Were you thinking of camping in the desert any time soon? Boy, do I have a film to make you second guess that…
…Writer/director Robbie Banfitch’s sophomore feature, The Outwaters, just premiered at Panic Fest 2022, and it may be one of the most frightening found footage films I have ever seen.
Nothing I say in this review can properly prepare you for the onslaught of terror that is this movie.
The Outwaters follows a small band of friends who set out to the Mojave Desert to make a music video for Michelle’s (Michelle May) song, based on a lullaby that her deceased mother used to sing to her. Things start off fun, until one night the group encounters something horrible, propelling them into a terrifying journey.
For the first half, Banfitch’s film plays out like your average found footage flick. Following an opening coupled with the screaming sounds of a 911 call as we see pictures of the cast marked as having “disappeared”, we meet our four (potentially) doomed protagonists. Aside from Michelle, the sort of earthy gal who wears mushroom earrings, there’s camera guy Robbie (played by Banfitch himself), hiking enthusiast and writer brother, Scott (Scott Schamell), and bubbly stylist, Angela (Angela Basolis). All of the performances feel authentic, and each character has an endearing personality that makes them come off as real people who could be living right down the road from you.
Banfitch heightens the authenticity by letting The Outwaters take its time. I wouldn’t hold it against viewers for getting anxious, because for a long while, there isn’t a whole lot going on. Instead, we’re treated to the cast hanging out, wandering around, with Banfitch managing to inject a chill vibe with diegetic music playing in the background (always a nice cheat in the found footage genre). Shot by Banfitch as well (with the entire cast listed as Camera Operators), there’s nothing “fancy” about the cinematography…at first. Much of the footage comes off as if shot by amateurs—an intentional move by Banfitch, which is harder to accomplish than it sounds—falling into that category of found footage movies that may put some viewers off with its wobbly, sometimes difficult to tell what’s going on style.
Those of you who get motion sickness during these types of movies, have your vomit bag ready.
The relaxed atmosphere lures in unsuspecting viewers unaware of the terrifying trap that’s being set for them. Meanwhile, there’s a spiritual sense flowing all throughout the movie. Both Michelle’s mother and the brothers’ father have passed away—as we learn through Robbie gifting Scott their dad’s old bandana—with the urge to reconnect with them in some way, especially apparent in Michelle. These people adore nature; They feel in touch with it, and Banfitch puts us into that mindset with long shots of the empty desert, upside down images that are both strange and beautiful, and the occasional odd yet captivating sound emanating from that mound of rocks over there.
Banfitch is so masterful in getting the audience to let their guard down that when the horror hits, it strikes like a rattlesnake to the throat.
This is where The Outwaters separates the casual horror viewer from the masochistic, hardcore fan that enjoys a little punishment in their movies. While Banfitch does gradually introduce sinister elements through the occasional eerie soundscape—Banfitch also did the sound design--The Outwaters plunges viewers into abject horror suddenly and in a disorienting manner that plants us directly in the shoes of the protagonists and their confused terror. The film transforms from something serene and sweet to pure nightmare fuel in a matter of seconds, and all the audience can do is scream. And scream. And scream.
There is a horde of exceptional found footage horror flicks out there, but The Outwaters is one of the most impressive uses of the medium in its simplicity. Much of the second half is drenched in near complete darkness, lit only by a small circle of light from the camera. Watching the film is like being dipped into a sensory deprivation tank from Hell, surrounded by bloody horrors that burst in and out of the shadows, piercing screams and other noises scratching at your ear drums (play this movie loud at your own risk). What starts as your by the numbers found footage movie becomes something much more experimental and dare I say dangerous. It’s a daring risk to bewilder the audience so deeply by throwing them into the dark without any explanation, and very little that we can see happening on screen in front of us.
Fortune favors the bold though, and in the case of The Outwaters, I’d say the risk Banfitch takes pays off in delivering an unforgettable and downright nightmarish experience. That’s what it is; An experience. Banfitch takes away your sight for the most part, fills your ears with a soundscape out of your worst dreams, and lets your imagination create the rest to great effect. The Outwaters is unsettling, uncompromising, and deeply upsetting, accentuated by gallons of gore and mostly unseen but well-done practical effects. The tagline on the poster reads, “We all Die in the Dark,” and I kid you not, watching The Outwaters may be the closest you can come to feeling the sensation of death through a movie.
All that being said, The Outwaters is by no means a movie for everyone. It’s a disorienting film that literally leaves audiences in the dark with few answers, and I’d be lying if I said it was a pleasant experience. This one is not for the faint of heart. But Banfitch has created something truly shocking with a minimalist, DIY approach, and I’m dying to see what he does next.
By Matt Konopka