‘The Outwaters’ is a Beautiful, Baffling Hellscape in the High Desert

2023 has been off to a relatively lively start in regards to indie, viral horror. Festival darling Skinamarink saw a limited release in late January following its leak onto major torrenting platforms last year, prompting spirited discourse online within the horror community. Likewise, public domain meme film Blood and Honey hit select theater screens earlier this week to similar chatter. And yesterday, we were blessed with yet another low-budget horror flick that whose reputation had been wildly talked up by early internet buzz: The Outwaters.

From newcomer writer/director Robbie Banfitch, this microbudget found-footage film was neck-in-neck for the most talked-about independent horror release of late last year alongside its similarly divisive and provocative contemporary Skinamarink. Playing several major film festivals, The Outwaters spawned hordes of staunch defenders online in the form of critics who had screened the film and been left utterly terrified. Calling it “The next Blair Witch Project,” with stories about fainting audience members and Apple Watch heart monitors going haywire due to the sheer terror portrayed onscreen, these early reviews hyped the film up to nearly impossible standards.

I myself was skeptical. As a general rule, the more hyperbolic the claims surrounding a film, the more middling it actually ends up being. I mean, take a look at the trailer:

It seems pretty confident in itself, doesn’t it? Awful big talk for a film shot for less than the price of a used Honda Civic. I think virtually every found-footage movie released in the past twenty years has been touted as the successor to Blair Witch’s legacy, so that particular bit of praise is mostly meaningless. Still, I do love the genre, and given that many of the same critics and publications had heaped similar praise on Skinamarink (which I both adored and genuinely feared), I was willing to give it the benefit of the doubt.

Being unwilling to fight traffic to see The Outwaters playing in the single theater it was playing in within a fifty-mile radius of me last weekend, I was pleasantly surprised to hear that it was hitting VOD merely a week later. So, Friday night, I restarted my on-again, off-again subscription to Screambox (the new home for The Outwaters for the foreseeable future), turned out my lights, cranked up the volume on my TV, and eagerly prepared myself for either supreme scares or bitter disappointment.

And honestly, after seeing it, I think The Outwaters falls somewhere in the middle.

The comparisons to Blair Witch are actually fairly accurate, although perhaps not for the reasons you may have in mind. Is it a revolutionary, genre-defining turn for found footage? No, not really. But much like Blair Witch, its horror is rooted firmly in the theater of the mind. If you go into this film expecting anything explicitly scary, you’re going to be in for a fairly frustrating time. Instead, The Outwaters relies heavily on suggestion and mystique to deliver its thrills, of which it has in spades.

In a lot of ways, the film shares a lot of its central DNA with Skinamarink. Although perhaps a bit more narratively conventional (at least, at first), The Outwaters similarly positions itself as a film focused far more on perception and experience rather than viewing pleasure. It’s a film designed to disorient, to confuse. Once it gets moving, it never wants you to have any bearings on its true meaning or intention. Its meant to be a maddening, obtuse descent into Hell itself, which it accomplishes with admirable flair and aplomb.

As with Skinamarink, the plot is fairly bare-bones: A group of friends head off into the desert to film a music video, when things suddenly take a turn for the bizarre and the horrifying. That’s pretty much all you get up front: Beyond the initial set-up, nothing else is explained or resolved. The Outwaters is about as open-ended as a film can be, with it carefully and methodically seeding several possible explanations along the way for the terror that is (maybe) unfolding onscreen.

I say “onscreen,” but truthfully, the majority of the film’s action is more implied than anything. True to the film’s tagline of “We all die in the dark,” the latter two acts of the film are lit primarily by the narrow beam of a flashlight, filtered through the lens of a mentally unbalanced cameraman with no sense of equilibrium or direction. If the shaky-cam style of films like Cloverfield annoyed you or made you nauseous in any way, avoid The Outwaters like the plague: At times, it’s like watching Go-Pro footage from inside a washing machine. Almost nothing is shown straight-on and in-focus.

Instead, what you get are a kaleidoscope of colors, shapes, and sounds, all working with and against each other to create a sickening, fascinating array of uncomfortable sensations. Blood manages to find its way into nearly every frame, regardless of whether or not there’s a logical source for it to spring from. The sound of a submarine’s sonar pings softly in the distance, overlayed with the cries of some hellish infant echoing through bubbles and currents of some unseen ocean. Screams of terror and pain clash with repeating gibberish and cultish chants. If there was ever a film that was under no circumstances meant to be viewed while under the influence, it’s The Outwaters.

And yet, despite the entrails and gore, despite the pleas for help and the cries for long-lost mothers and loved ones, there’s an odd beauty to the film’s mosaic of utter lunacy. The cinematography is truly breathtaking at times, and the clever exposition establishing that our main cameraman is a legitimate filmmaker goes a long way towards excusing some of the film’s more egregiously cinematic shots. It’s also an impressively good-looking film simply in terms of sheer picture quality. Even on my own home television, I was oftentimes stunned at how crisp and clear everything looked. I suspect that the lion’s share of the film’s budget must have gone towards the camera, because it puts even some big-budget Hollywood films to shame. Of course, this high-fidelity cuts both ways: While it enhances the sweeping majesty of the Mojave landscape, it also makes the inevitable dismemberment and brutality all the more visceral and real.

Cosmic horror, in the vein of Lovecraft, is, by its very nature, a difficult thing to convey in a predominantly visual medium like film. The Eldritch in meant to be inexplicable, unknowable. A mere glimpse is meant to drive men to insanity. Some films have gotten close to effectively utilizing this sort of labyrinthian obscurity, with the likes of Event Horizon and Annihilation dipping their toes into the visual realm of the uncanny and the unearthly. Yet, in nearly all of these prior attempts, the nebulous nature of their horrors from beyond have always been crippled by their need to fit the confines of a traditional narrative structure. While they may never be fully explained, there’s still just enough information to ground these spectacles, to package them for an audience’s convenient consumption. The Outwaters offers no such niceties. This is true cosmic horror, all sound and fury with no underlying rhyme or reason. There are infinitely more questions than answers on display here. Some may find this infuriating. Others, captivating.

It’s the type of film that’s inherently difficult to recommend, simply by virtue of its refusal to be defined or described. Fans of David Lynch will likely find some familiar ground here, as will anyone who enjoyed films like Jacob’s Ladder or Videodrome. For those of you who studied classic cinema, The Andalusian Dog comes to mind, with Salvadore Dali’s taste for the surreal and the twisted serving as a fairly likeminded point of comparison. But for those wanting a more grounded, more traditional found-footage experience, perhaps stay away. The same goes for those of you who want an actually story or plot. The Outwaters will not grant you any such satisfaction.

I genuinely don’t know if I actually liked The Outwaters or not. But I know that it’s still on my mind, twelve hours later, so for staying power alone, I give it full marks. Give it a go if you’re curious, but be sure to meet it on its own terms: Turn of your lights, put on some headphones, and give yourself fully to the experience. Only when you’re completely at its mercy, I suspect, will The Outwaters truly hit you as intended.

We all die in the dark.

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