Isle of Dogs vs. Outcast – British Horror Showdown

If this article was a B movie it would be called Potty-mouthed Gangster vs Celtic Fairy-man. Both films play with B movie devices, but while Isle of Dogs (2010) seems content to snuggle in stereotypes of the genres it replicates, Outcast (2010) seeks inspiration from obscure mythology. I saw both recently on an outing to Frightfest, each new offerings from British directors hunting for an audience.   

 

Isle of Dogs’ female director, Tammi Sutton, is fighting for recognition in a male dominated genre, so it’s suitable that her glamorous protagonist, Nada, is forced into brutal showdowns against numerous men. Nada is a trophy to her husband Darius, a sadistic crime lord who doesn’t take kindly to her affair with weedy lover, Riley. For his shameful imitation of Vinnie Jones, and obsession with the word cunt, Darius incites many guilty sniggers. Unfortunately, this form of characterisation litters Isle of Dogs, its characters but archetypes from the gangster or horror genre defined largely by the expletives they use. The structure has more ambition, attempting a ‘jigsaw’ narrative where flashbacks shockingly reveal, among other revelations, that Darius is in fact an asshole.

"Seen my two smoking barrels you sexy cunt?"

Colm McCarthy’s debut feature Outcast uses Celtic folklore as its main narrative ingredient. Also thrown into the cauldron are essence of a creature feature, and the still beating heart of a teen drama. What emerges is the strangely compelling, if rather dense, tale of Fergal, an introverted teenager born into an ancient race of Sidhe (or, as research in dusty volumes on mythology informs me, Irish fairy folk living in mounds). Hunted by their own people, Fergal and his mother have fled their mound to a council estate in Edinburgh. Fergal’s troubles mutate as he forms a forbidden relationship with Petronella, a sympathetic neighbour, and his mythical powers surface. For the first two acts the magical elements aren’t overplayed, allowing the characters to develop, and fans of British TV to spot some familiar faces. Particularly striking is the ferocious presence of James Nesbitt as Cathal, Fergal’s unstable hunter, while Doctor Who (1963-1989 & 2005-present) fans will enjoy Karen Gillan’s appearance as a feisty Scottish chav. 

Outcast’s closest reference point in modern cinema is Thomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In (2008). Like Oskar and Eli in Alfredson’s affecting vampire tale, Fergal and Petronella meet in an empty playground whilst finding refuge from their broken families. Despite ones mythological background, a strong bond forms. But while their younger, Swedish counterparts are content just laying beside each other, adolescent Fergal and Petronella are slaves to carnal desires. As in much folklore about ungodly creatures lust is a catalyst for danger, although classic iconography is exchanged for a beast that resembles a certain green Marvel superhero.

Typical teenagers - so infatuated by each other they're blind to the massive claws of death surrounding them

The macabre elements in Isle of Dogs seep mainly from the Italian Giallo. Deep red blood sprays over white surfaces in homage to the Italian masters. But the homage runs thick, and clots before any original ideas emerge, with the more elaborate set pieces seeking only gruesome pastiche. One scene sees Nada hunted by a killer whose costume is a replica of the stalker’s faceless disguise in Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace (1964), and the bloody finale sees an arm severed in painful reminiscence of Dario Argento’s Tenebre (1982). The Giallo isn’t the only poaching ground though, exemplified as an axe wielding madman chases Nada whilst shouting her name in an extended reference to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980).

While neither film is destined for iconic status, Outcast boasts a suitably murky atmosphere, and its night scenes are shot with gritty intensity. As Cathal has a bizarre psychic battle against Fergal’s mother candlelight pierces the night to illuminate Nesbitt’s tense features, pulsating with bestial rage. Yet the scares prompted by a mysterious beast stalking victims are generic, each occurring on cue. Isle of Dogs is similarly predictable, with its shocks reliant on sudden rises on the soundtrack. I hope both directors attended Tobe Hooper’s Frightfest Q&A, and took note when he discussed toying maliciously with audience expectations in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) by having Leatherface lunge out a few frames before expected. 

Outcast compensates for its thin scares with a refreshing hybrid of intriguing ideas. Yet in allowing characterisation to dominate the first two acts, the climax is weighed down by somewhat rushed explanations of the mythology. McCarthy mentioned at the screening’s Q&A that the first cut was around three and a half hours, which could explain this. But while Outcast overflows with ambition, Isle of Dogs is packed with plot elements glaringly contrived to increase the body count, and bulk out the running time. A couple of bumbling police coincidentally investigating Darius add at least ten minutes, two bodies and some weak attempts at humour.

For all Isle of Dogs’ failings, it does have heart (and plenty of blood to pump around). If you make it to the final ten minutes they’re so ridiculous, and tongue in cheek, that you’ll get some laughs for your money. Not that you’ll have to pay much; I presume a straight to DVD, and not long till bargain bucket, release is immanent. Outcast already has a few festivals to its name and, if word at the Q&A is reliable, is set for a (probably small) cinematic release in December. Ultimately, Celtic Fairy-man attacks from all directions, scoring many hits, while Potty-mouthed Gangster can only bleed profusely and swear.

By James Taylor

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