They’re Outside (2020)

They’re Outside first published by VODzilla.co

They’re Outside, the feature debut of Sam Casserly and Airell Anthony Hayles, layers its central narrative in a succession of frames. On the one hand, it is the latest (and last) video made by YouTube pop psychologist Max Spencer (Tom Wheatley) with his girlfriend Nicole (Nicole Miners), as he challenges himself to persuade the severely agoraphobic American Sarah Sanders (Chrissy Randall) to set foot outside her cottage in the woods near Hastings in Sussex, where previously Sarah’s young daughter had disappeared without trace – and within Max and Nicole’s video is a second video, filmed by Sarah and her friend Penny Arnold (Emily Booth), which combines paranormal fakery with something altogether harder to explain. On the other hand, we are also watching a possibly cursed documentary They’re Outside, edited together from Max’s ‘found footage’ by Penny after Max and Sarah disappeared, and opening with a suicide video from Penny. This documentary is formally introduced by Dr Richard Hill (Nicholas Vince, Hellraiser), Professor of Folklore at Sussex University, who connects the tragic fates of Max, Sarah and Penny to ‘Green Eyes’, the vagrant child snatcher of local oral myth whom Penny had named in her last recording.

The YouTube Channel for which Max was making his video is called Psychology – Inside/Out. This label reverberates at every layer of a film where the barriers between inside and out, fake and real, ‘doctor’ and patient, the psychological and the supernatural are constantly being blurred. How did Max’s film, supposedly lost in an alternative dimension of endless woods, come to be found? Is Penny’s suicide video a part, impossibly, of They’re Outside, or something external to it? Do the figures that fill Sarah with such fear reside in the woods outside her house, or are they a reflection of something more internal to her? As we watch these supposedly therapeutic sessions unfold, is it Sarah or Max – with his misogyny, his aggressive bullying and his traumatising grief – who is the real case for psychological study? And as, much to Nicole’s overt annoyance, Max and Sarah grow closer, might ‘Green Eyes’ be less a folkloric exploiter of other people’s loss than a conventional metaphor for murderous jealousy? 

Sarah Sanders (Chrissy Randall), reflected on the threshold.

Set around Hastings’ May Day celebrations, Casserley and Hayles’ folk horror first tells and then – irrationally – shows us a local legend, thus drawing on the ‘found footage’ structure of The Blair Witch Project (1999); and it presents itself as a ‘cursed’ film, complete with clumsy ‘subliminal’ inserts, like Antrum: The Deadliest Film Ever Made (2019). The problem, though, is that, in order for viewers to become fully and deliriously lost in the woods as to what is real, what is ghostly, what is psychological projection and what is fake, the film’s ‘reality effect’ has to be convincing – whereas, somewhere between the overwritten dialogue, the stilted performances and the recognisability of Vince and TV presenter Booth, all vérité here has died. If the viewer is not persuaded to believe or at least to suspend disbelief (essential attitudes for the open reception of found footage), then They’re Outside becomes more akin to the creaky, cheesy Ghost Train which Max and Nicole ride in Hastings than to the intense, ambiguous psychodrama that it seemingly wants to be, inside and out.  

Strap: In Sam Casserly and Airell Anthony Hayles’ found-footage folk horror, a pop psychologist tries to coax a haunted agoraphobe outdoors. 

Anton Bitel