‘The Outwaters’: Found Footage of a Music Video Shoot Turned Bloody Nightmare
The Outwaters, Robbie Banfitch’s compellingly creepy new horror flick, takes the found-footage genre and the lost-in-the-desert nightmare, smashes them together, and spins them off their axis. Watching it, I kept thinking of that Matt Damon and Casey Affleck movie Gerry, from 2002, about two men who go off-trail during a desert hike, lose their way, and suffer from delirium until one of them is killed by the other. The Outwaters sometimes feels like a nightmare inverse of that movie, in which the people involved, camping out in the Mojave Desert to film a music video, don’t go off-trail, don’t get “lost,” and yet completely lose themselves, nevertheless. The delirium finds them anyway. Where Gerry found its villain in nature, The Outwaters (which arrives in theaters this week, with a streaming premiere on Screambox to follow) finds its villain in — who knows what. We only know what the footage tells us. When the movie starts, we’re told all that remains of the characters, who disappeared in 2017, is the footage on three memory cards, which were found in 2022. This movie will endeavor to show us all that remains on these memory cards, presented in order. When the movie ends, we know more about what happened to these people, but not much more. We see the effects. We experience them firsthand. But we still don’t really know what happened in terms that would make sense in our own world.
The Outwaters stars Banfitch as the cameraman Robbie, who is traveling with his brother, Scott (Scott Schamell) and two friends, Michelle (Michelle May) and Angela (Angela Basolis). Early scenes tell us who these people are in relation to each other and what they’re up to on this journey. Michelle is a singer who’s recorded a plaintive lullaby, learned from her mother, that the group intends to film on their trip into the desert. Per the genre, we get some loosely structured mundanity, a sort of casual realism, up front; Robbie is just recording whatever. Storms and a couple of small earthquakes wind up feeling like events, but not troubling ones. A visit home to he and Scott’s mother occupies them for a brief stretch. And the initial fun in the desert, of course. There are only a couple of eerie sights to stir us up before anything happens. Robbie finds an ax near where they’ve camped out. A stray shot catches some reddened body wandering in the distance — we can’t be sure Robbie even noticed it. And then night and, with it, terror descend.
The Outwaters is, if it isn’t already clear, a movie that wants to take advantage of the power of suggestion. The fact is that the basic elements of this story, all of them well-chosen, already do a lot of the work. From inside of a tent, you can’t see what might be creeping around in the utter dark of a desert night. And when even the moon is not around to light your way in that dark, everything has the potential to be a threat, simply because you cannot see it. You have no way of knowing. Nothing in particular needs to happen in order to instill fear. Of course, in The Outwaters, things do happen. It starts with extraordinary sounds, booming in the near-distance that gets the group’s ears perked. It extends, then, to an inexplicable vision — a slit of light, as if someone cut open the night sky only to reveal the daylight blaring beneath it.
And then, well, other things. The assembly of the footage on these memory cards is, per the genre, full of ellipses. But missing light, not missing time, proves to be the real guiding logic of this movie. For great stretches, The Outwaters boils down to what a blood-soaked Robbie can see with the light attached to his camera. He cannot see much: Banfitch makes sure of that. Instead, he wanders, and the movie wanders with him. It isn’t without a certain logic — at one point, it becomes clear that what’s happening conforms to some otherworldly loop, the kind of impossible sequencing of events that alerts us to just how far beyond basic reality we’ve been thrown. But even this slither of structure, dangling right in front of us, doesn’t tell us why it’s happening.
The why of it all is not the question that The Outwaters, in true Lovecraftian fashion, sets out to answer. We’re made to focus on the what. The film is all about texture: the inexplicable waves and sudden juts of booming, screeching sound, the jittery unknowingness of images carved entirely out of darkness by a single stream of light. It’s a formal accomplishment akin to Kyle Edward Ball’s Skinamarink, the year’s other notable low-budget indie horror event of the year. Both have their lapses, both could have been distilled even more, and yet both are valuable for doing what so much great horror has always already done, pulling lovingly from the greater horror tradition while unmooring the genre from its usual tricks just enough for it to feel newly unfamiliar.
The thing that initially made me wary of The Outwaters — the awkward dissatisfaction of a found-footage film that’s at risk of trying too hard to feel plausible or casually “real” — wound up being precisely the ingredient that made the movie memorable. One of the best, subtlest things found-footage horror has to offer us is a heightened awareness. Great horror has often already made us alert to the camera; playing on our expectations, dredging up our despair and fear, is frequently a matter of denying us what we want to see, or rendering the world in images that make us expect to see things that the movie will often deny us. Found-footage horror adds another layer to that pact: The images are still beyond our control, but now, that control belongs to a character within the story. Now, we’re inclined to think about the camera in their hands, about why they’re still holding it, about how much of this story presumably wouldn’t have survived (fictionally) if they hadn’t been filming it.
Even as any movie boils down to its creators’ choices over what to show and what to withhold, this particular genre makes it feel as if the characters themselves, not some godlike director, were responsible for those limits. Their unsteady, haphazard terror and curiosity give every shot its form. Robbie carries his camera throughout this ordeal, using the light to search his way through the utter, blank dark of night, and every searching shot we see, every horrified flit of the camera as Robbie catches sight of something awful and rapidly turns away, is imposed on us as we watch. If he won’t look, then we can’t. If he does look, we have to, too. There’s an odd grace to The Outwaters’ visual style. The nighttime desert is so dark that when Robbie’s camera lands on some gucky pool of blood or a defamiliarized, torn-apart body, it’s often forced to trace the contours of whatever the camera is trying to see, searching for something that will make the image make sense, help us understand what it is we’re really looking at. Lovecraftian horror takes the unknown, and the terror it inspires, as a given condition of life. The Outwaters renders that idea into an obscenely effective visual logic, eventually looping its way back through moments and images that we thought we’d already seen, only filtered as if through a nightmare lens, creeping along its surfaces until we realize we’re looking at something we should be able to recognize.
The late stretch of The Outwaters does, at times, descend slightly into goofiness, however gory. But the idea behind its methods still resonates, because its horrors wind up feeling practical and cosmic, winking and unknowable, all at once. The point isn’t that we ascend to some clear, satisfactory logic for what’s going on, by the end of the movie. The point is that The Outwaters makes a great case for never really telling us. Even when it seems at risk of spinning its wheels into oblivion, there’s an urgent pleasure in watching it spin.