Saturday, June 27, 2020

The Outsider – season 1 – review

Director: Various

First Aired: 2020

Contains spoilers

I recently discovered that the Stephen King novel the Outsider is, at heart, a vampire novel. I then discovered that it was filmed as a 10-episode series by HBO and is available on VoD. Now, I will say that the lore on this is a tad different to normal and that there is both a flesh consumption and energy vampire aspect to the evil at the heart of the series. There are tropes played with as well (and to examine those I’m afraid there will have to be serious spoilers – I’ll mark the most egregious just ahead of them). The V word is used a couple of times only.

The pacing of the series is fairly slow – though it is explosive at the end – and this is one of them shows that you might want to catch and then read what I have to say. Timelines sometimes weave, without explicitly telling you that you have jumped, but the structure does work.

grizzly find
Terry Maitland (Jason Bateman) is a family man, with two daughters, and is a little league coach. That world comes crashing down around him when local detective Ralph Anderson (Ben Mendelsohn) arranges for two uniformed cops to pick him up, at a game and in front of the town, for the murder of Frankie Peterson (Duncan E. Clark). Frankie has been found in the woods, torn to shreds, evidence of bite marks and sexual violence. Terry is confused, he claims innocence.

Terry bloodied
For Ralph, the case is open and shoot. They have found a van with Frankie and Terry’s DNA and Terry’s fingerprints, there is DNA evidence on the body. He has witnesses who saw him pick the boy up in the van, saw him covered in blood and who spoke to him. He has video evidence of Terry going into a strip club to change in the toilets, testimony from a taxi driver and more video at the Amtrax station. Unfortunately, more evidence starts to arrive – Terry claims he was away at a conference that day and witnesses, fingerprints and TV footage put him in the other location.

Hooded figure
Meanwhile the Peterson family have grief placed upon grief. Frankie’s mom (Claire Bronson) goes mad with grief and has a fatal heart attack. His brother (Joshua Whichard) manages to get a gun and, when being taken to the courthouse, attacks Terry – shooting three cops and fatally wounding Terry before being shot dead by Ralph. Alone, Frankie’s dad (Frank Deal) hangs himself. Ralph is a realist and the contradictory evidence nags at him. On administrative leave following the shooting he ends up joining forces with an investigator (Jeremy Bobb) working for Terry’s lawyer (Bill Camp). Meanwhile we see, at the sites of the tragedies, a figure in a hoody – who seems (to the viewer) to have a distorted face.

Cynthia Erivo as Holly
So we gain the most of the supernatural knowledge through an investigator, Holly Gibney (Cynthia Erivo), who tracks down the points of intersection not only of Terry – and the van that was used – but also of two other alleged child killers, all of whom seem to be interconnected. She comes to the conclusion that a bogeyman creature – the term El Cuco is used – is killing the kids. The name seems to be a variant of Cucuy – which we met in the film Muerte: Tales of Horror and which had a vampiric look, at least. I preferred another name in the series, mentioned once, El Glotón Para Dolor – the Grief Eater. It seems that this thing, as well as eating flesh (it will eat animals, and it eats children because they are sweeter) feeds off the grief of the families, whose lives it destroys. The energy of the kin of the one whose form it has taken are the most potent, due to them being of the same blood – and it can tap into grief from the remains of past generations.

Eating Flesh
It takes a face (and the DNA, fingerprints etc) and the memories of the patsy for the crimes, through a scratch that draws blood, inflicted whilst still in the form of the previous stolen identity. It can, whilst in someone's form, see through their eyes and know what they know. After feeding it starts to transform into the next one with its blurred face being the transition between the two. There is some evidence that it can spiritually project itself to interact with people, even beat someone up like that, but that it may be physically weak. Its spiritual projection, and its physical presence, can leave a residue (that, when analysed, the labs can’t identify).

the rash
It can also get itself a Renfield – during the primary investigation this is maverick detective Jack Hoskins (Marc Menchaca). Jack is attacked and a brand (for want of a better description) is put on his neck – a rash that blisters and causes agonising pain and is therefore used to control him (with the rash easing when he obeys). The connection with El Cuco can make him see things and it is Jack we see attacked by the non-substantial projection of the creature (in the form of his mother (Denny Dillon)). We see the fate of a previous Renfield, committing suicide by cop to escape the guilt, the pain and the insanity.

So, in the next paragraph are the major spoilers.

Jack beaten for failing
I mentioned that the V word is used – but it is not an explicit descriptor. There is a joke about a Yiddish vampire (and the episode name reflects that, The One About the Yiddish Vampire) and the word is used in dialogue once when Jack asks Holly “So, what is it?... Vampire? Satan? Joker? A Guilty Conscience?” She doesn’t know. However, when it is confronted by the show's version of the crew of light it is pinned with a stalactite through the chest (but on the right) and then stabbed in the heart. This isn’t enough to kill it though, as one protagonist realises, but does tie into early tropes where stakes pin the vampire to their grave. The knife is removed and its mobile hand stabbed and pinned (to stop it scratching, one assumes) and its head caved with a rock (arguably akin to beheading) but before the rock comes down its face morphs through the last few of the faces it has stolen – which reminded me of the souls escaping Barlow at the end of Salem’s Lot (2004). There is a post credit sequence built to make one wonder at the finality of the kill – so that, although this was meant to be a one-shot series there is a pathway for it to return, like any good vampire. I’ll also mention that we see an armadillo in the cave in which El Cuco is found – now they are found in Georgia but it did bring Dracula (1931) to mind.

Ben Mendelsohn as Ralph
And there you have it. El Cuco uses many of the vampire tropes and both eats children and feasts on negative energies. I mentioned that the pace is quite slow – preferring to look at the psychological journeys of Ralph, his wife Jeannie (Mare Winningham, American Horror Story: Hotel) and the impact on Terry’s family, especially his wife Glory (Julianne Nicholson). It also takes a lot of time to follow Holly, who identifies herself as an outsider due to her gifts – she seems to be on the spectrum and also have some form of savant syndrome. Holly is a fantastic character and sympathetically portrayed by Cynthia Erivo. The pace might be off-putting to some but trust me that it does explode at times especially as it goes into the finale. There are some questions left standing around the ending, that I won’t spoil as they are not lore related (or at least add nothing further to the lore discussion). However this kept me watching and I fairly much binged the series. 7 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.

On Demand @ Amazon US

On Demand @ Amazon UK

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