Mick Jordan casts a spell over Robert Wynne-Simmons’ cult horror The Outcasts

If every film is a new film when seen for the first time, what about one that effectively disappeared 40 years earlier and is then re-released – anew?  Robert Wynne-Simmons The Outcasts had a brief cinema release in 1982 and was screened by Channel 4 in 1984.  It was also released on VHS around this time but after that faded into obscurity.  Now it has been painstakingly restored by the Irish Film Archive and is screening at the IFI prior to going onto their streaming service IFI@home.

The film has not dated at all in the intervening years, in fact just the opposite as so many of its ideas are now essential parts of any folk horror film – a genre still in its early years in 1982.  The story is set in a small rural area of Ireland where Christianity has not quite superseded ancient pagan beliefs.   When various tragedies strike the village, the superstitious townsfolk, as superstitious townsfolk tend to, blame it on the strange quiet girl that no-one understands.  Maura O’Donnell has been seen consorting with the mysterious shaman and haunting fiddle player Scarf Michael (long established as a bad lot) and all sorts of terrifying visions have been seen thereafter.  They decide she is a witch and must be dealt with accordingly.  

The film relies heavily on the performances of the two leads and they are both mesmerising to watch.  Maura is played by Mary Ryan who has a real striking presence in the role managing  to convey the child-like innocence of Maura and the real terror she feels when everyone is against her while at the same time having the iron will and inner strength to ultimately fight back and stand up for what she believes is right.  Scarf Michael of course is portrayed by the great Mick Lally and his performance here is a reminder of what a hugely versatile actor he was.  He is compelling and charismatic as Scarf Michael and you can easily understand why the villagers fear and mistrust him – and why Maura does not.

The “re-opening night” screening of the film was introduced by Sunniva O’Flynn of the IFI who explained some of the work that had been done by the archive team in the restoration.  The film was originally shot in 16mm and then blown up to 35mm for cinema release – a common practice at the time for such low to no budget films, for whom a theatrical run was always meant to be brief anyway.  This method does lead to the film grain being more noticeable, something that can actually be cleaned up in a digital restoration but very wisely the team elected not to do this thereby presenting the film as it originally looked rather than like “something overly processed”.  And this adds hugely to the pleasure of watching the film on a big screen, for not only is it of historical interest due to when it is set but also because of when it was made.

After the screening there was a Q&A with director Wynne-Simmons.  He told of how the editor Arthur Keating happened to bump into some people from the newly launched Channel 4 in a pub near the filming location.  He talked to them about the film and later showed them some rushes which lead to the channel investing in the production so as to make it part of their ‘Film on 4’ season.  Watching it now it is the very epitome of the early years of Channel 4 and in particular the Film on 4 slot.  This was an initiative which in 1982 included such films as The Ploughman’s Lunch, Moonlighting, The Darughtsman’s Contract and (a personal favourite) P’Tang Yang Kipperbang.

Most of those early Channel 4 films have been shown numerous times and released on every new format as it emerges, but by the very fact of its having been unseen for so long The Outcasts can now be viewed in isolation from that era and stand on its own merits rather than as part of a particular collection.  It certainly does so very well, particularly in this wonderful restoration with Robert Wynne-Simmons himself saying it looks better now than it ever did.

The Outcasts has a limited release at the IFI from 31st May 2024.

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