Arrow Video FrightFest 2018: He’s Out There (2018)
He’s Out There begins with the voice of little Kayla (Anna Pniowsky) reading from a children’s book, while the camera circles the outside of a lakeside house where there are signs of a horrific event: a crashed car atilt, a rope, a second car with a tool’s bloody handle protruding from its boot, and a collection of creepy, naïve paintings scattering in the wind. All this serves as a premonition – not just the vista of violence, offering us a glimpse into what the feature debut of Quinn Lasher (or is that a pseudonym for Dennis Iliadis?) has in store for the viewer, but also the book itself, called Darkness Hides, which pits a vulnerable little mouse against a playful yet predatory crow, and poses riddles about the dark shadows that dog us all.
Kayla and her even younger sister Maddie (Abigail Pniowsky) are heading off with their mother Laura (Yvonne Strahovski) to their isolated holiday home – instantly recognisable as the one from the prologue – with their father Shawn (Justin Bruening) delayed by work and hoping to join them later. It is an idyllic place, even if, as local Owen (Julian Bailey) reveals, the family that had previously lived there sold up and moved on decades ago after their ‘slow-witted’ son John went mysteriously missing. The idyll, though, is disrupted as mother and daughters become aware that someone is out there, watching and childishly toying with them – and that they may not survive the night.
Put another way, He’s Out There swings between A Tale of Two Sisters (2003), Friday the 13th (1980) and The Babadook (2014), as a grotesquely masked slasher (Ryan McDonald) menaces two young siblings by a lake, himself inspired by – and altering – the contents of a picturebook. Certainly there is something fairytale-like about the killer’s modus operandi, whether it is the mythic red threads that he leaves to guide his prey through the labyrinthine forest, the tea parties he sets up in imitation of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, or his love of dolls and mannequins – all suggestive of someone whose development is so arrested that his mental age is much the same as that of his young quarry.
The tender years of Maddie and Kayla, and their entirely realistic teary terror before their giggling pursuer, make their ordeal particularly harrowing. For the horror here derives not from easy jump scares, but from an all too believable sense of hopelessness, as Laura and her daughters do everything that they can in a rapidly evolving and increasingly impossible position that few would be equipped to handle. There are hints at a deeper psychological subtext here. At the beginning Maddie has defaced her doll with a marker pen into a ‘baby zombie’ (“She’s gonna eat you!”, she tells Kayla), and there are also implied cracks (if little more) in Laura and Shawn’s marriage – all little details that perhaps allude to a darkness already hidden in this family before they meet its living, breathing manifestation, ‘out there’ rather than merely internalised. By the end, though, the film offers more conventional kinds of nightmarish hide-and-seek and slash-and-dash, and keeps us guessing who, if anyone, will be its final girls.
Strap: Quinn Lasher’s debut pits a vacationing mother and her young daughters against an infantilised maniac in a mask.
© Anton Bitel