Opinion: The Outsider seems to be afraid of horror
Stephen King tweets regularly about all sorts of subjects. A couple of weeks ago, he asked his 5.7 million followers if they’d been watching The Outsider, the HBO adaptation of his 2018 novel.
“Better tie yourself down tight,” he wrote, “because the last three episodes are going to blow you away.” It’s interesting that King, who has no direct involvement in the production, homed in on the final three instalments of the 10-part miniseries, which ends on Sky Atlantic next Monday.
It took until episode eight, one of the strongest so far, before The Outsider finally began to feel like proper Stephen King. I’ve read a lot of King, but not this book.
Yet, as we head towards Monday’s finale, a number of the author’s trademark elements are present and unmistakable. There’s an ancient evil at work: El Cuco — broadly speaking, the Latin American equivalent of the bogeyman. It’s a shape-shifting entity that becomes a doppelgänger of any human being it scratches, using their identity as a cover to kill, mutilate and literally feast on children. Afterwards, it stays close to its victims’ loved ones, drawing its energy from their pain and grief while it readies itself to mutate into another human form and sniff out fresh meat.
As in IT, one of King’s most iconic books, ranged against the evil force is a raggle-taggle group of individuals who don’t quite know yet what they’re up against, but know they have to somehow stop it once and for all.
Their de facto leaders are detective Ralph Anderson (Ben Mendelsohn), who’s still mourning his son’s death and was initially a sceptic, and singular private eye Holly Gibney (Cynthia Erivo), a character from Mr Mercedes and its source novels, whose open mind and unique way of looking at things enabled her to connect the dots and figure out what was behind the child killings.
They’ve discovered El Cuco and its enslaved servant, an alcoholic cop called Jack Hoskins (Marc Menchaca), are hiding out in an abandoned cave that was a tourist attraction until a tragedy in the 1940s closed it down. But because the entity can psychically hook into whoever it happens to be mimicking, it’s been alerted to their arrival. Monday’s penultimate episode ended on a cliffhanger, with Hoskins opening fire on our heroes with a high-powered rifle, killing one of them, before the screen cut to black.
King is right to big up the closing episodes. They’ve been great so far and put everything in place for what will hopefully be a riveting finale. But is it too little too late?
The Outsider has many good things going for it, not least great performances, but pace is not one of them. For the most part it’s been glacial.
Far too much time was spent on drawn-out, dimly-lit scenes featuring Ralph doggedly refusing to accept they were dealing with the supernatural, even though the evidence was undeniable.
Ralph’s scepticism seems to mirror showrunner Richard Price’s own ambivalence towards the material. Price, an excellent screenwriter and novelist in his own right, played down The Outsider’s supernatural elements so much, it was almost as if he was ashamed to embrace horror, in case it dented the miniseries’ prestige TV aspirations.
Price even asked King’s permission to change Holly Gibney’s name, which would effectively have made her a whole new character. King refused.
An adaptation doesn’t have to be slavishly faithful to the book. Mr Mercedes adapted the source novels out of order, invented new characters for the series and changed the fate of Bill Hodges.
The first ever TV adaptation of King, 1979’s Salem’s Lot, changed Barlow the vampire from the book’s Dracula-style figure to a primal monster modelled on Count Orlok in Nosferatu. Both worked because they respected the source material. The Outsider faltered because it doesn’t.
The Outsider concludes on Sky Atlantic on Monday at 2am, repeated at 9am.
The premise of sci-fi blockbuster Altered Carbon is that mankind has ‘cured’ death. Thanks to technology left behind by ancient aliens, human consciousness can be stored and downloaded into an infinite number of different bodies, or “sleeves”.