There are certainly examples I like quite a bit—Trollhunter, the Rec films, a few others—but for the most part, I don’t and never have enjoyed found footage as a cinematic approach. It’s never done much for me, and I generally find the drawbacks outweigh the benefits as an aesthetic and narrative conceit. That admittedly large caveat out of the way, Robbie Banfitch’s The Outwaters uses this format to dive headlong into experimental cosmic horror. This microbudget affair puts a fresh sheen on the subgenre, and though it tumbles into familiar pitfalls and engenders extreme, polarized reactions from viewers, both warranted and understandable, it ranks toward the top of the found footage pile.
As so many of these films are, The Outwaters is framed as the unearthed final document of a long-lost group of hikers mysteriously vanished in the wilderness. Cops found their video cameras. This time it’s four friends—Robbie (Banfitch), his brother Scott (Scott Schamell), Ange (Angela Basolis), and Michell (Michelle May)—who set out into the Mojave Desert to make a music video. Once there, they encounter strange phenomena, like storms and bees and an aged ax stuck in the dirt, and descend into collective, violent madness.
Broken into three narrative chunks, roughly by the contents of three “discovered” memory cards, the opening is standard stuff for found footage movies. We meet the characters, are introduced to potential points of interpersonal and emotional conflict amongst the group, some of which pay off, others which don’t, and get the general lay of the land. Banfitch also takes pains to establish why, when shit goes sideways, the cameras keep rolling. All of this is fine. The characters are fine. The setup is fine. The actors do a solid job. But there’s nothing particularly interesting, unique, or engaging about the situation or any of these people. And it goes on far, far too long, until it begins to drag.
The Outwaters works best once all the background is out of the way, the quartet is firmly ensconced in the desert, and Banfitch ratchets up the pressure. The filmmakers use the natural environs to drive home the remoteness and create an unnerving otherworldly sensation that amplifies the isolation, peril, and tension. They create an immersive sound design and play with lighting and framing to escalate the dread until the characters, and the audience, are fully immersed in squealing, squelching, blood-covered, many-tentacled terror.
From there the film is a constant escalation into chaos and mayhem. Shit gets wild. Time bends and loops, all the mechanical filmmaking techniques crank to the max, and the result is a sensory assault with tentacles, gore, surprisingly cool creature work, upside down cameras, strobe-effects, and all manner of disorienting tactics. That’s the point, disorientation, creating a sense of being unmoored in darkness and wilderness, but for all the craziness, it’s ultimately a case of diminishing returns. Eventually most of what we see is a pitch-black frame with a single stark white spotlight bouncing corner to corner, the action jittering around in the pinprick of visibility at the very boundaries of coherence. Again, also like the opening, this continues well past where the film has made its point, closing quickly in on exhaustion.
The fact that The Outwaters exists at all is a minor miracle, let alone that it’s pretty good. There are basically four actors, a handful of props, a few songs, the desert, and a bunch of inventive energy. The budget is a reported $15k, and Banfitch and company get a hell of a lot out of that money, with zero frills—this looks better than so, so many movies with way more discretionary funds to play with. For me there’s an obvious ceiling for this movie, simply due to my personal preferences, but when it hits, The Outwaters comes close to those heights, delivering moments of visceral terror with a cosmic bend, loads of blood, and esoteric dread. A bit overlong and thin in a few places, a lot of people are going to absolutely adore what this film is all about. [Grade: B-]