It’s been a surprisingly great month for the found footage subgenre. While not exclusively horror, the genre and the aesthetic bond together well. When directors know how to use the style to its maximum effectiveness, there are rarely more disturbing features. Director Robbie Banfitch directs and stars in his latest feature, The Outwaters. One of the more disturbing experiences in recent memory, the lacking narrative stretches too long before it commits to the experience.
Four friends ready themselves for a trip to the Mojave desert. Brothers Robbie (Banfitch) and Zach (Scott Schamell) ready for a camping trip, where they plan to shoot a music video. Singer Michelle (Michelle May) brings her friend Ange (Angela Basolis) along to serve as her beautician. The four wander off into the desert, and years later, the memory cards are found. What they captured is something far more harrowing than one might imagine.
The basic setup of The Outwaters means we spend a lot of time getting to know characters whose fates will be ambiguous at best. The opening title cards alert us to the recently found memory cards. From there, we are along for the journey. The tragedy-tinged first act paints our protagonists as simple and easygoing adults. They’re all looking for something more out of life, and this music video is an opportunity to escape their world. The intentions for this trip are hopeful, but due to the intro, we are already aware that horrors await. However, this section goes on for far too long. Without endearing us to the characters more or providing world-building, we promise the second and third acts will deliver on the frights.
Banfitch pulls off a genuinely electric feeling to the footage, partly because we never know what will come next. The fact that he can pull this off, despite revealing substantial information about our characters from the word go, speaks to the power of the images he crafts. While the nighttime sequence offers the scariest moments, he begins to blend the world over itself. There’s also a willingness to let the camera capture anything (and we mean anything) that adds to the upsetting nature. At times, The Outwaters does not feel like a film, but instead, the diary of a man gone mad.
The choice to blend the dust and earth of the Mojave with the cosmic monsters makes for a winning combo. Even though we are fairly certain that the monsters are not of this world, the frenetic camera opens up other possibilities. In fact, seemingly floating legs covered in blood and the silhouette of an ax man begin the haunt our protagonist. There’s no denying that Banfitch’s choice of location becomes a huge selling point for The Outwaters. The beautiful vistas, sparse landscape, and deafening emptiness add to the sense that we’re lost. When combined with a cinematic history that includes The Hills Have Eyes and Lovecraft, Banfitch knowingly plays into traditional horror fears.
The Outwaters also features top-tier sound design. The screech of a creature sticks in your brain for days. Meanwhile, a booming warning rings through the night. The sound combines the sonic boom of a jet and the drumbeat of something far more sinister. The variety of sound design impresses, and when combined with the frightening imagery, it chills to the bone. The cinematography often forces us to only see partial items and creatures. The realization that the cameraman, despite the horrors they’ve witnessed, is unwilling to show some of the monsters of the desert becomes a disturbing thought. Forcing the audience to process what they believe they’ve seen adds to the scares.
With a bloated first act, The Outwaters cannot quite live up to its potential. However, Banfitch shows promise with a camera in his hands. The ways in which he creatively shoots the limited special effects ensure every dollar of the film is on screen. With more development on his characters, it’s very possible he’ll have a big hit in his arsenal. In the meantime, his promise as a visual storyteller should be exciting to follow as he crafts other films in the future.