Written and Directed by Robbie Banfitch
Four travelers encounter menacing phenomena while camping in a remote stretch of the Mojave Desert. (IMDB)
***Please note, there are some very minor spoilers in this review***
I knew very little about The Outwaters when I was sent a screener. I didn’t even realise it was found footage until I read some of the press information for it and, at that point, I was in two minds. I like found footage, but I do find it can be very hit and miss. I have recently enjoyed Mean Spirited and Deadstream as well as bring impressed by LOLA, my reviews for all three of which are up on Ginger Nuts of Horror. However, for every Blair Witch there is a less impressive copy/homage and I have seen a few stinkers over the years as well, so I tend to go in expecting things to be disappointing. Comparing scores on IMDB also left me with a little trepidation as The Outwaters rated a fair bit lower than any of those other films and, while I am the first to argue for making up your own mind, it did sow the seeds of doubt.
As I may have mentioned in a few reviews before now, I can be an idiot.
The Outwaters has a simple premise – four friends journey to the desert to film a music video for the singer among them. The footage follows them on fairly mundane activies, travelling together, setting up camp and exploring the desolate, windy landscape that is going to be their home for the next few days. However, things take a turn for the confusing when they start to hear a loud booming sound in the night. Despite investigating, they find nothing and only serve to unsettle themselves, although any concern is erased by the return of daylight and another day in the stark but beautiful landscape around them. While any sensible person would pack up and go home, they decide to spend another night in the desert and make the fateful mistake of trying to find out what is making the noises in the dark.
And that is when the shit hits the fan…
…which may well be an offering for “understatment of the year.”
Outwaters starts slowly. Pretty much the first hour is set-up and character building, getting to know the four friends travelling into the desert. Obviously you have to spend time setting this up, you have to develop the characters and make sure the audience are fully engaged and committed to caring about these strangers. However, I admit that at one point I found myself wondering if there was a 1.25x button on the screener to speed things along a little, impatient fool that I am.
While you don’t get to know this quartet like old friends, you get just enough to develop a feel for the characters, and this is in keeping with the found footage model – these are strangers, we aren’t going to get indepth biographies and life histories, that really would feel staged. What we just get is a glimpse, a snapshot of their lives. Not much, but enough to feel familiar with and begin to identify with them; to put yourself in their shoes and imagine how you would react in their place.
Early in the film the characters joke (?) about taking acid while they are out in the desert and when the second half of the film kicks in, we get to experience what this might have been like for the four of them. What transpires on the second night is a tour de force of sensory overload; an acid trip writ large on the screen. While the blood flows and events get weirder and weirder, people die, come back, disappear and seemingly travel in space and time. Robbie sees his mother at home and watches himself as he walks across the desert with his friends. In many ways this is like the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey as Dave Bowman heads through the stargate into another dimension. As we follow events through the eyes of Robbie’s (Robbie Banfitch) camera we get to experience first hand what he experiences; it is unsetttling and doesn’t make a lot of sense; he is on his own odyssey through the desert but whether he is tripping, dead or evolving we may never know.
By the time you get to the end of the film and a late scene involving a shark’s tooth lying in the dried up lake bed you may be wondering what the hell you just watched. And this is really why there seem to be so many reviews at either end of the spectrum. This film is the very definition of a marmite film. You will either love it or hate it.
There are hints of what might be going on, but they are limited. A sign found towards the end of the film suggests something might be up with the area they were filming in, or perhaps they did drop acid and it just didn’t work out for them? To try and find too much meaning in Outwaters is a waste of time, it feels to me it is more like an experiment to make the viewer uncomfortable and put them through the ringer; to share Robbie’s descent into hell. Or maybe there is a deeper meaning within the images that I missed, or am still trying to figure out? I am fairly sure it is not as simple as an acid trip. If Robbie is hallucinating, for example, how does the camera pick up what he is seeing? Something bad is out here with them, but the film will leave you with more questions than answers. In many ways, that is the point of a film like this. It is art and, as art, it is subjective; the viewer will make of it what they will, everyone will have a different interpretation. Reactions to The Outwaters are going to be visceral and that is why it is pure marmite.
The sound design in Outwaters feels like it was developed specifically to unnerve and it really should be watched on a larger screen with a decent surround sound system to put you in the middle of everything. In the dark, the echoing booms of the unexplained noises, the screams for help and the slithering of unseen creatures is all the more effective. If you sit with the lights on watching this on your phone, it’s not going to impress. The energy and choas of the second half sit in stark contrast to the fairly tranquil opening hour and the ethereal tones of Michelle’s (Michelle May) folk singing which lulls you into a false sense of security as it gently telegraphs the unease that builds later in the film. It’s a film of two very different halves, the first clearly being the calm before the storm.
The accompanying visual effects are great with plenty of gore and some suitably icky visions designed to turn stomachs. There are some great physical effects on show here and, I am not saying there isn’t any, but I didn’t see any obvious CGI gore which can take you out of the moment if it isn’t done well.
The film does suffer in a few areas where the “unedited” found footage appears to not be quite truly unedited, but that is a small thing. There are instances of the soundtrack carrying over from one scene to another and the power of the torch/light on Robbie’s camera does seem to vary wildly from scene to scene depending on how much the director wants you to see. There are moments in this film where you will be screaming at the screen for someone to get a better torch! But to my mind, those are minor issues and, to be fair, the limited vision helps to build the tension. If you worry too much about some of these things or question why people cling desperately to their cameras when they are terrified out of their wits, then you will probably hate every found footage film that has been released since Blair Witch. If that is the case, then Outwaters probably isn’t for you.
The actors all do a great job, feeling natural onscreen in the first half of the film and then doing “terrified” well in the second half. If there is one complaint about this, and this is a mild spoiler, after the lengthy set-up of the first half, once everything goes to shit, we very quickly lose Michelle, Ange (Angela Basolis) and Scott (Scott Schamell). We get glimpses of them as Robbie embarks on his “trip” but their disappearance from the film is almost an insult to the effort taken to introduce them in the early stage of the movie.
Maybe it is a blessing if they are facing a similar experience to that of Robbie!
To be honest, you don’t get much time to think about this after the stupid decision to leave their tents in the middle of the night to investigate the unexplained noises surounding them.
The Outwaters, is not particularly scary, but it is definitely unsettling and is an experience perhaps, more than just a film. (Yes, I am aware how pretentious that sounds.) You won’t find a detailed narrative here and you will be sorely disappointed if you are expecting an explanation by the end of the film. I always bang on about endings without explanation, and when they are done sloppily they can be very annoying. In The Outwaters this is a deliberate choice and often, for found footage, you really don’t want an explanation that neatly ties everything up, because that can actually make the sub-genre almost less believeable. If we are going to be truly “found footage” then the series of videos found on lost memory sticks needs to be disjointed and confusing. To be realistic, you have to be obfuscatory. Especially with a film like Outwaters. There was no expectation of bad shit happening in the same way as there was with Deadstream or Blair Witch, no back story about demons or ghosts, just four people shooting a video in the desert; they had no idea what they were heading into. The not knowing is what makes a film all the more impactful. This is the sort of film that should have people discussing what they have seen and trying to solve the puzzle like the detectives who are sent the footage, not moaning about lazy filmmaking.
I think the film could have been maybe 10-15 minutes shorter, getting us into the action sooner but still have the same effect. However, I don’t think the current 4.2 on IMDB is a fair score and suspect it may be getting dragged down by those wanting a clearer outcome by the end of the film. I can’t promise you will like it, but I think it is worth checking out and I, for one, am still thinking about it a week after watching. Contrary to a lot of other reviews I have seen out there, I think Banfitch has done a great job in embracing the concepts and tropes of found footage and, despite a few minor niggles, has given us an impressive, disturbing entry into the canon. I will certainly be looking to check out the next films from Banfitch; Exvallis and Tinsman Road.
The Outwaters is in cinemas now and available to stream from 8th May from Blue Finch Films.
2 thoughts on “The Outwaters (2022)”
Great review Mark – this has intreaged me enough to seek it out at local cinemas, and introduced me to the word obfuscation – not bad for 5.30am on a bank holiday Monday! Thanks!
Ooh blimey, only just seen this comment….been a bit distracted….look forward to hearing what you thought of it if you did get to see it….not sure it is something you would usually chose, so coudl be interesting! 🙂