Make TV Scare Again: variations on a theme

Okay, television, you’ve got a whole mess of horror genres to play with. Slashers, ghosts, vampires, werewolves (snicker), Kardashians. Let’s see how you’re going to mix it up.

After the jump, Return of the Living Exorcist

Chris Hornbostel: Outcast
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The deeper undercurrent of the 1973 horror blockbuster The Exorcist is that it is a battle of evil (the demon Pazuzu) and good (the priests of the Catholic church). Spoiler alert: the church wins. In the years since, as exorcism horror has become its own subgenre, it’s typically (but not always) priests who do the exorcism. You can tell when it’s go time and things get serious too: the full vestments are donned, the holy water is brandished, and catechisms come out like machine guns at the end of Scarface.

Outcast is firmly ensconced in within the exorcism style of horror, but it takes a little bit of a different tack. For Kyle Barnes, Outcast’s protagonist, demonic possession is a personal thing. It cost him his childhood and then stole his family. It has followed him his entire life, lurking at the corners, threatening his very existence. When we meet him at the beginning of the series, he’s a loner who has pulled in all the boundaries of his life. He sleeps on the floor in a house that’s going to seed, one that lacks even basic utilities. He is a man merely existing and awaiting a conclusion, not someone living any sort of life.

Exorcising demons becomes Kyle’s new calling. It’s his superpower, and Outcast betrays its background (it’s based on a comic by Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman) by revealing itself as an origin story for an unlikely superhero. All the trappings are here: the sidekick (Reverend Anderson), the cops who go from distrust to seeking him out, the endangered love interest (here it’s his estranged family, once possessed, and now perhaps again), and of course a truly evil supervillain.

What lifts Outcast up from being a mere origin tale is the way it tells its story. The acting here is tremendous at times, with Philip Glenister and Wrenn Schmidt brilliant in supporting parts and Patrick Fugit showing a depth I wasn’t aware he was capable of. I’d always assumed that in Almost Famous he was essentially just playing himself, and that was the limit of his acting range. He’s fantastic and nearly unrecognizable as Kyle Barnes, and does admirable work to add dimensions to the character that make him more than just a brooding anti-hero.

Outcast also makes itself scary, a feat that can be too easily taken for granted. Early on, a character we like dies badly. Throughout the season, the camera stalks other people malevolently, and we fear that they may be next. Characters make classic horror genre mistakes, like going off alone to a deserted house or taking solo hunting trips into the dense forest that surrounds the town, and the show teases and thrills us with unexpected resolutions. The level of spookiness is ratcheted up by the excellent casting of Brent Spiner as the devil made flesh, too. He’s creepy and exudes a menacing aplomb as the man in the black suit, calmly presiding over the building chaos.

Though I recommend Outcast, there are some issues here. Not least of these is that the “demon of the week” stuff that crops up early on feels like watching the worst bits of the latter years of Supernatural play out. Still, the first season resolves just enough to make it a terrific self-contained Halloween watch. If the show doesn’t push too far beyond another season or two (it’s already been renewed for another ten episodes) and overstay its welcome, it’ll stand as one of the best recent iterations of exorcism horror out there.

You can watch Outcast on Amazon.com.

Tom Chick: The Returned (Les Revenants)
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John Carpenter’s Starman is about a woman getting a second chance to connect with a loved one who died. Yeah, okay, it’s really an alien in her husband’s skin, but that’s beside the point. It’s a story about love after death. The Returned, supposedly a zombie TV series, is the same thing. The premise — that a bunch of people who died just show up one day — is about people getting a second chance to connect with loves ones. Who happen to have died. Are they zombies? Well, they’re not rotted away or clawing their way out of graves, but there’s something weird about them. Something a little off. If you subscribe to the big umbrella theory of zombies, they’re definitely zombies.

There have been a handful of attempts to look at unlife from a perspective sympathetic to zombies. Most of the attempts are terrible. The movie Warm Bodies. A BBC series called In the Flesh. There’s something on The CW called iZombie that I’m assuming is terrible because it’s on The CW. One that works is an indie movie called Colin. By the way, note to moviemakers: never call your movie someone’s first name, because, a) no one is going to have any idea what in the Sam Hell your movie is about and, b) no one is going to remember the name of your movie when they’re trying to remember it years later. Craig? Chad? Kevin? Cody? Caleb? Calvin? Oh, right, Colin. How could I have forgotten? Now what’s the one where Sean Astin is a football player? Roger? Ronnie? Rickie?

The other working attempt to look at unlife from a perspective sympathetic to zombies is The Returned. Just because no one’s munching on human flesh, this isn’t disqualified for the zombie genre. If people who aren’t dead but are only infected with the rage virus count as zombies, so do people who have literally risen from the dead but haven’t lost their identity. They know who they are. They know who everyone else is. They just have no idea where they’ve been during the time they were dead. Does it matter that they’re not hungry for brains? There is no single criteria for whether or not something is a zombie. Would it help if I told you that the French name for the series is Les Revenants? D&D nerds know what a revenant is, and it’s got nothing to do with Leonardi DiCaprio getting mauled a bear.

The series is based on a French movie of the same name. The movie only dips its toe into the premise, whereas the TV show is almost literally flooded by it. It takes its time exploring the implications rather than the causes. It’s less concerned with how than what, so don’t expect too much revelation. But also don’t expect a lot of mystery for mystery’s sake. The Returned has its share of interesting twists with back stories, time dilation, and secret agendas. But it doesn’t lose sight of its central premise. It is mostly a slow build-up around the framework of characters’ relationships, played out by a compelling cast of characters who are as un-Hollywood as can be. For better and worse. Mostly for better.

And one of the best things about watching a French TV series is that there’s no way to watch it casually. Most TV is slight enough that I can dink around on an iPad while I watch in the living room, or stream it in a window while I’m working on the computer. You can’t do that with The Returned unless you speak French. Subtitles force you to pay attention. They keep your nose in the screen. The Returned is good enough, and certainly nuanced enough, that your nose absolutely belongs there.

The Returned consists of two seasons of eight hour-long episodes (there are currently no announcements regarding a third season). You can watch it at Amazon.com. Don’t get tricked into watching the short-lived American remake on Netflix. All you need to know about that version is that it’s by Carlton Cuse, one of the tools who foisted Lost off on us.

Tomorrow: Friday favorites
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