Found footage horror is, as some say, outdated in today’s advent of technology. Camera lenses are more prominent than ever before, and you’re guaranteed to be filmed by a number of sources just walking down the street of any city. Robbie Banfitch purposefully places a single source of documentation into the hands of his own character, also named Robbie, to record the behind-the-scenes activities of a musician prepping for a music video shoot in the Mojave Desert.
The Outwaters is set mainly in this sun-baked desolate location. But it focuses on the absolute darkness of the area just a little more, and the film’s characters become thrust into a series of unforeseen and unexplainable situations, showing just how vulnerable they are in the middle of nowhere. The film is split into three different memory cards taken from the camera Robbie operates, documenting the meeting of these four characters and their trip out and subsequent demise. That’s it. For a setup so simply summarized, The Outwaters takes its sweet time even getting to the venue of abject horror in which to relentlessly torture its characters.
But the people we follow don’t get the emotional investment needed to justify the excess of time spent with them in the trip’s preparation. Which makes their onscreen fates (offscreen in some cases) much less impactful. The strongest emotional connection we have is Robbie and his brother Scott as the film opens on the latter brother’s birthday being filmed for the benefit of their mother, whom they later visit as a surprise. But Robbie has committed to being the camera operator in this hellish nightmare, his character never stepping away to develop in a dramatic fashion that would satisfy a reason for us to be terrified with him further into the movie. Banfitch’s film falls into much of the same traps many other found footage films do, but offers something almost none can or have thought to do until now.
It’s difficult to problem-solve how you would show your film’s characters being dragged into a dimension of hell that exists in a different plane. Banfitch somehow manages to illustrate something near-tangible in his creation of this demonic ecosystem that resides just below the surface of human perception in the stretch of desert Robbie and company choose. Some portions of what we see stretch back around to different times of the characters’ journeys and as such are not so much a mystery to us as they are to them. But there are plenty of surprises for the audience as well. Its bizarre imagery revels in the restriction of pitch blackness with little more than a pinhole-sized beacon of light showing us a sliver of what is already incomprehensibly & inexplicably there.
It’s a new extension of the old tricks of horror where the creature is veiled in shadow each time we see it, perhaps one or more features protruding into the light but with the hope of seeing it in all its glory at the tail end. Films like The Outwaters and Skinamarink have shown us we don’t ever have to show what it looks like, the effect alone drives the brain to create much worse images than any amount of effects can illustrate. And that’s what Banfitch’s newest horror venture does best. It takes on something truly interesting in its horrific imagery, even its sound design — rare in the found footage world to the extent this goes — but it’s wrapped rather loosely in a half-baked setup for the events we came to see. Perhaps we can see more tinkering with the conventions of found footage in the near future. Horror has only the rules we impose on it.
The Outwaters is out now in select theaters in the US courtesy of Cinedgim, then streaming on Screambox after theatrical dates are fulfilled. View the complete list of theatrical offerings here.