The found footage genre has proven itself to be quite resilient, particularly in the realm of horror. Pioneered by Ruggero Deodato, director of the 1980 cult film Cannibal Holocaust — although Orson Welles made use of the technique when filming his 2018 drama, The Other Side of the Wind, in the 1970s, predating Deodato’s Italian exploitation classic — the genre reached new heights of popularity at the end of the millennium with The Blair Witch Project. Although not the first of its kind, the film captivated audiences with its raw, immersive camerawork, and a marketing campaign that blurred the line between reality and fiction. But while there was a novelty to Blair Witch‘s infamous shaky cam cinematography, it has since become part of a widely understood cinematic grammar, sometimes being used to great effect and other times functioning mainly as an excuse to cut corners.
Robbie Banfitch’s The Outwaters, unfortunately, feels much like the latter. Following a group of thirty-somethings who are besieged by an extraterrestrial force, the film sets up its found footage conceit quickly with the help of a panicked 911 call that play over title cards indicating that Robbie (Robbie Banfitch), Angela (Angela Basolis), Scott (Scott Schamell), and Michelle (Michelle May) have all gone missing. The footage recovered from Robbie’s camera by the Mojave County Police Department begins, innocently enough, with the group preparing to head into the Mojave Desert to shoot a music video for Michelle. Things go smoothly enough at first: the group makes it to the desert, goes for a swim in a shallow lake, and finally sets up camp by a hillside. But soon, strange phenomena begin to occur. What starts out as loud thunder and barely discernible figures lurking in the distance escalates into buckets of blood and gore, and screaming flesh snakes that look like they escaped a Spirit Halloween.
The film’s gear shift comes halfway through the runtime and is more than a little abrupt; the more it delves into genre indulgences, the less it convinces. Banfitch’s attempts at ratcheting up the tension aren’t completely devoid of excitement — naked axe murderers aren’t exactly the most original horror adversaries, but seeing one in silhouette can still deliver decent chills — and there is an eerie quality inherent to the vastness of a desert. Unfortunately, the director — who also wrote, shot, and edited Outwaters — instead treats the audience to endless sequences of his characters stumbling aimlessly through the dark of night while choosing to keep the screen almost entirely black for minutes on end, the action only occasionally illuminated by a single flashlight beam.
Given the modest budget with which Banfitch is working, perhaps some visual shortcomings can be forgiven. What’s harder to gloss over, however, is all the other ways this film falls apart after the hour mark. Firstly, the skeletal narrative devolves into a disorienting and utterly shapeless shock montage that ranges from moderately effective to groan-inducing, never mind that it gives up on its found footage form as soon as the story begins to go off the rails, with numerous scenes featuring non-diegetic music as well as an increasingly comical devotion to keeping the camera running. Secondly, the writing — rarely the strong suit of films of this kind, to be fair — is dreadful. After being attacked by an axe-wielding stranger, Robbie suffers a head injury that leaves him severely disoriented, although he still manages to make his way back to camp in the pitch-black desert. Angela, who doesn’t notice his injuries, asks him what’s going on, to which he replies, “my head is raining,” the sound of dripping blood accompanying the ridiculous line. Later on, as all four are being chased through the desert by an unknown entity, one of the girls can be heard sobbing and crying out for her mother, repeating, “I want my mommy” over and over.
The rest of the runtime is mostly devoted to Robbie either fending off the unconvincing alien snakes, throwing up blood, or wandering the desert in his birthday suit. There are some implications of a time loop and a possible government conspiracy thrown in very late in the game, but by that point, The Outwaters is more or less completely lost. After sitting through the last of the film’s underlit night scenes — a disturbing-but-not-really encounter with a creature that feels like a rip-off of Possession‘s tentacled monster — we are sent on our well-deserved way with one last parting gift: a character mutilating their own genitalia. Why, you ask? Likely because Banfitch knew someone with a knack for prosthetics. It surely wasn’t because it’s related to anything in the interminable two hours that preceded.
Microbudget horror is having somewhat of a moment currently, with the Canadian liminal space horror Skinamarink even surprisingly hitting North American theaters earlier this year. But with this mini-boom comes the chore of wading through endless genre detritus in hopes of coming across something worthwhile, which The Outwaters, sadly, isn’t. If YouTube creepypasta clichés and 2000s-era shaky cam are all these cheapo films have to offer, it might be better to start giving young horror directors a budget (and some decent screenwriters) again.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 7.