‘The Outsider’ review: creepy HBO horror-thriller is Stephen King for David Fincher fans

The King of Horror's new adaptation owes a debt to Netflix's 'Mindhunter'

Arriving at the peak of Stephen King mania is HBO’s dread-filled detective thriller The Outsider. Published in May 2018, it’s taken just seven months to turn the Master of Horror’s novel of the same name into a 10-episode miniseries.

Blessed with an impressive cast in front of and behind the camera – Jason Bateman (Ozark), Ben Mendelsohn (Captain Marvel) and rising star Cynthia Erivo (Harriet) headline, while The Wire veteran Richard Price wrote the script – The Outsider has a strong creative skeleton, but is there any meat on those bones?

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The short answer is: yes. Presented in a dark and bleak colour palette, The Outsider is heavily influenced by Mindhunter’s David Fincher, who made his name crafting creepy detective adventures which aim to suffocate the viewer with their relentlessly tense narratives. Similarly to Fincher’s approach with Mindhunter, Bateman directs the show’s first two episodes, establishing the tone before handing the keys over to Andrew Bernstein (Ozark, The Umbrella Academy) and Charlotte Brändström (The Witcher).

Set in white, suburban Georgia, The Outsider chronicles a police investigation surrounding the brutal killing of young Frankie Peterson, with local softball coach Terry Maitland deemed responsible via eye-witness accounts and DNA matching.

The Outsider
Ben Mendelsohn and Mare Winningham in ‘The Outsider’. Credit: HBO

Mendelsohn’s detective Ralph Anderson is charged with gathering evidence, before The Outsider shifts gears from simple murder-mystery to supernatural thriller. In one flashback, we see a dead-eyed Maitland leaving the crime scene covered in blood, but an online conference video places him miles away at the time of Frankie’s death – can one person be in two places at the same time? This is a question which permeates the whole show.

Since pioneering the so-called ‘golden age of TV’, HBO has put out a fine range of detective dramas. Nic Pizzolatto’s gloomy anthology series True Detective is probably the standout title, while last year’s Watchmen proved just how malleable the genre can be. As The Outsider gradually unfolds, there’s a sense that the makers are tipping their hats to what’s gone before.

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Julianne Nicholson and Scarlett Blum in ‘The Outsider’. Credit: HBO

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This is probably more disturbing than those series, but that’s not particularly unique in an era of existentially creepy television (Apple TV+’s Servant, FX series American Horror Story). Here’s hoping that the show touches more effectively on the novel’s supernatural notes in future. Only then can The Outsider stand out from its peers.

Hopefully, The Outsider’s Fincher-flavoured intensity and sharp acting performances (Mendelsohn is flawless as the grief-stricken inspector and Erivo fully inhabits Holly Gibney’s unconventional mind) will prove a winning combination for viewers. After all, who better to emulate than the guy who brought us contemporary cop classics Se7en and Zodiac? If those edge-of-your-seat thrillers had you hooked, The Outsider should reel you in nicely.

‘The Outsider’ premieres on Sky Atlantic in the UK on January 13

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