"A Darkness Surrounds Him"
Original Airdate: June 3, 2016
Horror on television has seen better days. When The Walking Dead and American Horror Story debuted, they changed the way we see horror on television by providing genuine thrills, while also keeping the promise of sustainability. Times have changed though and so have the shows that set the standard for horror on television. Where The Walking Dead gets by on killing off characters to keep its pulse raised, American Horror Story has all but given up, swapping out horror and terror for extreme shock value. On top of that, we've also had Scream and Scream Queens, but neither of these shows really fill the gaps that The Walking Dead and American Horror Story leave us viewers with, given that the latter is a horror trope parody and the former is just not good.
Whatever case can be made against horror television gets erased pretty quickly upon watching the newest offering to the genre, Robert Kirkman's Outcast. Offering genuine thrills with an engaging premise, and a stellar combination of crew and cast, Outcast does something that hasn't been seen on television in a long time — be scary.
Demon possession is nothing new, and yet many movies manage to not only pump out films on the subject every year, but manage to find new ways to tweak them. In a post-Insidious landscape, telling demon possession stories comes with a certain “been-there-seen-that” mentality. So it's refreshing that Outcast takes a bold approach by not trying to reinvent the wheel, but instead maximizing its atmosphere and ambience for an unnerving feeling that's hard to shake throughout the pilot. It doesn't help that the town of Rome in West Virginia, where the show takes place, is a gloomy and quiet overcast town, not unlike what Stephen King has written about in countless novels. Crickets can be heard at night, dead trees hang ominously, and in the first scene alone we're witness to a child in the throes of a demonic possession; he bashes his head against his wall where an insect was sitting, devouring its remains, and scratching himself repeatedly. This sequence works because of its restraint that director Adam Wingard (You're Next, The Guest) pulls off magnificently, and it's very telling that the only real instance of gore comes a second near the end of the sequence with a bitten off finger. If Outcast was looking to pass a litmus test, they succeeded.
We meet our bearded and wayward hero Kyle Barnes sleeping on a mattress in a very dilapidated family home, where mirrors are broken, trash is strewn around, and children's drawings are seen on the inside of a pantry door. A dream of him with a woman — who we find out is his ex-wife — harkens back to simpler times, and not one but two horrifying flashbacks all serve to paint a picture of who Kyle was and who Kyle has become. Patrick Fugit plays Kyle as a shell of a man and a recluse from society, but the outside world comes knocking (literally) in the form of Megan, Kyle's adoptive sister. Kyle is desperate to get away from his own personal demons and is in no rush to deal with actual demons that plague the town, but he certainly can’t catch a break.
Neither can Reverend Anderson (Philip Glenister), a devout Christian tasked with dealing with the demonic possession of a small child. One of the strengths that "A Darkness Surrounds Him" has as an episode is that it establishes a world that feels very lived-in and has an authentic quality to it. Where most pilots would spend precious time feeding us exposition, this pilot opts to give us tiny glimpses that will certainly grow as the series goes on. Reverend Anderson plays poker with law officials, while Kyle can’t seem to connect with his ex-wife and child. There’s a lot to grab at in this episode, and hopefully as the series goes on, it’ll deliver.
It doesn’t take long for Anderson and Kyle to link up and take on this possessed child. The relationship between the loner Kyle and devout Reverend Anderson is an intriguing one that gives off a promising dynamic as Anderson treats Kyle almost like a surrogate son. The minute the two of them are in a room together handling the endlessly creepy possessed child, watching them go to work attempting to exorcise him becomes extremely entertaining. While Reverend Anderson has God on his side. Anderson — exhausting all of his knowledge in handling the boy — turns to Kyle and asks, “Will you pray with me?” Kyle, looking at Anderson, opts to just remove the blinds, which he knows has a better effect on the child. It’s a darkly amusing bit and one that shows promise that these two will have a good rapport together as they take on other cases. By the end of the episode, some questions get answered, but those only lead to more questions as Kyle and Anderson now have to deal with what's to come.
Horror, like comedy, is a very subjective thing, but Outcast knows the key to good horror is to build it slowly — shroud our possessed child in darkness, add an unsettling score, and let it all play out. Boasting strong performances, atmosphere, mood, and technical prowess, Outcast comes out the gate ready to stake its claim and ready to be the horror show that TV has sorely needed. While American Horror Story and The Walking Dead prepare to carry on with their new seasons, it's good to know we have an alternative. It just happens that the alternative is also a really great show.
And now, some stray observations:
- I just wanted to say that I'm happy to be writing reviews for this series for Just About Write, and wanted to thank everyone with the site for allowing me the chance to do that!
- Seeing Kate Lyn Sheil, who is probably one of my favorite actresses working right now, is always a pleasure, as is seeing Reg E. Cathey! I look forward to seeing how the two of them shape this story.
- "Did you run out of minutes or something?" was something I wasn't expecting to hear in the year 2016, but here we are.
- I may be wrong on this one but I believe Adam Wingard and Robert Kirkman slipped in a Prince of Darkness homage. It could be coincidence, could not be.
- Kudos to Adam and company for going through with Patrick Fugit beating up a demon-possessed kid.