The new Cinemax series Outcast proves the old Alfred Hitchcock quote: “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.” Based on the graphic novel series by Robert Kirkman — who gifted the world with the Walking Dead comic book series that later became the wildly successful AMC show — Outcast follows Kyle Barnes, a man with a traumatic past trying to make sense of the horrors that have followed him since childhood.
Outcast joins a long line of recent television forays into demonic possession. While Constantine and Damien didn’t fare well, each barely lasting a season, shows like Supernatural, Penny Dreadful, Lucifer, Preacher, and the upcoming TV version of The Exorcist, demonstrate the public’s fascination with the work of the devil and his minions. What makes Outcast so terrifying is the way it draws parallels between those possessed by demons and those possessed by the past.
In Rome, West Virginia, Kyle (Patrick Fugit) has isolated himself in the squalor of his childhood home, hoping to keep his loved ones safe; through town gossip and flashbacks, we learn that both his mother and wife were possessed by a mysterious entity. Kyle saved them, but only after a series of vicious attacks that has left the town suspicious of his violent nature. Kyle’s hope that his isolation will save everyone burns away when he learns that a local boy named Joshua has been acting strange, crushing bugs with his forehead before growling and contorting his body into unnatural positions. Joshua’s symptoms remind Kyle of his own mother, so he asks the town pastor, Reverend Anderson (Philip Glenister), for answers. Together, they must figure out how to heal Joshua — and if there are more cases like his.
Humanity’s fascination with the occult is nothing new, and neither is horror on TV. Before medical science was widely accepted, epileptic seizures were considered the work of the devil. Shows like The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents introduced the horror genre to television in the 1950s. Not long ago, vampires and werewolves dominated TV, with shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, True Blood, Being Human, and The Vampire Diaries. Then the zombies of The Walking Dead and iZombie took over.
But now it appears we’ve become obsessed with the devil again. Reboots of Rosemary’s Baby , the Omen films, AMC’s adaptation of the comic book series Preacher, and soon, The Exorcist, all indicate a bubbling obsession with the fallen angel. Even the Pope seems to be focusing a lot of attention on how to fight the devil. Studies indicate we lose empathy as we focus too much on our technological devices; perhaps it’s easier to watch others fight the devil onscreen than to battle the demons in our own communities.
Outcast’s pilot episode reels the audience in with the familiar image of a possessed child levitating above a bed. But in the episodes that follow, the show’s most brutal and horrifying moments happen in the past. Artful flashbacks tell Kyle’s story and help fill in the background for characters like Kyle’s adopted sister, Megan Holter (Wrenn Schmidt), a woman who shows us that even the strongest foundations have cracks. Our first introduction to Megan establishes her as a Kyle’s protector, but we soon learn Kyle has just as much experience protecting her. Both Kyle and Megan have childhoods ruined by physical abuse. A devastating secret from Megan’s childhood in foster care returns to dismantle the good home life she’s built. But Megan’s childhood horrors are only hinted at through tense, muted flashbacks, which are all the more frightening for what we don’t see.
In the first few episodes, we meet town members like the chief of police, Chief Giles (Reg E. Cathey), Megan’s cop husband, Mark Holter (David Denman), and a mysterious stranger who may be too much of an expert with a straight razor. As we’re introduced to more of the town, the show becomes a guessing game: Is she possessed? Is he? Did the exorcism work? Is the devil still inside him? That’s the trouble with small towns where everyone knows each other — some secrets remain hidden until it’s too late.
Outcast captures that sinister slickness perfectly. Rome is a small, southern Appalachian town on the edge of the Bible Belt, an ideal place for the devil to call home. Fugit does an amazing job of portraying Kyle as a tormented man, confused but determined to do his part to set the world right. He expertly captures the anguish of a man limited in knowledge and strength but willing to push past those confines to fix whatever it is that’s left his life in pieces. And it’s easy to look at Megan as a strong, southern woman whose steel spine is covered in honeysuckle, but Schmidt infuses the character with a ferocity that pushes past the stereotype. We see Megan as a fully realized woman who battles her own demons without harming others. This is not just a woman protecting her family; Megan is protecting herself.
Composer Atticus Ross — who won an Oscar along with Trent Reznor for the pair’s work on The Social Network in 2011 — builds dread in scenes where there is no immediate bang, leaving the viewer tense and jumping at shadows that overwhelm the screen. In one scene, Kyle confronts a man raised in foster care with him, and the situation quickly becomes physical. As Kyle appears to be on the losing end of this confrontation, the strings begin a low, intense hum. Something is coming. Will the demon searching for Kyle find him during this violent, vulnerable moment? Is Kyle’s sparring partner already possessed? The strings swell to indicate a warning. Or is it a threat? The music keeps you in a state of hyper-awareness, afraid to look away.
Outcast’s cinematography also goes a long way toward making it one of the most satisfyingly scary shows on air. It has the requisite visual darkness of any series that deals with the supernatural, with shadows framing scenes and threadbare curtains blocking sunlight in bedrooms. There are long, creeping shots that settle just before reaching a character, putting the viewer in place of someone — or something — on the hunt.
If you need blood and gore to make your horror complete, there is plenty here. But the real monsters in Outcast are those brought up by trauma. Kyle’s suffering may have roots in the supernatural, but Megan’s pain is altogether too human and too common. And they aren’t the only ones with histories that haunt them. Outcast is a sharp series that moves past the gore of overflowing red-dyed corn syrup to brutalize the mind with terrors of the past.
Outcast premieres at 10 p.m. tonight on Cinemax.