Sunday, March 18, 2012

Outcast: Show, Don't Tell, But Don't Show Too Much Either

Monster movies are a tough proposition these days. Unless you're talking about a slight variation on the human form (vampires and zombies, of which enough already Jesus no more), doing a really good monster means creating something out of whole cloth, out of practical and/or digital effects. Which isn't impossible, but it requires a pretty decent amount of money most of the time - the kind of money most horror movies don't have to throw around. As much as I love the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society's take on The Call of Cthulhu, I would love even more to see it made with WETA-level resources behind it. Making smaller monster movies requires being clever and inventive and doing less with more. This is because the effectiveness of a monster movie can live or die on the quality of the monster.

You can't not show the monster - as Stephen King said in Danse Macabre, at some point you have to put on the mask and go ooga-booga. The problem is what happens when you show the monster. I think we've largely lost our ability to suspend disbelief as a result of better and better effects work. Artifice is easier to spot, and more likely to take us out of the movie as the result. I also think there's a cultural unwillingness to really buy into stories anymore, so the likelihood that we're going to be looking for artifice is pretty high anyway. We're more likely to see the zipper on the back of the suit, and that zipper's going to undo a lot of whatever narrative goodwill a movie had gotten from us up to that point.

This is why I ended up being disappointed by Outcast. It's a movie that does so much right for most of the movie, before dropping the ball at the end. At its best, it's a nicely underplayed story of the uneasy tension between the modern world and one much, much older. Unfortunately, the story dictates that at some point a monster will have to show itself, and along with the narrative choices surrounding it, that tension is lost.

Outcast opens without a lot of exposition - we see two sets of characters going about their business, and it's apparent pretty early on that the movie is going to be about what happens when these two groups of people finally meet. Liam and Cathal have some business in a Traveller camp somewhere in Ireland. Negotiations are made, permissions are asked, ending with a series of symbols tattooed onto Cathal's back using the old tapping method. No motorized guns here, this is an ancient method, used to write ancient symbols for an ancient purpose.

Mary and Fergal have just moved into a run-down housing estate in Scotland. Fergal doesn't seem like he gets out much - he's shy and awkward around people. Mary doesn't like him spending too much time away from the house or making friends. She really doesn't like the idea of him meeting girls. They discard their van in a field next to an abandoned factory. Mary sets it on fire, and through the smoke, she tells Fergal that this is the end of the road.

They go back to their apartment, and Mary paints a series of runes on the wall in her own blood.

This movie is about inevitability, basically. Mary and Fergal have stopped running, and Liam and Cathal are coming for them. Once they arrive in Scotland, Liam and Cathal begin performing rituals, small sacrifices. They are trying to find Mary and Fergal, who have managed to neatly vanish from the sight of most people. The rest of the movie is about what happens as both groups move toward each other, and as Fergal does what all young men do, and takes up with another despite his mother's objections. And people are starting to disappear from around the housing estate.

For most of its running time, Outcast is a nicely underplayed story of people who move in the shadows of the modern world, people who follow ancient, secret ways in the middle of modern ideas of progress. These aren't the witches and wizards of Hogwarts, consorting with Muggles, these are people like you and me, who just happen to know how to curse others, how to melt into shadows, and how to make the dead speak. So in that sense, they are completely unlike us. Nobody ever sets out the rules for the viewers, we are spies observing the conversations of others, and it's our job to figure out exactly what it is they're saying. As we piece it together, we realize exactly what these people are and why others are starting to go missing. I like movies that make you think and pay attention - that show you things and let you become scared by their implications, rather than movies that show you things and tell you that you should be scared because these things are scary, if that makes any sense.

If that's all this movie were, it'd be great. But these people are going to collide over the fate of the beast that's killing people in the estate, and that means we need to see the beast eventually. It's not bad, necessarily, but the longer it's on camera the harder it becomes to take it wholly seriously. And it's pretty much on camera non-stop for the whole climax of the movie. There's also additional exposition that we probably don't need, and to the extent that the story is about the beast, a lot of the plot and narrative choices felt obvious to me, even in places where they had enough ambiguity to play with our expectations a bit. For most of the film, there's little clear sense of who the good guys are and who the bad guys are - motives are complicated and none of these people are ones you'd want to cross. Their story is compelling, the beast's is less so. In the end, what happens is exactly what you think is going to happen, and I think that does a disservice to what came before.

IMDB entry
Purchase from Amazon
Available on Netflix

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