Review first appeared in Sight & Sound, January 2011
Review: While the haunted house has long been a staple of horror, more recently a socially conscious variant has emerged in British genre cinema – the haunted housing estate. In films like Geneviève Jolliffe’ Urban Ghost Story (1998), Johnny Kevorkian’s The Disappeared (2008) and Philip Ridley’s Heartless (2009), supernatural entities visit their own mythological framework upon all the disaffection, deprivation, desperation and decay of gritty modern urban landscapes. Similarly, Outcast opens with images of primordial runes and mystic sigils graffitied on the walls of Edinburgh’s Greendykes estate – where director/co-writer Colm McCarthy had himself spent his childhood years before cutting his filmmaking teeth on numerous television series and a short film (The Making of a Prodigy, 2003).
“There’s a beast after me, because of my father. I think it might even be my father.” The strange, withdrawn 16-year-old Fergal (Niall Bruton) may articulate the concept in oddly vivid language, but his words strike home at Greendykes where many of his neighbours are, much like himself, fatherless refugees from their own pasts – including his addressee Petronella (Hanna Stanbridge), the similarly aged Romanian girl-next-door who lives with her alcoholic single mother and Down’s syndrome brother. Like Tomas Alfredson’s Let The Right One In (2008), Outcast anchors all its paranormal activities in a fragile romance between young lovers who, though from different worlds, bond over their shared dream of fitting in or moving on – and McCarthy’s film, like Alfredson’s, blends a delicate restraint with a strong sense of place.
The location, not to mention the presence of Kate Dickie in the rôle of Fergal’s tough-loving mother Mary, may evoke the contemporary cinema of Andrea Arnold, but in it are staged ancient, indeed timeless rites of passage and Oedipal conflicts, as a son coming of age must assume the bestial legacy of the father (James Nesbitt) who left him at birth. It is a seemingly incongruous clash of the old and the new, and yet by reimagining the alienated, underground existence of the sídhe – ancient fairy folk of Celtic myth – in a contemporary setting where everyone seems marginalised and invisible, McCarthy has hit upon a perfect match. At its heart, this is a very human drama of dysfunction, betrayal and abandonment, in which the sins of each generation are passed on to the next – but for all the naturalism of its presentation, the Greendykes estate will also be made to accommodate spells, curses, necromancy and shape-shifting, in a very modern retelling of the werewolf mythos. This is social realism wrapped in a new skin – and it introduces, in the person of McCarthy, a new yet fully-formed talent to British genre cinema.
Synopsis: Present day, Greendykes, Edinburgh. Withdrawn teenager Fergal moves into a housing estate flat with his single mother Mary. Both sídhe, or Celtic fairy people, they have been on the run for years from Fergal’s cursed destiny. Mary uses spells to ensure that their location remains hidden from anyone wishing them ill, and warns Fergal against getting too close to his new teenaged neighbour Petronella. Mary is right to be concerned – for mother and son are being relentlessly hounded by Fergal’s uncle Liam and father Cathal, the latter a power-hungry human granted temporary magical gifts by Mary’s family to kill his forbidden progeny. As Fergal’s relationship with Petronella blossoms, and the increasingly out-of-control Cathal determines to kill Mary along with Fergal, a beast haunts the estate at night, murdering several people – but sparing Petronella and her Down’s syndrome brother Tomatsk.
After Cathal’s every effort to track down Mary and Fergal is thwarted by Mary’s own magic, he abandons Liam and, using a type of necromancy expressly prohibited by the local sídhe Laird, manages to locate his quarry’s address. There he confronts and kills Mary, only to be killed himself by his son Fergal, who has emerged from his bedroom in the form of the beast. Fergal meets Petronella in the estate’s playground, but as the couple has full sex together for the first time, Fergal transforms once again. Liam appears and tells Petronella that he must stop the beast, as it can only be killed by its own kin. Petronella shouts a warning to the beast, and it kills Liam. When it turns on Petronella, she stabs it.
The Laird approaches Petronella begging in the street, and reveals that she was able to kill the beast only because she is pregnant with Fergal’s child.