Review: “The Outwaters”

After seeing Kyle Edward Bell’s Skinamarink and now Robbie Banfitch’s The Outwaters within the span of a couple of weeks, it appears the horror genre is trying to reap the rewards of 1999. Partially out of budgetary constraints, but mostly because a “less is more” approach to horror filmmaking often yields terrifying results – just what is lurking in the shadows- the found footage experiment has been proliferating for two decades now. Some do it better than others. My personal favorite would be REC (2007), in which a news crew gets caught up in a rage-filled zombie apocalypse in an apartment building (see it if you haven’t!).

In The Outwaters. the film is introduced as raw video footage from three electronic device memory cards found in the Mojave desert after 2 couples go missing. Card 1 is all introduction as we meet brothers Robbie (Banfitch himself) and Scott (Scott Schamell) and their girlfriends Ange (Angela Basolis) and Michelle (Michelle May). The risible character development is footage of them in various modes of late night drinking, hanging out, and establishing the vocal talent of Michelle….. with a few bouts of California earthquake rumblings thrown in for unsettling metaphorical value. And, as with most found footage films, the paper thin premise immediately distracts when the images themselves (even though presented as raw video) still contain film making edits and ellipses. If this were true footage, we’d get even longer pregnant pauses and uncomfortably labored conversations of “umms ” and “aaahs” that feebly substitute for something close to personal development. However, this isn’t a Warhol experiment that runs for 22 hours.

Card 2 follows the four into the Mojave desert for a camping trip/music video creation for artist Michelle, Their sunny idyll is soon interrupted by strange happenings. Loud booms of dry thunder interrupt their sleep each night. An abandoned ax is found sticking in the ground like a doomed tableaux. And in one of the more interesting points, a hole in the side of a rock hill yields ominous sounds from within, which Robbie duly records for some of the soundtrack’s more unnerving moments. If one was terrified of that Russian bore hole recording, then this one will make you lose even more sleep.

Suffice it to say, things escalate on card 3 and The Outwaters goes to some gory places as the four interact with cosmic horrors. Through the very limited view of Robbie’s recorder and microphone, blood, terror and body horror are glimpsed in fits and starts as the desert fights back.

I imagine seeing this in the theater rather than on the smaller screen as with my opportunity is advantageous. So much of the film is a camcorder light spotlighting very specific gore or abstract bloody entrails. The camera tips upside down and is volleyed along as madness takes over and people run for a very long time. There’s a spare poetic beauty in some of the film’s insistence on studying dry river beds and shimmering orbs of light that may be rips in time itself. There’s no denying some of the film’s fantastic ideas, but its aesthetic drove me mad. I wanted to be enveloped in the horror these 4 people stumbled into, but despite a film that’s primarily a first-person experience, the limited visual sense continually disorients and cheats. Filmmakers Justin Benson and Aaron Moorehead tackle some of these same loopy horror ideas with masterful visuals (and probably equal budgets), so it can be done. The Outwaters reveals some unnerving, solid ideas about hell on earth, but it’s continually undermined by a style whose confidence probably should have begun and ended in 1999 after all.

The Outwaters opens in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on February 9th at the following theaters: Angelika Dallas, AMC 24 Stonebriar, Spring Valley Studio Movie Grill