“Unsettling visuals and potent atmospherics.”
Outpost 11 is a very strange film. No two ways about it. Imagine a sort of snowbound, steampunk version of Sidney Lumet’s The Hill where David Lynch took over the director’s chair, and you’re getting there. At the very least you’ll have some idea as to whether or not you want to see it.
The film opens with black and white footage of a walrus-moustached Colonel, announcing that this takes place in the 50s during ‘the Second Hundred Year War against the Prussian War Machine’. Outpost 11 is a listening post in the Arctic Circle, trying to pick up enemy transmissions. In lieu of a boiler room, it’s powered by the Omega Machine, a device whose exact nature remains unexplained but appears to be semi-organic in nature. Its three-man detail consists of tough but easy-going officer Mason (Healy), green recruit Albert (Mayes-Cooper) and burned-out corporal Graham (Clarke.)
Graham is, according to Mason, ‘a soldier of the old war,’ pressed into the military in boyhood and a survivor of countless horrors. When he’s not sniffing something from a tin (snuff, perhaps, or cocaine) he’s usually masturbating surreptitiously, but all that holds him together is devotion to duty and to God, King and Country. Albert is constantly on the receiving end of his anger for failing to carry out his duties to Graham’s satisfaction, with Mason, who shows a half-fatherly, half-homoerotic affection towards the young recruit, working to keep the peace between them.
A red warning light begins to flash, signalling a possible attack, and a coded message arrives, reading: “God has forsaken us. Abandon all hope.” Graham develops a pustulent spot on his hand, which opens to reveal an eyeball, which evolves in turn into a grotesque, spider-like creature. As other bizarre and unreal phenomena assail the three men and their grip on reality, Graham grows increasingly unhinged and dangerous.
There’s actually a lot to like here. Anthony Woodley has put together a fascinating, off-beat film, with a weird, atmospheric score by Charlie Khan. The world of the film is an odd mish-mash of technologies – First World War era rifles, uniforms and telephones rub shoulders with video recorders, laser-pistols and the almost Lovecraftian Omega Machine – and despite the film’s micro-budget, he conjures up some unsettling visuals and potent atmospherics.
There are strong performances all round from the three leads, but it’s Billy Clarke’s performance as Graham that makes the film. Graham is alternately comical, pathetic, frightening and deeply pitiable, a man who’s never known anything but war, who’s lost everything, suffered terribly and yet clings to an ever-more fanatical patriotism and devotion to duty against the creeping dread that his whole life has been thrown away for nothing. Even though he’s half-mad already, his psychological disintegration is at the heart of the film, and possibly its most compelling aspect.
Outpost 11’s biggest problem is that it’s trying to do too much at once. It’s both an alternate history film festooned with weird technology, a psychological thriller about three isolated men going stir-crazy, and a Lynchian descent into nightmare. But Lynch’s films usually at least place the viewer in a context that looks more or less like the world we live in before warping into the weird and surreal (that, or, like Eraserhead, they take place in a wholly dreamlike setting). Outpost 11 doesn’t give itself the space to establish the world of the story before the weirdness sets in; too much of that world remains ill-defined. (It’s probably worth noting that there were some technical issues on the night of the screening, leading to a couple of later scenes being partly skipped; it’s possible they might have rectified this imbalance.)
Ultimately, Outpost 11 must be filed under the heading of ‘interesting failure’, but the key word here is ‘interesting’. It shows a wealth of ambition and invention, and its strangeness lingers in the mind. For all its flaws, it’s a film that’s well worth seeing.
Director: Anthony Woodley
Starring: Joshua Mayes-Cooper, Billy Clarke, Luke Healy, Bernard Hill.
Running time: 91 minutes
DVD release date: September 30 2013
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