THE STORY – An excursion to the Mojave Desert turns creepy when a group of campers starts to experience unexplained sounds, vibrations, and unnatural animal behaviour. Then one night everything changes, sending the foursome on a mind-bending trip through terror.
THE CAST – Angela Basolis, Michelle May, Scott Schamell, Robbie Banfitch, Leslia Ann Banfitch, Christine Brown & Aro Caitlin
THE TEAM – Robbie Banfitch (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 110 Minutes
“The Outwaters” is simply one of the most mystifying movies in recent memory. Yes, the actual substance of the film is purposefully obtuse and inconclusive, but I also can’t recall the last time a movie left me this confused as to whether or not I even liked it once the credits had finished rolling. That has to count for something, and after much consideration and conversation, I’ve come around to appreciating its strangeness and almost prideful inaccessibility. Much like its characters, it’s easy to practically lose your mind trying to untangle this disturbing, bewildering trip of a movie.
Like so many scary movies that have come before it, “The Outwaters” centers around a group that’s happily unaware of the dangers of the film they’re in. In this case, they’re a quartet of young creative types marching into the Mojave Desert to shoot a music video for Michelle (Michelle May), directed by Robbie (Robbie Banfitch). Things proceed as expected in the daytime, but the gang hears strange noises outside their tents at night. Before they’re able to make the intelligent decision and head back to their comfortable lives, supernatural forces descend upon them and force them to enter a world of inescapable fear.
The mind behind “The Outwaters” is Robbie Banfitch. This marks his second feature film as a writer-director, and beyond being the predominant authorial voice behind the film, he is going for extra credit by doing the work of what would usually be a handful of crew members. He’s the film’s lead actor, producer, cinematographer, and editor and is also in charge of the special effects and sound design. The film is the perfect example of a singular vision – nearly every element is under Banfitch’s direct, complete control. This level of workmanship is beyond impressive, and that energy is reflected in the film’s ambition.
The movie never pretends to be anything but strange and unknowable. And what makes the film’s wilder moments even more striking is how banal and typical the whole thing begins. After a startling opening featuring an upsetting 911 call from the main characters, the film presents itself as a chronological presentation of video memory cards that have been collected as evidence of the horrifying events to follow. We see the four characters preparing to trek into the desert and slowly making their way to their shooting location, with little of note occurring besides some disconcerting small earthquakes. It feels very akin to the first act of many found footage horror films that have come before it, like “The Blair Witch Project” and “Paranormal Activity.” But unlike those films – or really, most films – the realistic aesthetic slips away as the characters’ camping trip turns into an unexplainable nightmare. The first-person camera masterfully puts the audience in Robbie’s headspace, making us feel as if we, too, are tumbling into an unknowable hellscape with little left of the real world to grasp onto. By the time the film nears its stomach-churning conclusion, the rules of physics and time that tether reality are a distant memory, like a nightmare that isn’t easily shed upon waking.
This choice to never fully pretend that what the film is portraying is a realistic found footage experience is underlined by the use of non-diegetic music – which becomes more common as the characters stray further into the desert’s underworld – and the haunting soundscape. Banfitch’s sound mix is perhaps the most impressive of his many, many contributions to the film. Specific sound effects and modulations are employed with such precision that, like the characters, the audience may not be able to place what exactly they heard until well after the fact. As in most horror films, the sound work of “The Outwaters” is the most successful element used to illicit scares from viewers.
Obviously, any film that allows itself to explore such horribly phantasmagorical territory isn’t going to be for everyone. And even if I ultimately came out on the side of admiration, I was admittedly frustrated by how the film seems to take glee in withholding from the audience. Indeed, so much of it is hard to watch in the very literal sense, with large portions lit only by a tiny circle of illumination from a flashlight. This has the dual effect of forcing the audience to survey the darkness that fills the screen, looking for the next threat to their nerves while also making them squint to make out just what exactly they’re looking at. This obscuring is clearly purposeful and effective, but that doesn’t mean it’s not staunchly perplexing.
Watching “The Outwaters,” I was reminded of horror legend Wes Craven’s debut film “The Last House on the Left.” It’s a similarly shaggy, unvarnished film that uses its low-budget trappings to portray extremely disturbing moments in an even more frightening way. Like “The Outwaters,” it’s a severely imperfect film, but it leaves an undeniable impact, and, of course, it serves as a preview for what Craven would later bring to the big screen. Especially in horror, any film that takes a big swing and refuses to play it safe is worthy of admiration, regardless of how it’s actually executed. And “The Outwaters” shows that its director/writer/star/et al. Robbie Banfitch is a storm of creativity. Horror fans should be eagerly anticipating what he does next.