Found footage has always been an unsung horror subgenre. It’s always spoken about like it’s falling off when, in reality, it’s alive and thriving. Combining found footage with experimental cosmic horror is the icing on the genre cake and writer/director Robbie Banfitch has gifted us something sweet (and downright terrifying). The Outwaters takes us on a very normal until it’s not journey into the Mojave Desert but be warned: it’s not for the faint of heart. And with reports of folks leaving theaters to vomit, it’s not for the faint of stomach either. Once this film starts its descent into hell you just have to sit back and hold on for dear life.
The Outwaters begins with an intense 911 call alongside missing posters for our four main characters. The story then continues with three memory cards recovered from the Mojave Desert. As each card unfolds we go further with them into terror. Banfitch, who also stars in the film, does an excellent job of setting up the exposition. He puts in the effort to make us care about these characters. The naturalistic acting and conversational dialogue really hammers home the feeling of “I am an outsider watching these private videos”. I can see some folks not enjoying the slower pacing of the first half but for me, it made the second half all the more nauseating. These characters felt so real. Watching what happens to them felt too intimate, and I finally understood why The Blair Witch Project was so effective when it came out. The Outwaters got it into my head that I just watched these characters, these people, die. And that is goddamn good filmmaking.
I spoke similarly about Skinamarink but if you go into The Outwaters expecting textbook found footage fare you’ll be disappointed. The Outwaters does a good job of luring you into its world with the thought “Okay I can see where this is going” before completely subverting every expectation. Robbie, Scott, Angela, and Michelle just wanted to make a music video, nothing more. No cryptid hunting or paranormal vlogging, just friends looking to hang out and do some desert camping. Because of this deliberate choice when suddenly all hell breaks loose, it’s like sensory whiplash. All at once it’s just Robbie, his camera with a small tunnel of light, and us. With Robbie documenting all of this it feels like we’re part of it. We’re with him being stalked by faceless axe-wielding men and screaming intestine-like creatures and donkeys with threatening auras. The onslaught doesn’t let up until the credits roll and you’re left out of breath and bewildered by the chaos.
Instructions for viewing this movie have been as followed: turn off the lights, turn up the volume, and die in the dark. With that in mind, I started this movie right as the sun was setting. While Banfitch was laying the groundwork it was still light enough outside to start picking up on foreshadowing for what was to come. Keen eyes will notice many strange earthquakes happening as the film starts, plus some other very subtle hints. Then, without even realizing it, the sun was fully set and I was in complete darkness right alongside the characters. I was glued to the spot, forced to watch it all play out. This level of immersion helped the cinematography have its moment to shine. Banfitch once again plays all the parts as the film’s cinematographer and it’s here that he shines. He manages to take us from hot and hazy blue-skied deserts to red blood-soaked sand and further into pitch-black night dotted with white.
Banfitch solidifies himself as a master at the craft of creating scenes that you can’t get out of your head. The things he does with a camera are nauseating one second and disorienting the next. You barely have time to recover before he shoves another hellish image into view and you’re stuck in the immersive nightmare he has created. The commitment and passion that bleeds from this film are something I deeply admire.
There is clearly prior knowledge and a deep love for found footage in the bones of The Outwaters. Otherwise, he wouldn’t feel so comfortable subverting the tropes the way he did. A lot of the choices he made as a director make the film stand out. Something that hit the mark but left me wanting a bit more was the use of the flashlight. Once the carnage starts a lot happens onscreen but in the dark or partially obscured. On one hand, I love this choice because it allows our minds to fill in the gap for whatever horrors the characters are experiencing. On the other hand, I am a gorehound and with the way Banfitch excelled with the special effects we did see, I just know it would’ve been an even bigger feast for the senses if we got to see more. That’s my only real critique and it’s more of a personal preference. In the end, I admire the way Banfitch showed his story.
The Outwaters is proof that found footage continues to reign supreme. With directors like Banfitch at the helm, ones who are unafraid to break rules and send their viewers headfirst into a terrifying abyss, we’re in good hands. The Outwaters works so well because of the trust that is put into the audience. Banfitch worked hard to make sure these four felt like people we knew. Hard work pays off and the end result is something we’ll be talking about for a long time. The recent fantastic slate of indie horror releases has gotten even casual horror fans talking. Horror has already been dominating in 2023 and, love them or hate them, it’s been so wonderful seeing smaller, weirder films like this one get the attention and success they deserve. The Outwaters is ready to squirm its way under your skin and, with just a little patience, you too will die in the dark.
You can still see The Outwaters in select theaters and streaming exclusively on Screambox.
REVIEW: Hell Looks A Lot Like the Mojave Desert In ‘The Outwaters’