The found footage genre at this point is like Madison Cawthorne: every time you hear about a new FF movie, you’re like ‘oh fuck that’s still around?’ The FF boom is certainly in the rearview mirror now (and thank god for that) but I suppose even the worst trends take time to die out. Luckily, Robbie Banfitch’s The Outwaters is not one of those films that makes you wish the genre would just fucking stay dead and instead reminds you of how truly weird the technique can be.
The Outwaters is a tale of four unlucky souls who set out in the Mojave Desert to make a music video and soon find themselves engulfed in a series of absolutely terrifying events that become more and more bizarre and frightening and straight up fucking weird.. All of the classic FF tropes are there: the running with the camera at night with the light showing us just enough to be scared, the screaming about something off camera we don’t see, the persistent question of ‘why are they still filming this instead of just focusing on getting out of there?’ The difference between this and other films however is how brutally intense and just…inexplicable it is. We don’t see much but what we do see makes us wish we hadn’t seen anything at all. And I mean that in the best way.
The film opens with the audio of a 9/11 call as we see pictures of the cast and the dates they went missing scroll onto the screen. As a person who appreciates a well made mockumentary/found footage jawn (see Savageland) I found this intro extremely effective. The audio was chilling: think the captains log scene from Event Horizon. It’s that creepy. The next half hour or so is us getting to know the characters, which while I don’t think it really made feel anything more than I was already going to for them, I’ll give the film credit for at least attempting to flesh it’s victims out. And heads up, it does come off as slow at times. There’s a lot of genuine and well executed but ultimately unimportant dialogue, so much so that I was starting to lose interest in the film. But, once the weirdness kicks off, strap in. It gets really weird and really violent really fast. What begins as a series of inexplicable booms in the sky quickly culminates into a rapid cut of blood-soaked bodies, shrieking disembodied tentacles, viscera scattered through the desert, otherworldly howling in the dark, strange goo, and violent earthquakes. There may or may not be time shifts, and Robbie quickly becomes the last man standing, wandering through the desert filming…whatever it is happening and quietly murmuring to himself about how this can’t be happening. It’s a bit of a mess from a narrative viewpoint, so if you’re looking for an explanation good luck, but if you can let yourself enjoy the cavalcade of terrifying imagery (again: think Event Horizon or even Hellraiser) you’re honestly in for a treat.
The Outwaters is not a perfect film. The story (what little there is) is what could generously be called “open to interpretation” but more accurately occasionally felt rambling and somewhat unfocused. I say this as something to be taken at face value, but at times this film feels as if four people were allowed to run around in the desert for a few weeks with an FX crew, filming whatever they wanted to, and then a film was kind of sort of carved out of the remaining footage by people who couldn’t bring themselves to cut a lot of the fat out. To be fair, this does lend the film a very effective surreal hellish feeling, as it does ultimately come off as something we shouldn’t be seeing, but I think it would be far more effective if the run time was trimmed down. A lot of the imagery is brutal and frightening at first, but it quickly becomes repetitive. This isn’t unique to The Outwaters; this is a problem a lot of found footage films have.
That being said, the intensity of the film will keep those who love FF entertained. Its sheer weirdness almost makes up for the repetitive nature of the imagery, or at least comes close enough to doing so that the film, in the end, succeeds in its mission, which is to show us the final days of someone who is quite possibly literally wandering through hell after his friends have been done away with in some unspeakable fashion. This vagueness towards the fate of the other characters was something I though was a smart move on the filmmakers. As much as I enjoy The Blair Witch Project, I understand how some people might find the final fate of the characters underwhelming. A character being done away with and dropping the camera after being murdered by some unseen horror is another trope this film cleverly avoids. I suspect the filmmakers either knew their limits when it came to depicting the death of characters or simply felt it was unnecessary to show them, or maybe they just thought jumping ahead without explaining anything would be more effective.
The question that almost every FF style film fails to answer is, “why are they filming this?’ As in, why are people in a situation in which something is trying to kill them still filming what they’re seeing? I’ll give The Outwaters a free pass on this because it really feels like Robbie (the unfortunate last man standing) is unaware that the camera is still filming a lot of the time. In the very end it becomes gruesomely obvious he’s aware, but for much of the film it feels like we really are seeing the memory card from a Go Pro that stayed on through…whatever happened out there. It’s easy to imagine authorities in the universe this takes place in popping in the memory card, and then after about forty five minutes of watching footage of who the hell knows what just looking at each other in fearful awe and then agreeing to never talk about what they saw.
If you’re not a fan of the found footage filming style, this isn’t going to make you convert. But, if you want something vaguely cosmic in nature and truly bizarre, this film is for you. The gore is incredible, the tension it creates in the second act leading up to the absolutely insane final act is wonderful, and if you want to see some the most natural dialogue and human interaction to ever occur in a found footage film, then by all means check it out. Just brace yourself for a blast of Event Horizon/Baskin/Final Prayer style weirdness, and you’ll have a great time. Oh, and don’t worry: the donkeys don’t die. I don’t think so anyway.