We review Robbie Banfitch’s micro-budget, found footage horror movie that almost reinvents the sub-genre.
Plot: The film plays out over three memory cards found in a sun-drenched section of the Mojave Desert. The footage within is that of a foursome, who set out to make a music video while camping, led by a charismatic LA filmmaker. Their trip starts out uneventful, though their peace is occasionally disrupted by unexplained sounds, vibrations, and unnatural animal behavior. Then one night everything changes, sending the foursome on a mind-bending trip through terror.
Review: Found footage is a tricky genre. Since The Blair Witch Project ushered the modern version of the found footage horror movie in 1999, there have been countless attempts to harness the handheld camera approach, with a few films rising above the rest. From Paranormal Activity and V/H/S to REC and Cloverfield, movies presented as found footage have been dominated by grainy VHS camcorders or night vision security cameras. Made on micro-budgets, found footage is Hollywood’s wet dream as the movies can be made for pennies and potentially gross millions of dollars. These movies often lack quality storytelling, and they instead rely on jump scares and the fear of what cannot be seen clearly. The Outwaters aims to reinvent the found footage format by presenting a terrifying story that does not shy away from brutal scares and moments that will have viewers asking what the hell they just saw.
Releasing just about a month after the divisive Skinamarink, The Outwaters was produced for just $15,000 and has been racking up critical acclaim. Before it opens in theaters this weekend, I got the chance to check out what the fuss is all about. The Outwaters is presented as three memory cards containing the last recordings of a group who disappeared in the Mojave Desert. While the discovery of final recordings is the definition of “found footage,” The Outwaters does not come packaged as a documentary presentation of the assembled footage. Instead, the film plays out as the linear contents of the memory cards without any additional presentation or commentary. As such, the movie’s first act serves as an introduction and character development for the quartet of characters. Unlike many found footage horror films, writer/director Robbie Banfitch does a solid job of making these characters worth investing in by giving them some nuance and unique traits that make them more than fodder for bloodshed and gore.
Character building is never easy, especially in this genre, but Banfitch effectively establishes this story in the film’s first act. Robbie Zagorac (Banfitch) and his brother Scott (Scott Schamell) head out into the middle of the desert to film a music video for Angela Bocuzzi (Angela Basolis). They bring Michelle August (Michelle May) to help with make-up as they camp out in the remote, arid wasteland. For the first hour, we watch the four prep for their journey and learn that Scott has distanced himself from his mother while Angela struggles to mourn her own mom. In the desert, they four have fun filming until the first night when strange, pulsing noises sound outside their tents. In typical found footage fashion, we see very little and rely on sound design and editing to haunt us and lead us to visualize what could be happening outside. As the story progresses to the second memory card, the foursome begins to experience more and more unsettling sounds and visuals, including odd animals congregating nearby and surreal mirages in the distance.
The Outwaters builds very slowly, similar to The Blair Witch Project, but with the added clarity of the HD camera and the stark, blazing desert sun. At night, the camera hides what the characters see, and the limited scope of the camcorder’s flash prevents us from seeing everything. But, by the time we start seeing the contents of the third memory card, Banfitch completely changes the game’s rules. What began as a slow-burn exercise in atmospherics transforms into a Lovecraftian nightmare where we can see even less than what the characters see. The Outwaters forces us to absorb even more haunting sounds that cannot be mistaken for anything other than the brutal tearing of flesh and bone. That is when the film turns into something I was not expecting. There is a good deal of disbelief that you have to go into when watching a movie like this. You may question why characters keep filming when horrible atrocities are happening around them or even why the person filming is covered in blood, yet the camera lens remains clean, but if you can suspend your disbelief and go along with what is happening on screen, you will find yourself falling into a genuinely unsettling visual experience.
The less said about what happens in The Outwaters, the better; it deserves to be experienced as freshly as possible. Individual moments of beauty throughout this film are immediately tied to devastatingly brutal horrors, many of which I am not sure I even saw or if my imagination illustrated them. Robbie Banfitch leaves a lot to the imagination by obscuring the practical effects on screen and forcing the audience to imagine the monster based on a bloody mouth or slithering tail. Complemented by the eerie musical score by Salem Belladonna, The Outwaters does not relent for the final forty-five minutes, transforming from the suggestion of terror to the suggestion of true horror. I still do not know exactly what happened over the course of this movie, but I know that my interpretation will differ from the next person who sees it. But, as much debate and conversation that The Outwaters will generate, the film’s final ten minutes are amongst the most gruesome and uncomfortable moments in any horror film I have ever seen.
The Outwaters, like Skinamarink, is not the type of movie that will win over everyone. This is a deliberately unsettling movie that demands your attention. What qualifies as scary differs from person to person, but this movie, more than most, will require the viewer to go along for the ride. Robbie Banfitch succeeds in experimenting with the found footage genre to tell a story unlike anything else we have seen before. This may be the closest we will come to experiencing the terrors of an H.P. Lovecraft-esque story. By firmly putting some monsters on screen and hiding others, playing with the conceit of time and space, The Outwaters is a visceral and disturbing movie that will haunt you even if it doesn’t scare you. That alone makes this one a winner and one of the more successful film experiments I have seen. Go in with your expectations in check and give yourself over to the story, and there is little chance you will walk away unaffected by The Outwaters.