Film, Film Review

REVIEW: The Outwaters (2022) dir. Robbie Banfitch

Fear and Gloaming in the Mojave Desert


With the evolution of digital cameras, and the gulf between professional equipment and easily accessible consumer gear narrowing, I occasionally wonder about the future of “found footage” as a genre. Born, for all intents and purposes, with The Blair Witch Project in 1999, and blossoming into a fully fledged subgenre a decade later with the release of Paranormal Activity, the narrative parameters of the form are clear: we are placed inside a handheld camera wielded by one of the unlucky protagonists, viewing the unfolding nightmare literally through their eyes. But just as crucial has been the textural element: the VHS grain of Blair Witch and the deadpan DV of Activity lend just as much of an uncanny air as the monsters themselves. So what do we do now that home movies can look virtually indistinguishable from Hollywood product? One option is to go the route of the latter day V/H/S films, which have refashioned themselves as increasingly cheeky period pieces. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Robbie Banfitch’s mindbending new nightmare The Outwaters, which pulls the slick hyperreality of modern digital video into such extreme focus that it becomes something every bit as eerie as a degrading cassette tape.

The Outwaters begins, as these films must, with roughly forty minutes of obnoxious characters dicking around with a camera (I should clarify that this is not a criticism; it is as essential an element to the form as the first-chord repetition of the twelve-bar blues). The setup: filmmaker brothers Scott (Scott Schamell) and Robbie (Banfitch himself) venture out into the blazing sun of the Mojave desert to shoot a music video for aspiring pop star Michelle August (Michelle May), with stylist Angie (Angela Basolis) in tow. The shoot is at first idyllic, with Michelle basking in both the sun’s rays and the camera’s gaze. Slowly, however, signs begin manifesting that all is not as it seems: an axe ominously jutting out of the bedrock, a rhythmic booming every night which doesn’t quite sound like thunder, a mysterious cave which emits unidentifiable noises and strange, flashing lights. By the time the quartet realize they’re in over their heads, it is, of course, far too late.

Actually, let me amend that: “Realize they’re in over their heads” is an almost comical understatement regarding what exactly happens at the halfway point of The Outwaters. The “sinking feeling” passage of the film (as essential as the “dicking around” portion) is remarkably brief, and when it’s too late, it’s really too late. The abruptness of this escalation is perhaps the film’s greatest misstep; one senses that Banfitch is so eager to get to the good stuff that he skips over some of the buildup, robbing the film of much-needed tension. We’ve spent so much time with these characters by this point that I wanted to share in their fear as they process their situation– think of the scenes in Cloverfield before the protagonists learn that the explosions rocking New York City are due to gigantic space-bugs, or in Blair Witch when the trio knows they’re lost, but have not yet grokked the witchiness of the situation. By jumping to the chase, The Outwaters sacrifices some of its relatability, another key source of found footage’s power.

But once you do become acclimated to the tonal shift, let me tell you: The Outwaters is a fucking trip. The final hour of The Outwaters is nearly subverbal in its terror, and contains almost no dialogue beyond piercing screams and incoherent babbling. The malevolent force of the desert manifests itself as an enormous, strobing light in the sky, and the influence of Stan Brakhage doesn’t end there. The back half of The Outwaters is, in its own way, nearly as experimental as Skinamarink, with nonlinear editing, an elliptical sense of time and space, and more psychedelic camera and editing effects than a 1960s concert film. As a genre, found footage is not generally known for its daring visual sense, but The Outwaters is legitimately striking.

It is also, it must be noted, completely bugnuts insane. I’m not sure I could accurately describe a whole lot of what occurs in the second half of this film, but I can tell you that one recurring feature is a monster which appears to be a slithering length of human intestine which constantly screeches with what I believe is the voice of one of the departed human characters. The imagery is nightmarish, but at times so undeniably absurd that one can’t help a nervous giggle. And while I obviously wouldn’t dream of spoiling it, the film ends with a truly jaw-dropping act of violence that I can honestly say I’ve never seen in a film before, and certainly not with the, uh, unique framing deployed here. If you don’t find something here to be shocked or surprised by, you should probably be on a watchlist.

The Outwaters is being greeted in certain horror circles as one of the scariest films in years. I’m not sure I can quite go that far– again, it’s structurally a little too wobbly to quite hit “masterpiece” status– but it certainly is unlike much of anything out there. This is a found footage horror movie for its age, both in its eye-popping digital sheen and its cast of Gen-Z canon fodder (though not stated outright, it’s strongly hinted that at least three of the characters are wealthy nepo-babies, which adds a certain level of satisfaction to watching their visual ordeal). But it’s also clearly the work of a filmmaker with a unique perspective, who has taken one of the most formulaic and visually drab subgenres of horror and created something altogether original, drawing just as much inspiration from Jodorowsky and Nicolas Roeg as from Oren Peli. The Outwaters is, quite simply, the damnedest thing, and even if it has some flaws, I can’t wait to see what Banfitch turns out next.

The Outwaters
dir. Robbie Banfitch
100 min.

Opens Friday, 2/10 at the AMC Methuen
Streaming soon on Screambox

Tags: , , , ,

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License(unless otherwise indicated) © 2019