Writer/director/editor/cinematographer Robbie Banfitch’s The Outwaters begins in familiar territories. An audio recording of an obviously distressed if incomprehensible call to emergency services is accompanied by stills (from happier times) of the four people whose voices can be heard ranting and freaking out on it – Michelle August (Michelle May), Angela Bocuzzi (Angela Basolis), Scott Zagorac (Scott Schamell) and his brother Robbie (Banfitch). Text reveals that all four were last seen on the 8th August, 2017, and then – after the title – further text informs us that what we are about to watch is the raw video and sound of three camera memory cards discovered on the 22nd Feb 2022, and being reviewed as evidence by the Mojave County Police Department.
In other words, The Outwaters looks set clearly to follow the influential found footage formula laid out by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s The Blair Witch Project (1999). For here we have a chronicle of deaths foretold, initially laid out by intimate, intradiegetic camerawork as pure fly-on-the-wall realism, before it gradually admits the irrational and – ideally – leaves the viewer reeling with the disorientation of cognitive dissonance to match the hyperkinetic lensing. The film’s first half comprises the first two cards, as the four assemble and prepare to leave an earthquake-stricken Los Angeles for a camping trip in the Mojave desert, where Robbie plans to shoot a “Sixties-style” music video for Michelle and Scott’s latest song (a melancholic version of All The Pretty Little Horses), with East Coast girl Angela on costumes and hair. Once there, they clown during the day, and are kept up at night by strange thundering noises in the vicinity – and then, on the third card, the psychedelic video that they had hoped to shoot is realised in a weird kaleidoscope of disjointed, upsetting imagery and blood-drenched mayhem into which all four will disappear.
Found footage, of course, is merely a format of focalisation and presentation rather than a monolithic narrative mode, although it is fair to say that many of the films that appeared in the wake of The Blair Witch Project came with an undeniably samey quality, not just confining themselves to the view of cameras operated by the characters, but also following a prescribed structure and set of story beats. In 2012, Eduardo Sánchez returned with Lovely Molly in an attempt to move the format forward. For in that film, it slowly became apparent that the found footage was not simply documenting what was happening in the psychologically disturbed Molly’s external life, but was – impossibly – capturing her interiority and her increasingly deluded point-of-view. This unreliable reportage was something genuinely new, even if it never quite caught on with other filmmakers – but Banfitch fully embraces it in the third part of The Outwaters, which captures not what is actually happening to the campers, but one character’s diffracted, distorted and dissociative perspective on events. Despite the supposed veridicality of found footage, what you see here is not what you get – although like any kaleidoscope, it offers fragmented glimpses of reality, chopped up, as it were, like a corpse and scattered over the arid landscape.
As such, there is an experimental aspect to The Outwaters, which breaks the rules of its own format’s established narratology. For as initial naturalism soon gives way to a looping, hallucinatory mindmelt, it is left for the viewer to pick up the clues, to read the entrails and to see the sign(s) in reconstructing what has really happened to cause these four tourists to go off the rails and lose their heads. In this mannered, panicky merger of Gus van Sant’s Gerry (2002) and Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder (1990), the desert proves a testing ground that exposes these trespassers to both the elements and their own primal natures.
There are definite problems with pacing here. It might even be said that where the film’s first half meanders, its second half meanders some more, only in lower light – and the considerable duration that we spend in the company of these four people somehow fails to establish much about their characters. It takes its sweet time, almost as though it would rather keep going in circles than face up to the awful truth at its heart. Yet once we enter Robbie’s addled, toxified mindset, and see horror from its own uncomprehending centre, indeed right from the inside, the film takes him – and us – on a very bad trip from which there can be no return, only flashbacks. Permeated with Banfitch’s ever more jarring, alarming sound design, The Outwaters is a tragedy of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, like a fish (or a shark’s tooth) out of water, full of dislocations both metaphorical and literal. To horror viewers seeking to venture a little beyond their genre’s usual boundaries, it’s a gas – with one hell of a comedown.
strap: Robbie Banfitch’s low-budget found footage freakout documents a desert disappearance from the inside
© Anton Bitel