Four episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
Thanks to American Horror Story, The Walking Dead, Penny Dreadful and dearly departed Hannibal, small-screen horror is at the epicenter of the “peak TV” era. It’s a genre that, once thought untenable on a continuing basis, has instead birthed some of the most narratively gripping, artistically ambitious series of the past 10 years, while simultaneously proving itself to be one of the most versatile groups of programming out there. While AHS has commodified the genre’s garish, gory excesses and ostentations, Hannibal and Penny have plumbed the depths of its psychology. Elsewhere, The Strain, The Walking Dead and its spinoff are busily weaving modern terrors (bioterrorism, systemic governmental breakdown, power vacuums) into crackerjack entertainment.
It’s into this renaissance period of all things grim and ghastly that Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman ushers in Outcast, a Southern Gothic nightmare of a horror show concerned, as so many of these series are, with demons figurative and literal. Marinated, almost frame-by-frame, in an atmosphere more sinister and savory than anything we’ve seen since the first season of True Detective, it’s a thoroughly visceral viewing experience – as made clear from the creeping malevolence of the title sequence alone. Those initial images, all tainted tableaus haunted at the edges by an oozing darkness, at once evoke a very modern kind of urban decay and the presence of something unnatural hidden within, festering amid rusted ruins.
Kirkman, as he’s shown across Walking Dead and its spinoff, is keenly interested in that kind of evil: the type that lurks in shadow-soaked places, taking root just out of sight, digging deep under cover of darkness. In Outcast, he makes such wickedness tangible – demonic entities take the form of black, slinking sludge, reaching out with inky black tendrils and plastering to walls like a fast-moving rot. But the creator is also fascinated by something trickier to depict: the evil you can’t see, the kind concealed behind far-away eyes and faint smiles, busily settling into bone and marrow.
On The Walking Dead, that evil took the form of moral corruption, the hunger for power and control that turned good people bad, rendering them capable of unfathomable cruelty. It was about a situational embrace of malevolence. On Outcast, there’s comparable depravity, but it’s less volitional – the evil here is spiritual, an ancient force that doesn’t seduce people so much as sequester them. When a demon takes a hold of a person, it buries deep. It’s a parasite, affixing itself to its victims’ souls and often lying dormant until the moment it chooses to strike, forcing them to commit brutal, often self-destructive acts without warning.
If The Walking Dead is about trying to stop a cruel world from bleeding across and obscuring moral compasses, Outcast is more concerned with the struggle to prevent the scars of the past from dictating the present (and, of course, destroying the future). It’s about the real human horrors of abuse and neglect, and the painful legacies they leave behind. Its haunted protagonist, Kyle Barnes (Patrick Fugit, the series’ tormented, twitching core), is a survivor. His mother, who was actually possessed by a demon (Kyle just thinks she was sick), enacted terrible violence against him in his youth, and that trauma has largely colored Kyle’s adult existence.
He lives in a squalid, miserable house, agonized and alone after the dissolution of a marriage within which other, less specified brutality took place. Only Kyle’s sister, Megan (Wrenn Schmidt) retains any kind of sympathy for him; the rest of the town has turned against the guy, both out of shame in remembering the helpless, abused child they failed to help and repulsion in looking upon the ostensible abuser he’s become.
Kyle is an outcast, but he’s also a recluse, choosing solitude as a form of punishment, isolation as self-flagellation. He gets by on supplies from Megan, but the guy isn’t doing so well. His eyes are sunken in, his shoulders stooped, his steps constrained to a lethargic shuffle. Fugit communicates Kyle’s misery with such effective, dead-eyed weariness that the character seems to be barely clinging to the present, dogged as he is at every turn by memories of his trauma. It’s ultimately his inability to move past the abuse that coaxes him out of hiding – a young boy named Joshua is exhibiting symptoms similar to those seen in his mother, and when it turns out that the boy is possessed by a demonic entity (as are many others), Kyle begins to question whether his mother was a victim, rather than a perpetrator.
If Fugit is the show’s dramatic core, the Reverend Anderson (Philip Glenister) is its rip-roaring, comic-book spirit. When he and Kyle decide to visit Joshua and realize that the only way to save the boy is to perform a dangerous exorcism, it’s Anderson who steps up, fearlessly waging into holy war against the demon.
Hard-drinking and chain-smoking, he’s a man of God made weary and coarse by the constant oppression of the world around him. And yet, he remains fiercely devout, bent on driving out demons until his dying breath. Over the course of that exorcism (a marvel of visual storytelling and ratatat camerawork), it becomes apparent that Kyle is blessed with a particular talent for exorcism – demons know him as the “outcast,” a warrior whose blood stings like holy water, whose control over them is unparalleled. Anderson, for all his commitment to the craft, lacks that same gift.
As Outcast picks up steam throughout its first four episodes, there’s a “hidden destiny” angle to Kyle’s arc, and his alliance with Anderson takes some intriguing turns, with both of them somewhat reluctantly forming a father-son dynamic, joined together in a quest that (judging by the amount of possessions they uncover in these initial hours) could well turn out to be their life’s work.
But what’s more interesting than that thread, still slightly hanging outside of the series’ scope, is the fluid manner in which Outcast weaves its tapestry of deeply troubled and damaged characters all working to deal with dire circumstances and devastating histories. Kyle is a broken man in search of catharsis, while Anderson is clearly in denial about how fractured he is, especially as a reverend but also – it’s seen – as a grieving father. Some of the subplots are still nebulous – there’s something peculiar going on with the local sheriff (Reg E. Cathy), who’s fixated on a mysterious trailer in the woods – but others yield tremendous dramatic impact, like Megan’s run-in with the boy who molested her throughout her adolescence, all grown up but despicably entitled as ever. The actress provides some of Outcast‘s most touching and tragic moments, and her chemistry with her well-meaning cop husband (David Denman) is wonderfully organic.
Technically, the show is a vision. Premiere director Adam Wingard, who helmed You’re Next, does spectacular work turning every dark corner into a refuge for unspeakable malevolence, and in tipping his hat to the classics of the horror genre with his sensational yet primally terrifying treatment of the pilot’s exorcism. As the show goes on, even without Wingard behind the camera, its seedy and swampy atmosphere continues to permeate every scene. Outcast owes much to its masterful use of lighting, but it also packs in setpieces that stick with you in their creation of claustrophobia and creeping menace.
And yet, Outcast is at its strongest when it’s melding supernatural terrors with the everyday horrors of living in the wake of trauma. There’s a rich emotional heartbeat beneath the violence and viscera, one that Fugit’s terrific performance amplifies and resolutely strong writing stabilizes (the third episode, in particular, turns the stomach and makes the heart ache in equal measure). The series excels in mounting classy references to horror greats like The Exorcist while still establishing a grounded and gritty aesthetic all its own, which makes it a great example of how small-screen horror can bolster and progress the genre without distracting from its scare-mongering roots.
Outcast gets under your skin, and inside your head, always teasing something primordial and inescapably sinister brewing beneath the surface, of both its world and its characters. That a horror story this complex and ambitious has made it to television is something of a miracle, and if the show can sustain both its scares and its sense of pathos, it’ll soon sprint past competitors in terms of delivering bloody, bracing chills and thrills without sacrificing a shred of dramatic integrity. The Walking Dead better watch its back.
Terrifying and transfixing, Outcast is a horror fan's dream come true, packed with chills and thrills that only serve to accentuate the surprising potency of its dramatic vision.