Review: ‘The Outwaters’ leads us into the dark and never looks back
In the vast darkness of the Mojave desert, four friends are camped out, preparing to make a music video together. As they sit in their tents and try to get rest, thunderous booms and mysterious ripples of light in the sky disrupt them. Soon enough, they will be gone, consumed by something unknowable and awful in the dark, and their footage will be all that’s left of them.
Such is the premise for Robbie Banfitch’s The Outwaters, a wild descent into hell (or another dimension, perhaps?) that promises to disorient and disquiet the viewer. The film isn’t afraid to march forward hand-in-hand with us into the darkness, no matter how much blood, tears, and screeching there is along the way.
Like any found-footage flick worth its salt, The Outwaters is framed as a real-life unsolved case; specifically, the disappearance of four travelers in 2017. Friends Robbie Zagorac (played by writer-director Banfitch), brother Scott Zagorac (Scott Schmall), stylist Angela Bocuzzi (Angela Basolis), and singer Michelle August (Michelle May) have set out to create something fun and light in the desert.
The performances of the friends feel grounded and real, which will come in handy as the movie curdles into a nightmarish ride. The “footage” you see is supposed to be recovered evidence from their fateful journey separated on three memory cards — from a home-movie-style vignette at the beginning to a bloody, frantic end.
The first half-hour or so of The Outwaters takes its time, letting you learn a bit about each character, and see bits of their normal lives (and selves). It can feel slow at times, but it’s a necessity of the genre – how can you care about characters you know nothing about? It’s warm and familiar, the start of something fun. That is, until the sun sets and the night thunder begins to boom across the soundtrack. From their second night, any semblance of safety or fun is long gone and all that’s left is blood, suffering, inter-dimensional teleportation, and screams in the night.
Once The Outwaters hits the ground running in its second and third acts, it doesn’t slow down. Thank goodness! No, from here on out, we follow characters as they wander senselessly across the desert, and pop into a sea (of blood?) – it’s disorienting, grueling, and slightly Lovecraftian. There is no time wasted, and there are practically no answers as to why these folks are the targets for such otherworldly, inhuman, and monstrous torture. The uncertainty and unknowability of it all adds to the terror, especially thanks to the camera’s perspective and limitations.
The scariest parts of The Outwaters have to do with what we can’t see, and the limitations of handheld digital cameras. A glint of wet, red skin or a shadow in the distance illuminated by a single camera light is equally foreboding here. We can only see what the camera lets us, and the rest become unknowable portends of the hell Robbie and company are doomed to endure over the course of the film. What we do glimpse are incredible makeup and effects work, also done by Banfitch.
There’s typical horror fare here for makeup and effects (gore, wounds), but there’s a creature that stops you in your tracks, too, and it all felt believable – a rare and wonderful feat. The sound also adds to the heavy atmosphere the film builds in its night scenes. There’s the aforementioned thunder, but there’s plenty of wet squelches, a deep, distorted voice calling from the void, and seemingly endless screaming too. It’s all used efficiently and effectively though, even when it all sounds like chaos, it’s building up the atmosphere and assuring us we’re far away from the safety of familiar realms.
In the end, The Outwaters is a movie that rewards patience and gives your mind the freedom to run away with its setup and follow it to the bitter end. There is certainly a lot happening here, and it doesn’t all make sense or have an explanation, but that’s the (terrifying) point.
Using incredible effects, sound design, and grounded performances, The Outwaters creates a disorienting, disgusting atmosphere of chaos and calamity. It’s best seen in a pitch-black theater with folks around you to share in the harrowing ride. It’s a movie that folks might get impatient with at the start or too disgusted with by the end, but if you stick with it and follow Banfitch down the rabbit hole, you just might find something worth screaming about.
'The Outwaters' is a movie that rewards patience and gives your mind the freedom to run away with its setup and follow it to the bitter end. There is certainly a lot happening here, and it doesn’t all make sense or have an explanation, but that’s the (terrifying) point.