The Outwaters (2023)
Written & Directed by Robbie Banfitch
Every few years, I am told in the film press that a new found footage movie will revitalize the genre and that this one is “actually good.” I take them at their word, watch the film, and end up underwhelmed every damn time. I loved the idea of The Blair Witch Project more than the final product, and every similar movie that has followed since has had the same problems. I watched Paranormal Activity, The Curse of Deborah Logan, The Last Exorcism, the Blair Witch reboot by Adam Wingard, and many more. In January 2023, I began seeing the buzz around The Outwaters, with reviews telling me this was a good found footage horror movie that would change people’s opinions. I kept an open mind. I watched it. And damn, if it didn’t repeat so many of the same mistakes all these other movies have.
In a brief opening prologue, we’re told that four people went out into the Mojave Desert and never returned. Instead, three memory cards were recovered from their campsite, and this film is the footage that was on them. Our central character & cameraman (also the writer/director/producer) is Robbie (Robbie Banfitch), who has recruited his brother Scott and his friend Angela to help make a music video for another friend and aspiring musician Michelle. We get some footage before the trip begins, introducing us to each character and setting up their relationships with Robbie. After a couple days of camping out in the desert, the quartet notices strange noises at night, including distant animals howling and a reverberating boom reminiscent of thunder but even louder. The following night, Robbie wanders off from the campsite and encounters a naked man holding an ax in the darkness who charges and wounds the cameraman. From there, reality seems to fall apart, and all manner of horrors occur.
The concept of found footage is okay, though the best found footage horror I have encountered has ironically been in the form of the written word. House of Leaves by Mark. Z. Danielewski and the short story “October Film Haunt: Under the House” by Michael Wehunt. Because they are prose, it allows the final image to be determined by the reader. Thus, you aren’t limited in the scope and scale of how you interpret the events. In The Outwaters, there are effective first-act hints of the horrors to come that is ultimately undercut by the strictures of the camera. Events are experienced solely through this singular eye, allowing a lower budget to be worked around. However, it also causes the intensity of the horror to be diminished. The spectacle can only be what Robbie points his camera at rather than a traditional third-person narrative which allows for more freedom and creativity.
The build-up does a lot of things right. It’s slow, focused on a sense of dread. We have moments that are simply strange but are given context later. The characters try to rationalize the strangeness because that’s just what humans do. The acting is where it needs to be, not spectacular but naturalistic. That’s another wrinkle with the found footage genre: do you seek out incredible performers or unknown actors? If the goal is “realism,” then I suppose unknowns are better because they help suspend disbelief. However, the found footage genre tropes always pull me out of this, and I’m left sitting through a very unsatisfying final act of jerky camera movements that obscure the horror and end up being more confusing than terrifying.
The ideas that The Outwaters lays out in that opening act fail to come to fruition, and the rest of the film spends its time simply being redundant, showing us something we’ve seen before and not really adding much to it. If there is anything that feels fresh, it shows up and is gone with little time for the audience to understand it. Elements of time travel and multiple dimensions are played with but never go anywhere. A brief glimpse of a sign warning that this was the site of some nebulous government tests. Do we get any information on those? Nope. You can infer what is happening here, but everything is so vague it could be anything.
Found footage is all a balancing act of monotony and the horrific, and more often than not, it fails in the second regard. The Outwaters is no exception, becoming a slog to get through and ending on an unsatisfying note. Yes, it’s very bleak and spooky. However, I can’t help but think of The Color Out of Space, which captured the same Lovecraftian horror and wasn’t hindered by the found footage camera trope. That film conveyed the massive terror such monstrosities can evoke because it lacked that constraint. Unfortunately, the monsters so briefly glimpsed in The Outwaters pale to what we saw in that low-budget flick. Even worse, this movie only spends a little bit of time developing its characters outside the opening 15 minutes or so. If you’re terribly curious, then The Outwaters is an okay watch, but it did not click at all for me. Pretty disappointing.