Colm McCarthy's Outcast is a low-budget British genre production that manages to be visually attractive, relatively naturalistic and features some wonderfully deft plotting which, while relatively predictable, still carries a refreshing level of moral ambiguity. It treats its fantasy milieu (cribbing from legends of the Sidhe, the ancient race of Gaelic folklore) as Serious Business yet it never appears particularly melodramatic or campy, which is a minor triumph all by itself.
Part thriller, part horror, part psychodrama, Outcast is far from perfect, but it's the kind of debut that could have fallen horribly flat and McCarthy deserves to be applauded for holding it all together.
Kate Dickie and Niall Bruton play Mary and Fergal, a mother and son arriving at a run-down housing estate where it becomes apparent they're in hiding from people who want to do them both harm. Liam (Ciarán McMenamin) and Cathal (James Nesbitt) are the hunters on their trail, gifted with forbidding sorcerous powers for the express purpose of tracking down the two fugitives.
At first it seems as if Outcast is a fairly simple case of a cat and mouse film with fantastical overtones - the bad guys running the good guys to earth - but when people around the estate start meeting gruesome deaths with no clear culprit, it begs the question which party's worse, the hunters or the hunted?
McCarthy clearly doesn't have a whole lot of money to play with. There's only one name in the cast (apart from a brief appearance by current Doctor Who companion Karen Gillan), most of the locations are falling apart, the film saves most of the visual shocks for the third act and a lot of what there is relies more on suggestion and inventive camerawork than actual physical effects.
It's a credit to the director and his cinematographer Darran Tiernan that the film creates such a pervasive mood of mounting dread it makes up for much of the lack of production values elsewhere. Shot in 4:3, Outcast is still markedly more cinematic than most other high profile releases this year.
From the opening ride into the estate, with the logo crudely spray-painted on a brick wall as the camera swings past, McCarthy and Tiernan manage some fantastic imagery out of little more than repeated shots of crumbling, rusting buildings, a blown-out setting sun and darkness that seems like a physical presence.
Dickie and Bruton manage a terrific, queasy chemistry, partly incestuous (it's not part of the story, but their interaction does suggest it), partly the nurturing impulse, partly a mother trying to deal with her son growing up. Fergal is clearly a threat, yet how much, what sort of a threat and to whom is partly left ambiguous even when the credits have rolled. The fantasy element is clearly part of it, but right until the end of the film Outcast is - in some way - simply about a young man coming of age.
The cast take a while to find their feet, and some of the bit players struggle visibly with their parts, particularly the early scene-setting where the hunters start their mission. Most do settle in with good to great performances by the second act; Nesbitt is as reliable as ever, becoming ever more bitter and unhinged as things fail to go his way. Hannah Stanbridge stands out as Petronella, the girl who falls for Fergal's quiet, reticent charms, taking to the role with an ease and confidence that suggests she could still impress in a much bigger film.
For all its shakiness, Outcast is still a genuinely menacing piece of horror in a way many genre films are not. McCarthy (who co-wrote the script) takes the iconography of naked pagan sorcerors, sacrifices and blood magic and for the most part, gets genuine peril, even danger out of it.
The director doesn't entirely avoid provoking the thought of how silly it all is, in some respects, but he gives every impression he's aware of that, gently poking fun at his film with a couple of lines or the odd minor set piece here and there.
Above all else it works on an emotional level, beyond the gore, the nods to Irish mythology or the urban decay. It's a twisted little love story several times over and it presents us with a boy who wants to be happy, yet realises that may not be possible. The final creature reveal is something of a letdown - stuntman Ian White's physique can't make up for a face like a punctured Incredible Hulk mask - but on some level we're not watching for that; we want to see what happens to everyone.
A bold, ambitious first feature that manages to hit most of its targets and play to its strengths even with a limited budget, Outcast is the kind of thing the UK cinema industry needs more of, a raggedly beautiful little film with a cast who deserve more attention and enough invention to punch well above its weight. For anyone wanting their horror a little more artistic, melancholy and decidedly human Colm McCarthy's debut comes strongly recommended.