SXSW 2010 Review: 'Outcast'


Most horror films that hail from "familiar" locations (such as the U.S., Canada, and the UK) are packed to the rafters with conventions and cliches that we recognize on a subconscious level: vampires and black cats, pumpkins and werewolves, etc. Our most beloved of scary stories can feel as familiar to us Santa Claus, and these components add a lot of flavor to terror flicks as varied as Trick or Treat and Rosemary's Baby.

And that's great. But what's even cooler is delving into an indie horror film from an exotic part of the globe, one that tosses you in amongst a bunch of legends, creatures, and iconic images that we don't know all that well. I believe that's part of the reason why Spanish and Japanese horror films always seem to find a loyal audience among the genre fans -- and it's also part of the reason I enjoyed Colm McCarthy's Outcast as much as I did.

The movie has its fair share of indie-style shortcomings (a few of the actors are a bit raw, the editorial style occasionally leaves one confused) but it earns big points for taking a big batch of "foreign" horror stories and then wedging them into a fast-paced import that's a lot more fun than it sounds.

Both the story and the scares arrive at an impressively brisk clip, and as such I'll keep the synopsis brief (and vague): A teenage boy and his (wildly) over-protective mother have recently moved in to a small Scottish village -- and right away we can tell there's something "off" about this pair. They could be a devilish duo with a creepy mother-son relationship, or they could be the prey of a tracker called Cathal, a brutal pursuer who taps into dark magic to track down his quarry. (Let's just say there's some dark magic in play on both sides of the story.)

Then there's this local girl who starts up a tentative relationship with young Fergal as Cathal, meanwhile, has to deal with the village elders if he wants permission to hunt "the beast" that's roaming the countryside. So while Outcast is a fairly plot-heavy affair (and one that, admirably, doesn't hold your hand), it's also a rather fascinating little terror tale that, to its credit, tosses something creepy, icky, or weird at you every fifteen minutes. One can't help but think the film would be a bit more compelling if the viewer has a little bit of knowledge regarding Irish ghost stories and dark Celtic mythology -- but I know next to nothing about that stuff, and still Outcast kept me pretty damn interested throughout.

There's a lot going on here, in other words, and the fact that Outcast comes from an ancient culture with exotic accents just makes the film all the more colorful. Old-school horror fans will appreciate that Outcast is a monster movie, a murder mystery, and a Polanski-style tale of strange emotional ties that gradually unravel in several unpleasant ways. The flick is supported by strong leads in Hanna Stanbridge and Niall Bruton; Kate Dickie is effortlessly chilling as the possessive mother; and James Nesbitt adds a lot of gruff intensity as one of the two beast-trackers.

First-time feature director Colm McCarthy almost has more ideas here than he knows what to do with, but his extensive experience in television work seems to have served him well in Outcast. Even when the flick is at its least accessible and slightly confusing, it moves forward at a very brisk clip while delivering an Irish / Scottish / Celtic-inspired horror mash-up that's equal parts intelligent, engaging, and unexpectedly creepy.