I think it’s safe to say that as a film-going culture, we are frequently subjected to hyperbolic statements about the latest new release horror film, to the point where there is a new “scariest movie ever made” every other week. It’s difficult not to get excited – or nervous, depending on your relationship to the genre – when those murmurs start to emerge, particularly when the film is independently made. Word of mouth has been a major factor in the horror genre this last year, with hyper low-budget films like Terrifier 2 and Skinamarink earning their way into multiplexes.
The latest horror hype machine is the found footage – a cinematic technique in which all or a substantial part of the work is presented as if it were discovered film or video recordings. The Outwaters is starring, written, directed, edited and shot by Robbie Banfitch. The film follows a group of four musicians and film-makers who journey into the Mojave desert to shoot their latest music video. Not long into their journey, the friends face a series of unexplainable horrors that we experience through the camera that they are filming with throughout.
Now, there are several different directions one can go when making a found footage film, a subgenre that elicits a lot of questions from the audience due to the age-old quandary of having characters insistently film horrific situations that you’d think they would want to run from. Because of this, a lot of filmmakers take the approach of making their characters foolish and unlikeable, thus chalking the horror that they experience up to their irresponsibility. What I admire about The Outwaters is the length that it goes to to build compassion for its characters. We are introduced to these characters through their bonding as family, friends, and co-creatives. The set-up, which acquaints us with the characters and builds our emotional attachment to them, comprises close to the first hour of this 110 minute feature.
From that point on, the film is a flurry of goopy cosmic terror that is sure to make even a seasoned horror fan squeamish. It is an effective structure, particularly because our connection to the characters exists only as a feeling of dread from that point on, as we are aware of their specific feelings and histories, despite not being able to process what is happening to them.
What is most exciting to me about the found footage genre is that it excels in its limitations. Rarely is a complicated camera set-up necessary, as it would remove from the spontaneity of its characters intention to film whatever they want. Banfitch does a terrific job here of juxtaposing the claustrophobia of the frame with the openness of the desert landscape that the characters are stranded in. The origins of horror literature are in the fear of the unknown, eliciting terrifying images of the worst thing that one can imagine without outright telling you what it is, and to be able to pull off that same feeling with a film – which is literally depicting images – is a major feat, and is successful in large part because of the dense sound and sparse lighting. The film adopts a spotlight lighting technique, as the cameraman shines his flashlight on whatever he can while he navigates the desert landscape at night, which effectively situates the audience with the characters, who can barely make out what’s right in front of them. There are plenty of moments in this film where you are only seeing blood, hair, and earth, and as a result, the images linger with you far longer than they would if you could clearly see what was taking place.
I would also note that if you are afraid of the dark, you should avoid this like the plague, not only because what lies in the darkness of this film will haunt you, but the second that daylight arrives for the first time after they’ve ventured into the desert, you think you have the reprieve that often comes with this type of formula, but the madness immediately continues and the blood stains remain. The final scene, which takes place in the daylight, is not for the faint of heart, either.
For fans of horror, and particularly found footage, I would highly recommend seeking out this film, which breathes new life into the genre through its dread-inducing camerawork. The Outwaters is playing in select theaters nationwide starting February 9th, and will have a run at the Revue Cinema starting Friday, February 24th.