[FrightFest 2020 Review] 'They're Outside' is Unsettling Folk Horror that Will Keep You Inside After Dark
Folk horror is having a moment in our genre...
...With the beginnings of a resurgence felt back in 1999 thanks to the tremendous success of Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s The Blair Witch Project, and seen later in recent stellar entries like Ben Wheatley’s Kill List (2011), Robert Eggers’ The Witch (2015), and Ari Aster’s Midsommar (2019), some of the finest fright flicks in recent memory speak to the inner pagan in all of us.
Endlessly versatile, the subgenre has the ability to shapeshift (much like the folklore it pulls from), offering something to chew on for all terror tastes. Creature Feature inclined? Try the Irish monster thriller The Hallow (2015). More interested in communing with the spirits? Pop on Pyewacket (2017). Or if you’re spooked most by the all too real horrors humanity is capable of when under the throws of superstition, do a double feature of the OG’s of Folk Horror: Witchfinder General (1968) and The Wicker Man (1973). The possibilities are endless.
They’re Outside (directed by Sam Casserly and Airell Anthony Hayles), which just made its World Premiere at FrightFest 2020, plants its flag squarely in the realm of the supernatural while also using the found-footage style as the framework for its story. The film is a bit of a mixed bag, achieving some truly startling and dread-filled moments while simultaneously getting tripped up by the obligatory found-footage formulas it adheres to.
Max (Tom Wheatley), host of a popular psychology series on YouTube (think Dr. Phil but with less of a budget and infinitely more unlikable), documents his attempt to help Sarah (Chrissy Randall) who appears to be suffering from agoraphobia. Claiming that she’s been targeted by the malevolent spirit of a murdered local hermit nicknamed Green Eyes for his haunting jade-colored peepers, Sarah hasn’t left her tiny cottage in the five years since her young daughter mysteriously went missing. Determined to help her shake free from this paranoia, Max and girlfriend/camera-woman Nicole (Nicole Miners) join Sarah in her isolated abode and, not surprisingly, things go downhill from there.
As with any horror film centred around a folk tale that haunts the history of a small town, the effectiveness of the movie depends on how creepy its legend is. In this sense, They’re Outside succeeds greatly, as the story of Green Eyes is pure campfire gold. Hayles (who wrote the film) does a wonderful job of building a mythos around the character that feels both terrifying and, more importantly, lived in. Too often films flop because their paint-by-numbers villain is stripped of their potency by how contrived they feel, but that’s not at all the case with this disturbing little woodland hermit. The Blair Witch Project did for the woods what Jaws did for the ocean, and They’re Outside’s best elements come close to replicating that same sense of dread many felt long after viewing that classic for the first time.
Unfortunately, the atmosphere that is built so well is at times compromised due to certain found-footage narrative devices that are peppered throughout. The unaired footage we watch of Max’s descent into the supernatural features interviews with the pop-psychologist’s parents and Nicole, a trope seen in countless other films. But while it feels as if they’re meant to foreshadow some nastiness to come, all they do is abruptly stop the momentum of the story. Just when the creepiness of the film’s setting is starting to get under your skin, you cut to a suburban backyard or a quiet living room and are immediately snapped out of the trance the movie works so hard to put you in. Then there is its opening, which features an introduction to the film we’re about to see given by a folklore professor who spews exposition at the audience and seems to serve no other purpose than to explain things that could have been worked into character dialogue later on in the movie. He’s never revisited in any way, which makes his addition at the beginning stick out like a sore thumb.
Though these issues hinder They’re Outside’s flow and dampened some of its impact, strong performances and a deeply jarring final ten minutes do much to make up for them. Tom Wheatley is a perfect asshole, playing the role of the “dismissive skeptic that gets his comeuppance” with zeal, while Chrissy Randall’s Sarah is haunting, sympathetic, and easily the heart of the movie. The film’s climax, while not quite as terror-inducing as The Blair Witch Project’s, definitely feels like it’s in that ballpark. These strengths, coupled with its boogeyman’s unique mythology, help to make They’re Outside a strong entry to the steadily growing Folk Horror subgenre, and gives us one more reason to fear the woods after dark.
By Pat Brennan