As we roll around to Guillermo Del Toro’s fourth offering in his Halloween treat of a Netflix show, one thing that you can’t have helped but notice is that every episode so far has seen men staggering around dark and foreboding surroundings while they’re stalked by some inhuman creature that demands some sort of unfathomable penance. As great as the majority of them has been, even I would have to admit it’s probably time for a change on tone and surroundings. Enter Ana Lily Amirpour, director of Iranian vampire sensation A Girl Walks Alone At Night and her entry, The Outside; a darkly comic commentary on the evils of late night TV, body shaming and a whole other mess of metaphors that takes us out of the dark basements and crumbly tunnels and into the bland, sanity-eroding arena of suburbia.
It’s Christmas time and Stacey, a Gollum-eyed mouse of a woman spends her time either glued to the TV with her shlubby hubby, Keith, or feeling excluded from her workmates at the bank who do nothing but gossip and plan their next bout of plastic surgery while trading beauty tips. A timid, but kind soul whose love of taxidermy rivals her horrid lack of self confidence, Stacey’s dreams of fitting in with the tarted up, vain, harridans that she works with seem like they’re finally coming true when she gets an invitation to attend queen bee Gina’s secret santa party. However, upon turning up with a stuff duck, Stacey realises that not only gas her gift gone down like a concrete bubble, but the gift that everyone has bought for each other, the brand new beauty cream called Alo Glo, instantly makes her break out in an angry, red rash.
Mortified, our heroine returns home to be consoled by a well meaning, but somewhat inattentive Keith whose continued platitudes have no effect on the self loathing Stacey and her depression steps up a notch when the crass Alo Glo ads on TV start talking directly to her. Lulled by the inspirational words of the silver maned spokesman, Stacey finds herself being convinced to keep on with the lotion even though it gives her the complexion of someone who’s made out with a lit hob on a gas cooker, but still she persists, much to the continued irritation of her husband.
Then things start to get really weird – certainly more weird than Stacey hold conversations with her television at any rate – and it seems that the Alo Glo seems to have sentient properties when bought in bulk and the sad housewife is stunned to find that the lotion has taken a gooey, humanoid form. Stacey can feel the lotion is certainly changing her, but whether she’s hallucinating or not, is this really what she wants?
The whole point of anthology shows is to give you something different each and every week and Amirpour’s certainly done that with an intriguing, yet imperfectly formed satire that’s has a more uncertain aim than a blind sniper.
Matters aren’t initially helped by the fact that even the show itself seems not to know what this episode’s true target is when Del Toro waffles on about the dangers of mindless television in his Hitchcockian opening monologue only for the story itself focuses more on such scattershot targets as loneliness, peer pressure, the desire to be beautiful, over reliance on products to give one confidence and even mental illness. It’s all one, connected tapestry, obviously, but the episode simply refuses to simply pick one and stick to it. There’s references to such anti-consumer genre classics like The Stuff (living goo) and Videodrome (body horror through casual conversations with her television set), but we’re unclear as to what the message is – if Stacey should appreciate her life, why is it depicted as so mind numbingly bland? If we’re supposed to love ourselves no matter who we are, why does Stacey turn up to the secret Santa party in a hideous jumper that makes her weirdly look like Olive Oyl from Popeye?
However, for all its messiness, The Other is actually quite compelling due to the central performance of comedian Kate Micucci, who endearingly exaggerates her distinctive facial features to empathy triggering effect (her eyes seem the size of freakin’ tennis balls) and pumps out waves of desperate neediness that her well meaning, but distracted spouse isn’t fully registering. Elsewhere, the deliberately exaggerated performances reach an apex with Dan Stevens’ cameoing Alo Glo spokes person who addresses our lead while sporting a truly impressive, snow coloured pompadour and epically hyperextending his “a’s” (His pronunciation of the word “guarantee” is fucking resplendent), but Martin Starr’s emptily supportive Keith is deliciously underplayed, especially when it comes to his unfortunate run in with a scalpel.
Also adding to proceedings is the slightly delirious tone which is neither too exaggerated to veer into the realms of camp, yet not so serious as to make the whole thing mercilessly grim and everything is heightened by the directors usage of harsh lenses and unflattering angles that gives everything a vaguely fish-eye look that casually brings out the grotesque. It’s this feel (think of sort of a more mature episode from HBO’s Tales Of The Crypt) which takes quite predictable tale and makes it feel somewhat out of control as events steadily spiral toward disaster.
And then there’s the fantasy element, which, even though we could argue this is all probably happening within Stacey’s misfiring, self loathing brain, still feels vaguely random as the surplus of Alo Glo leaks out of its tubes and forms a sort of lotion-woman that Stacey has a sort of lesbian attraction to – it eventually tips itself into the tub and Stacey then bathes in it – but it all adds to the discombobulated, 80’s set nature of the piece.
However, the greatest question is reserved for the audacious final shot which holds mercilessly on Micucci’s face for ages as her character, finally getting the vapid attention she’s been longing for since the beginning, alternates between rapturous joy and pained regret as she seemingly rises into the air as radiant waves visibly radiate off her and her surroundings take on a golden hue.
Some will find the episode too much of a lopsided departure from what’s come before, but not every episode can keep featuring tentacled nightmares, dark crawl spaces and gruesome comeuppances that tie everything up in a neat little bow.
Missing the single minded focus of earlier episodes, Ana Lily Amirpour, still enthusiastically brings the weird which switches out unspeakable, Lovecraftian terrors for internal fears that are far closer to home.