatsoever that we’re going to witness another utterly committed performances like the one that stood out so in “Red Road”: for Mary sets about weaving her protective web of magic around the vacant rooms of this grim dwelling; holding strange, ritualistic and sexually charged ceremonies naked and alone in her dim and derelict living room, and anointing the peeling walls in occult symbols and magical runes daubed from her own blood, while Fergal obliviously sleeps on in the next room – Dickie is a scary, brooding yet alluring presence throughout the film.
The world Mary and Fergal inhabit is shown, from the off, to be one in which the uncanny and the domestic – the everyday -- are subtly and inextricably mixed together: Darran Tiernan’s cinematography highlights the Gothic nature of an Edinburgh skyline chiselled from black granite, but its looming tower blocks, rearing up in low angle shots -- dark slabs silhouetted against a grey horizon –are rooted in the mundane at the same time. The soundtrack carries a heightened mixture of flapping bird noises and the menacing, rhythmic slow beats of composer Giles Packham. Amid the urban squalor and dereliction, Mary finds strange incongruous collections of objects in the environment, such as calcified birds’ eggs and apparently precisely positioned gatherings of branches and twigs mixed in with the junk left behind in her flat. Occult significance seems to gather itself around the most ordinary of objects, and settle in the most unlikely settings. To recreate the sinister, suggestive ambience of “The Blair Witch Project” in these overtly contemporary urban surroundings is one of the film’s great triumphs.
Mary is on the run from a past life partially spent living in Ireland where she grew up. But that past still hasn’t finished with her. The mother’s spells and rituals are her way of protecting herself and her son from the potential violence of a ruthless figure called Cathal (a heavily bearded James Nesbitt -- giving as intense a performance as he’s ever given) who is using his own ancient form of magic in order to track Mary and Fergal down. With his back peppered in a mosaic of symbolic tattoos that give him his own occult powers, his mission is to kill the boy. It isn’t explicitly stated to start with what the relationship is between the brooding Cathal and Mary, and Fergal doesn’t know either (although he assumes, like the viewer, that the malevolent hunter is his missing father).
As Mary seeks to hold on to Fergal with a mixture of her protective magic rituals and overly stifling motherly concern, the teenage boy begins to fall under the far more conventional spell of his next-door neighbour -- a Scottish-Romany girl called Petronella (Hanna Stanbridge). The friendship that develops between the two young people provides something of a release for both of them. For Fergal, the simplicity of trawling round the shops and visiting the playground swings with Petronella and her friend Ally (a pre-Amy Pond Karen Gillan) is a vast improvement on the intense atmosphere brewing between the rune-daubed walls of his mother’s flat; and for the girl the relationship is a chance to escape the depravations of living with her alcoholic mother and the challenges of looking after her mentally handicapped older brother. But the sexually forward and precocious Petronella has a much more direct interest in Fergal as well: slowly, an escalating but mutual erotic awareness is sparking between the two, arousing a strangely intense disapproval from Mary. At the same time, something bestial and menacing has taken up residence in one of the more barren corners of the estate, stalking through the orange-sodium lit streets at night. No one seems to notice that girls are going missing in the area until one of the gang of lads that hangs around the estate is found eviscerated in broad daylight.
This potent brew of adolescent sexuality and earth-mother love -- and the outsider masculine aggression aimed at dominating them both -- is at the core of the supernatural battle of wits and passion forming the basis of the story. The monster which apparently lurks in the shadows of the estate is another obvious metaphor for an untamed form of male sexuality. Mary’s resentment, even anger, at her son’s nascent concupiscence and his emerging masculinity is seen as a threat to the female-centric form of protective magic from which she draws her strength and independence; her wariness about, and disapproval of the burgeoning relationship between Fergal and Petronella seems somehow rooted in her own unhappy past experiences with the opposite sex: the pregnancy at fifteen that produced Fergal, and her rage at her lack of control over her destiny as a young female in a world in which the men make all the rules; the sort of control represented by the brooding masculinity of Cathal, who desires to kill the son whom he believes can never be a true manifestation of his own kind. For Mary and Cathal apparently derive from two ancient magical races, and the terms of battle between them -- and the hunt on which Cathal is engaged -- are mediated by an underworld of travelling caravan folk and the ancient knowledge of its vagrant-like elders. The threat to women from masculinity is typified in the monster’s stalking scenes – women seen on their own late at night, clacking in heels along empty streets, with something threatening moving in the darkness beyond the edge of the safety of the sodium street lights.
This supernatural battle (and its arcane rules) seems like a potent metaphor for the ambivalence in modern working-class male and female relationships, but there is nothing ambiguous about the way the occult is represented in the film. We are left in absolutely no doubt that both Mary and Cathal really do have these powers: Mary is able to thwart a troublesome housing official simply by cursing her, forcing the unhappy woman to wander the streets of the estate ‘like a lost child until the end of her days’ (or until something very unpleasant drags her into an alley to make a meal out of her!); Cathal and his associate use the entrails of Edinburg’s sacrificed crows to bypass Mary’s occult protection and point them in the vicinity of her abode. At one point her nemesis even uses drops of blood from the finger of a corpse as a compass that points out her location to him, while a key sequence involves both the man and the woman, the mother and the father, in a Scanners-like mental battle for psychic supremacy.
This occult world of supernatural powers governed by ritual and populated by shadow-lurking monsters remains elemental and ethereal – part of the background to the recognisable everyday world, despite all its power. But at the climax of the film, the monster inevitably comes out of the shadows to unite the two plot strands in a finale that smacks of “Dog Soldiers” or “The Descent”, but which showcases some excellent special effects combining CGI and prosthetics very convincingly, and with a great visceral power, considering this is a film made on such a low budget.
This portion of the film still feels less evocative than everything that precedes it, though: the excellent, riveting duel performances by Nesbitt and Dickie; the screen charisma of Hanna Stanbridge as Petronella, and the vulnerable charm of Niall Bruton as Fergal; the overwhelming sense of the realness and immediacy of the locations -- places in which the bizarre and the uncanny are made to feel a part of the natural geography of the city. This is what makes “Outcast” a must-see piece of modern Brit horror. The UK DVD from Momentum provides us with a nice looking transfer and excellent 5.1 audio, but has nothing to offer but a theatrical trailer in the extras department. A shame, since this is one film that would really benefit from pulling out all the stops for the DVD edition. There is clearly plenty that could have been talked about and addressed concerning the film’s origins, the filmmakers’ inspiration for the story and the actors’ approach to characterisation. Nevertheless, “Outcast” is a recommended purchase.