Found footage horror is one fickle beast, mainly because there is an extremely fine line between masterpiece and straight garbage. Audiences can quickly turn on a film they do not understand with little care for the craft that went behind it. No one is more aware of this obvious divide than writer/director/star of The Outwaters, Robbie Banfitch. In crafting his queer horror magnum opus, Banfitch pushes the handheld camera technology to its limits by delivering a nightmarish, stunning vision. After a lengthy character-heavy setup, The Outwaters relentlessly sinks its tentacle-teeth into the viewer, and never lets up.
It all starts with an eerie 9-1-1 call. A group of missing people and when they were last seen flashes onto the screen. This opening is extremely reminiscent of The Blair Witch Project, an obvious influence for Banfitch and dozens of other filmmakers. What The Outwaters gets right that so few others do is that it establishes a tangible atmosphere from early on. Memory cards, said to be evidence of the Mojave Police Department, serve as the dividers of the action. Memory card one establishes a quiet calm, and by the time we get to card three, there is little way to describe what is happening without seeing it unfold before you. To call The Outwaters experimental would be a disservice to its eye-popping, timeline-shattering strangeness.
Robbie (Banfitch) sets up a camping trip with his close friends, Angela (Angela Basolis) and Michelle (Michelle May), and his brother, Scott (Scott Schamell), to film Michelle’s music video in the Mojave Desert. As a result, Robbie has a camera in tow at all times that constantly catalogues the debauchery. The camera always follows, an ever-present key to the unfolding terror. Foreboding music and atmosphere as the camera swivels into the tunnels of the wilderness set the stage in terror. As day turns to night, there are creepy sounds and eerie vibes—but that’s not all. Memory card two is host to an immaculate setup of weirdness. Currents running under the mountains? Ancient-looking bullets on the ground? Sinister balls of light? Attempting to get ahead of The Outwaters journey proves futile, as card three evolves beyond comprehension.
Whereas act one sets up the character dynamics, once the rug is pulled out from under us, The Outwaters strictly follows Robbie in his unsuccessful attempts to slow things down. Just when it seems the action will take a breather, it ratchets up to another extreme. After the momentum gets going, the rest of the characters are virtually nonexistent. Is Robbie seeing mirages, or something cosmic in nature? Skin-tearing body horror, made even sketchier by the incredible sound design and editing, also awaits. Eventually, Robbie’s cries of hysteria are so relatable—this is a full-bodied experience that left me breathless as it approaches the climax.
I had the pleasure of watching two supplemental short films, titled Card Zero and File VL-624, that will feature on home video releases of The Outwaters. Both tell completely different stories—the former is a longer queer romance prequel set before the main story’s events, whilst File VL-624 serves as a proper epilogue to what we have witnessed. An amalgamation of the feature’s most haunting moments, this restructured footage of random extra moments seem to fit everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Both of these shorts add to the ultimate Outwaters experience, and are essential viewing for fans of the film.
Channeling aforementioned The Blair Witch Project and Paris catacombs flick As Above So Below, The Outwaters still manages to be unlike anything I have ever seen before. For those who cannot stand lengthy introductions, they may find the film difficult to crack; yet, The Outwaters rewards repeat viewings and slow-burn aficionados. Get ready for your next nightmare!
Plunge deep into the depths of insanity when The Outwaters comes to limited release theaters on Thursday, February 9th before debuting on Screambox later this year.