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The Outcasts (1982)
Director: Robert Wynne-Simmons

review by Paul Higson
Spoiler alert!
The Outcasts would appear to be the only feature film production to come from the company Tolmayax, though they did at the very least produce and market an adventure game, Tolmayax not primarily presenting itself as a film production company. Tolmayax made use of the appearance of Channel Four in 1982 to secure a little financial support and some eventual exposure in a TV transmission in June 1984 (and if I recall correctly a repeat screening a little later on) on the new channel while additional financial assistance came through Bord Scannon na Heireann and the Arts Council of Ireland. Apart from the Channel Four screenings little has been seen of the film outside Ireland where director Robert Wynne-Simmons' dark fantasy has been granted attention on indigenous festival programmes and by the pressing of the Irish Film Commission for its recognition as one of the finest films to come out of Ireland in the last quarter century. There was also a video release from Prestige International.
   The rural setting makes the story difficult to date, the early 19th century being a reasonable, educated guess, though were it not for the matchmaker's apparel it might as easily be medieval Ireland. Superstition, magic, feuds and bullying are the few escape outlets from the agricultural grind worsened by a potato blight that has hit a small, remote farming community, bringing out the worst in people. Maura Donnelly (Mary Ryan) is a touched girl, dull-witted and an easy target for the other young people, but equally dismissed by most every adult about too. There is in the girl an abject failure to integrate or fully comprehend. Her father is fond of her but is embarrassed by what he perceives to be the little that she has to offer, "I don't want to be unkind to the girl but she's not the type to take home for a wife," is how he dejectedly puts it.
   Myles (Cyril Cusack), the local matchmaker responds, "It's not her fault. One of god's infirmities." Even the local clergyman, Father Connelly (Paul Bennett) is disturbingly insensitive when conversation with Maura herself he recalls:
   "Your [dead] mother used to tell me that you used to make her feel sorry to have brought you into the world. That it was a burden onto you." And these are the people who don't dislike the girl.
   Myles the matchmaker is involved because the younger of Maura's two sisters Janey (Bairbre Ni Chaoimh) is pregnant and the father is Eamonn Farrell (Martin O'Flathearta), son of Conor (Tom Jordan), and the respective family patriarchs have famously not met one another on anything remotely approaching favourable terms for quite some time. The day of celebrations arrives and musicians in masks made of oat-straw appear and play, but it is not their tune that stops the proceedings momentarily. Sailing in on the merriment is a quick and haunting fiddle from outside, the player Scarf Michael (Mark Lally), a magical figure tainted by talk of evil association. As the hearth fire tale at the beginning of the film spins it: "He's the one plays a fiddle with a bow made of dead men's hair."
   "And wears a mask and a cloak like a great black bird all made of shadows which he steals from folks when they die."
   That night several of the younger celebrants imbibe generously and form couples allowing Maura to tag along, only to fool her into believing an unnatural being lurks in the tree, leaving her in the blue misty night to find her lonely way home. The score switches from classical Irish instrumentation to an electronic tinnitus as she backs up to a tree to find a man standing between her and it.
   As the sleeve blurb reads, Scarf Michael is "an ungodly man... a wedding fiddler whose playing causes fears and hallucinations wherever it is heard." He grants her revenge that she has been too simple and frightened to before or then consider, request or agree to. On his fiddling a cartwheel lifts and rolls and the first couple, Triona (Gillian Hackett) and Peadar (James Sheridan), in the middle of a bawdy grapple are horrified to find the dregs of the wine that spilt on her face have the consistency of cum while leeches find their way magically upon his person. Taking a new vantage point, with a magical leap to an upper storey loading bay nook in the old deserted mill building, the playing is then directed at the next sexually engaged couple and the second girl, Roisin (Hilary Reynolds) imagines that it is an upright goat that has her against the wall rather than lover, Owen (Donal O'Kelly). Maura takes satisfaction from her antagonists' terror and spends an innocent night with Scarf Michael during which he further delights her with tricks, like the offering of a piece of the moon to her, before awakening with him in a snow-covered cemetery.
   I often sleep in graveyards for the company´┐Ż when people die we mourn a little, clean a little, then get frightened stupid in case they return. The dead are our friends, our brothers and sisters´┐Ż and that's the sum of it." He advises her against joining, or following him, as his path is sped on bad omens and occurrences. He asks her to focus on a point in the landscape while he vanishes and in her serene simple beauty she trusts him to have gone, does not even look back, is aware that magic has removed him to some far place. This is the start of greater problems for the girl and her family as Scarf Michael's victims exploit her intimacy with him to blame her for the blight and other evils. Janey loses the baby and Eamon walks away from her, to re-associate with the worryingly superstitious locals. The older sister, Breda (Brenda Scallon), locks Maura in the shed for her own protection and instructs her not to make a sound. They have already attacked the house with stones, but a mob is worked up and they access her, taking the terrified girl off in the direction of the shore with the intention of casting her off in a rowing boat sans oars, almost certainly to her death. Her father and eldest sister catch them up but children begin to stone them, her father seemingly killed by the volley. On the shore she is given a final opportunity to say a prayer but fails to complete it. They upturn the boat and Scarf Michael is revealed, enabling her escape with blink he's there, blink he's not magic.
   Maura and Scarf Michael begin a journey, he informing her that she has a secret kept of which even she is unaware, a strong heart with a magic greater than his, a talent that is good but can shave devastating results if untrained. "Because you are so strong, I can feel it and it frightens me." But has she the intelligence and control to contain it upon release. On the road she runs to a man sitting on a bend that she has mistaken for her father only to discover him a much older man. The starving gent takes the bread offered him but he does not eat it, crumbling it instead in his confused hand. She has his other hand in hers and the exhaustion and hopelessness in his face is transformed into an ecstatic shine as she unwittingly guides him to due death. The manifest form of her goodness troubles Scarf Michael.
   "I'm a simple conjuror but I can tell the power you have. Such peace. Such peace in that man's face." She wants to know everything that Scarf Michael has knowledge of and he knows that she has transgressed her simple fears, that there is nothing impeding her now, that he must answer her in the only way he knows how to. The extent of the knowledge she can be subjected to is something greater and more terrifying than he could contain or be subjected to, he confesses, and perhaps she too will fail in its ingestion.
The Outcasts - dancing girl
All that you have ever seen, everything that you have ever felt, all that you have ever known that is part of you, when you open your eyes you will know these things. But you must not be afraid to die," he advises her, taking her to a rise of land, his hands covering her eyes before revealing the landscape from this new perspective. Deep down she knew that the natural world held terrors for her. In an earlier discussion with Father Connelly he had proposed that she embrace nature and be inspired by it:
   "..the glories of the earth we live with. The way the flowers dance and the waters roar and the grandeur of the rocks and the mountains."
   "They frighten me," she had responded, a fear inexplicable. As she opens her eyes the sky greys and a mountain rises and the terror of it all overtakes her face. She returns home on a windy night and knocks at the windowpane. Her father sits like a zombie by the fireplace as Breda crosses to the window. The elder sister does not see her. Maura is a ghost in a new tale told before the hearth.
   It rightly sells itself as a film of extraordinary beauty and power, though the weather is grim and it is not the environment but the ideas that are beautiful and powerful. Superbly shot late winter 1981 on a low budget by Seamus Corcoran in landscape and locations simply dressed and grungy, the only threat to the viewer is in their possible breaking down with the grim and unforgiving filthy earth lifestyle, the poverty miles from anywhere. The script splendidly hangs on to the meaning of the sentence, every sentence. Editing and camera often combine for simple and terribly effective little tricks. The locals' assault on the shed door keeping them from Maura is punctuated in jolting edits that close in on the lock. Arthur Keating is the editor fulfilling these masterful little strokes. Scarf Michael's movements are of consistently fantastical affective note whether it is the side step from under the boat to his sudden appearing acts. The fireside tales are told not in one voice to the group but between the members of the circle, each of the youths taking a sentence in turn. Nobody is hearing the story for the first time, they are practised storytellers in the hand me down tradition of an illiterate age, adding minor but florid improvisations to the stories. Everyone has to do their bit for the farm and tumbling distorted bells assail the soundtrack as Janey toils heavily pregnant and close to her time, the resonance changing to a tolling as the film cuts to the stillborn child is laid in a grave. Overall responsibility for the soundtrack is Stephen Cooney, running the gamut from those bells to transcendental orchestral passages and ominous electronic organ through to enthusiastic Gaelic throes and refrains, supervising a 15-strong team of musicians.
   Robert Wynne-Simmons disinterest in spiritually defunct modernity is reflected in his film credits. His first film was Blood On Satan's Claw on which he was the 22-year-old scriptwriter, and that too revolved around an accursed family in a struggling farming community a couple of centuries whence. Wynne-Simmons other genre credits as a director include the 28-minute short Double Piquet made in 1980 with the fascinating premise of a man visiting an old house and becoming caught in a trap designed to put paid to an intended victim a century before. There is also L'eredita di Diavolo, a spoof gothic shot at Castle Goring in Sussex that is probably a short dating to the 1960s at a time when Wynne-Simmons was formulating his own early version of what was to become known as adventure gaming. Drawing on an early 'amateur' love for Euro horror, L'eredita di Diavolo it was likely one of the 15 films he practised the art of filmmaking with in his youth. This is not to discount his television work as a director, experimental work, poetry, performance, stage plays and directing for the stage. Wynne-Simmons' other work has often bordered the fantastical and he scripted an immediate sequel to Blood on Satan's Claw that went unmade. A fascinating character that lives a life of pure prose and wonder, Wynne-Simmons is an admirable escapist worthy of greater attention. He last year added a commentary to the Anchor Bay DVD release of Blood On Satan's Claw. One would like to see The Outcasts hit the format, possibly supported by Double Piquet and other selected shorts.
   Where Blood On Satan's Claw failed to pick up awards in a period rich with great movies, The Outcasts was the recipient of many in a no less formidable age of quality and innovation. At the Brussels Fantasy Festival it picked up both Best Film and Critics' Prizes, at San Remo it added prizes for Best First Feature and Best Actress for Mary Ryan to the cabinets, while in Geneva it garnered the 'Prix du publique'. At Fantasporto 1984 it took both 'Premio Especial' (Special Prize) and the Juri da Critica (Jury Prize) for Ireland, in a year when films in competition from the British Isles stood at The Draughtsman's Contract and The House Of Long Shadows.
   Mary Ryan is of a sympathetic attractiveness, both a child and a woman in one, and her performance is winning, though stardom was to evade her. The horror that crosses her face as the mountain rises and the landscape alters in her view is transferred terrifying on the viewer. Several terrible fates are offered to Maura and fear and terror are frequently effective visitants to her knifelike face. Mick Lally meanwhile has the complexion of a pale drunkard but with a sad air and earthy texture that makes him well cast for this man of peculiar and often terrible talents. He would later appear in Robin Hardy's The Fantasist (1986) and John Sayle's The Secret Of Roan Inish (1994). Bairbre Ni Chaoimh, who plays the lovely and loving sister Janey, would also pop up shortly after as Monica Quigley in The Fantasist and as Laurie in George Pavlou's Rawhead Rex (1987), a film in which The Outcasts' star Mary Ryan was to also be fleetingly utilised for her frantic and fearful expressiveness as a survivor of the monster's attack. She may also be the same Mary Ryan who appeared with Cillian Murphy in the badly received comedy fantasy short At Death's Door (1999).
   As to the legend of Scarf Michael, one would assume it drawn from a genuine hand-me-down fable, its details so remarkable. In fact, part of the mission statement of the movie was to create an entirely original tale of lore. Wynne-Simmons' admits to one point of reference: "In Sean Henry's Tales From The West Of Ireland, there is a true story about a flasher who was bound in sailcloth and dumped in lake by the brothers of the girl he flashed at, and he grew into Scarf Michael. I don't think he played a fiddle though." There are Scarf Michael Terrier dogs that one could believe have taken their name from lore but of the breed Wynne-Simmons confesses no knowledge. "There was a folk group that briefly took the name from the film," adds the director.
   The film fills 95 minutes admirably. The Outcasts is not likely to be to the tastes of all, those who might demand a more genre specific outing, for instance, but anyone with the intelligence to handle this grim and magical tale should find the trouble made in pursuing a copy well worthy of the effort. It is fast approaching 20 years since it was last freely viewable, perhaps a DVD company out there will save you the graft and furnish us with a release.
The Outcasts

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The Outcasts



The Outcasts - fiddler

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