Saturday, August 20, 2016

Past Misdeeds: The Dead Outside (2009)

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts without any re-writes or improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

It's six months after the outbreak of the viral apocalypse (again). This time, a neurological virus in combination with a badly working vaccine (although I'm not sure the film really means "vaccine" and not just "specialized medication") has caused large parts of humanity to become dangerously deranged. Virus victims develop symptoms of schizophrenia which get worse until the only thing they seem to feel is anger. Still, these virus victims stay very much human, most of them are even still able to ramble angrily, so calling them zombies wouldn't feel proper.

Daniel (Alton Milne), who has lost (how and why will be sort of explained in flashbacks and visions) his family, drives through the Scottish countryside looking for a safe place to stay. His car runs out of gas, but fortunately there's a farmhouse close by for him to seek shelter in. At first, the place seems to be deserted, but the next day Daniel meets April (Sandra Louise Douglas), an armed, emotionally devastated teenager, whose grandparents were the owners of the farm. Initially, April doesn't want Daniel staying there, is even close to shooting him, but something changes her mind.

In the following weeks, the girl and the man grow closer, although both need some time to get over the distrust one develops when everyone else is mad and one can't even be all that sure about one's own state of mind. Daniel and April aren't really willing or able to disclose much about their pasts or their feelings to each other. He thinks she might be immune against the virus, while she panics at the mere thought of getting close to any of the remaining medical facilities. Still, there is trust growing between them.

Things get difficult again when another sane survivor, Kate (Sharon Osdin) arrives one day. Her presence disturbs the brittle, unspoken pact between April and Daniel, and catastrophe already waits around the corner.

It seems as if the British isles are the place to look when it comes to ultra-low budget outbreak films. Although this Scottish production isn't as excellent as Colin, my favourite example of the type, it is still a much better film than a lot of its peers are.

It is also a film many viewers won't like for its very slow pace, the conscious lack of clarity in its storytelling and its rather wonderful disinterest in gore. These things aren't caused by any lack of care in The Dead Outside's director Kerry Anne Mullaney, though, they are very much part of the film's design. The film's slowness fits a film about an end of the world that isn't flashy or explosive, but that instead has come slowly and creeping (the same way as the virus works).

The lack of clarity is a necessary part of a film which lets us see through the eyes of characters who aren't at all sure about their own sanity, and who can't and don't want to remember everything they have done too clearly. Mullaney bases some effective moments of dread on the lack of certainty about what's real and what's not her characters live in. I found the way Daniel's dead family and very real danger mingle much more effective than the typical goresplosion.

This is not to say that the film doesn't contain any action at all. There are two (probably budget-stretching) action set-pieces - of course without explosions - that impress through clever editing and the ability to build up a feel of claustrophobia in open, but dark, spaces.

Mullaney is obviously more interested in her characters than in the action or plot. This is not the sort of film that believes in expository dialogue (although there is one large expository monologue late in the film); much is insinuated and hinted at, probably in the hope for an audience willing and able to put a little work into understanding what is going on with the characters. One of the points the film is trying to make seems to be that there really is no clear difference between the state we call "sanity" and "madness". I don't think that's a point it could make by being clear and obvious about everything.

I thought that the actors were really selling their roles quite well. Sure, the acting is a bit strained in a "look! I'm acting!" way from time to time, but more often than not Douglas and Milne project a mix of normalcy and brittleness that is absolutely right for the direction the film is going in. Sometimes, acting that doesn't read as ultra-professional is of help to let the characters on screen seem like everyday people.

I had some problems with the film's visual side. While there are some impressive shots of the farmhouse and the creepy landscape around it (you know I'm a sucker for nature in its less sweet and mellow variations), the film suffers a little from desaturation syndrome. Of course, muted grey and brown colours help emphasize the desolation of the situation, but there's a lot to be said for using other parts of the colour spectrum too, if only to contrast them with all that grey.

Probably even more problematic is Mullaney's decision to shoot about eighty percent of the film with the camera tilted at an angle, as if everything took place on a ship close to sinking. Creepy angles might be a well established way to build mood, but there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. The last point is certainly reached when I find myself tilting my head to the side while watching a movie.

Still, I found these to be minor problems that The Dead Outside more than made up for. I am an easy mark for the film's charms, seeing who much I despise exposition and clarity in movies, and how much I like the ambiguous and the slow, but even people who aren't me could be able to find something quite irresistible in the film's rhythm, in the way it feels like it was made by someone with very personal ideas of what could be interesting about a viral apocalypse.

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