Content Warning: They're Outside includes a brief scene about self-harm that may be triggering to some viewers. This scene is briefly discussed in the following review.
If you developed a short-term fear of going outside in March 2020, you’re probably not the only one. During the onset of the COVID-19 crisis in the U.S., once-simple errands turned into elaborate and complex rituals involving masks, Clorox wipes, and hand sanitizer. But after only a few months of quarantine, most of us were so ready to get back to our normal routines that we overcame our fears and started to venture outside with ease once again. But for those who suffer from agoraphobia, the fear of public spaces and social interactions can be a life-long struggle. These fears might sound irrational to those who don’t experience a lot of anxiety. But truth be told, you never know what horrors are waiting just outside your door — especially if you’re a character in a horror movie. In They’re Outside, a found-footage-style horror flick from directors Airell Anthony Hayles and Sam Casserly, a YouTube psychologist investigates the case of a woman who developed agoraphobia after the disappearance of her young daughter. However, the arrogant influencer has no idea that this grieving mother’s seemingly irrational fears have nothing to do with psychology and everything to do with the paranormal.
In theory, it shouldn’t be too difficult to write a found footage film set in the 2010s, especially if you make your main character a YouTuber. Since vlogging and YouTube-ing have become popular career choices in recent years, found footage writers don’t need to come up with some far-fetched excuse to explain why characters are filming their everyday lives. With that being said, They’re Outside should have started off without a hitch. Yet, the first section of the movie is painfully awkward. It’s a shame, because the concept behind the story (pop-psychology YouTube video turned paranormal nightmare) has lots of potential. With further development and editing, They’re Outside could have been something special. But the first half of the movie is so ingenuine and gimmicky that it’s hard to take the story seriously at all.
In typical found footage fashion, They’re Outside starts by explaining where the footage came from. However, writer and co-director Airell Anthony Hayles sets up a somewhat confusing frame narrative that makes it difficult for us to get into the story. They first thing we see is part of a suicide video made by a woman named Penny (Emily Booth). We later learn that she was the one who edited the footage left behind by a YouTube psychologist Max Spencer (Tom Clayton-Wheatley) before he disappeared. However, the editing process was so mentally damaging that it drove Penny to her death. After this clip, a hip professor of folklore introduces the film while standing in a brightly lit forest. Like the narrator of a theme park ride, he warns us that the footage we are about to see is haunted, telling us to watch at our own risk.
Cut to vlog footage from Max, an unconventional celebrity psychologist who has traveled to Sussex to “cure” an agoraphobic woman named Sarah (Christine Randall). This initial section of They’re Outside nearly ruins the entire movie. Hayles uses every trite line in the book to show us that Max is an arrogant misogynist, giving him unrealistic and oversimplified dialogue that sounds like something out of a poorly produced anti-bullying PSA video. There’s absolutely no nuance behind Max’s privileged frat-boyishness, and Wheatley’s flat performance doesn’t help. Max is obviously supposed to teach us something about the ethics of content production, but the message is so forced that it doesn’t inspire any useful thought or discussion. Somehow, the dialogue hits an even lower point when Max meets Sarah, who talks like an 1800s character written by a first-time novelist. The “candid” moments are painfully scripted and unnatural, making the first half of the movie extremely uncomfortable to watch.
As Max tries to cure Sarah with unprofessional exposure therapy, it becomes clear that there’s something else going on besides textbook agoraphobia. But, as a fierce skeptic of all things paranormal, Max continually dismisses Sarah’s concerns. Surprisingly, as tensions rise, the performances and the script both improve. With more nuanced emotions to work with, both Wheatley and Randall give more believable and sympathetic performances. Hayles also demonstrates his horror-genre expertise in the latter part of the film as he develops a haunting mythology that’s ripe with potential. Unfortunately, the interesting plot twists in this section of the movie are weakened by poor editing choices. In one scene, the characters talk about a surprising development in the case that they captured on video— but we don’t get to see the video until the next sequence. By the time we know what’s going on, the shock value is ruined.
The story of They’re Outside has lots of potential. The execution, however, leaves a lot to be desired. Any horror lover that watches the flick will wish it had been handled more effectively.
"Our embodied spectator, possibly perverse in her fantasies and diverse in her experience, possesses agency...finally, she must now be held accountable for it."