‘The Outwaters’ Takes Found-Footage Terror to the Desert

In the wake of Skinamarink comes another mind-twisting, narrative-pulverizing vision of horror.

‘The Outwaters’ Takes Found-Footage Terror to the Desert

Spoilers ahead

“It’s weird out here,” says Ange (Angela Basolis) just before The Outwaters goes off the rails. At that point in the horror flick, she and her small group that are camping out in the Mojave desert have encountered a plague of bees, a group of staring donkeys, and some kind of disruption in the middle of the night—maybe thunder, maybe gunshots? Whatever it was, it was accompanied by sounds of screeching wildlife.

Ange’s words prove to be an understatement, as The Outwaters, an entry in the found-footage subgenre, unfurls. It only gets weirder, eventually to the point of utter abstraction. This film, which plays in theaters this weekend, arrives in the wake of Skinamarink, the oblique domestic horror/experimental film from Kyle Edward Ball that received viral buzz and ended up grossing nearly $2 million at the box office (not bad for something that cost $15,000 to make). Together, they seem to be part of a potential movement within horror movies that don’t just derive fear from the unknown—they revel in it. For a style that traditionally has had all the subtlety of a hammer to the skull, this turn toward the impressionistic is refreshing, though those who treasure linear storylines and open-throated narrative articulation may be frustrated by the wash of nightmarish images that eventually envelops The Outwaters.

Written, directed, and starring Robbie Banfitch, The Outwaters is presented as raw footage that was found and stitched together from memory cards recovered with the remains of a group that went missing in the desert. Also in the group are Banfitch’s brother Scott (Scott Schamell) and Michelle (Michelle May), a singer. As in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Outwaters lets us know up front the certain doom its characters will face, and that imbues the introductory slices of life it then depicts with a sense of foreboding. The group assembles and heads out to the desert to shoot a video for Michelle’s song, though there’s lots of establishing footage before they set foot on sand. Adhering dogmatically to his raw-footage conceit, Banfitch gives us stray scenes (shot by his character) of group members that are largely free of exposition—his character visits his mom, a few of them drink together, Michelle sings, they drive. This section of the film, before anything that could be properly deemed “horror” occurs, is disconcerting in its own right as a kind of bombardment of the mundane. Anything here could be meaningful, or not.

It is indeed weird in the desert, and weirder still: A mic placed within a rock formation picks up wailing sounds, and some of the characters think they might feel energy in those rocks. By the end of memory card two (as noted on screen), the sound has detached from the image; a kind of whining takes over as footage for the music video is gathered. And then the real terror: In another middle-of-the-night disturbance, Robbie exits his tent and sees the outline of a shadow-shrouded person holding an axe. This image stuck out to me as truly terrifying—as scary as any single image in a horror movie that I can recall seeing in recent memory. From there, abstraction takes over. There is a lot of blood and the dissolution of Robbie’s group, with a strong suggestion that he killed them. What we see is often spotlit in the weak beam of a flashlight, further obscuring things. There is a pair of bloody legs several yards away, and then there they are on the person holding the camera. Nights roll into desolate desert days. A screeching, blood-covered snake patrols the area.

Skinamarink seemed to affect people on a primal level (comments on Reddit and elsewhere were rife with recollections of being terrified as children). And while there are some conventionally blood-soaked flashes shuffled into The Outwaters, the movie has a similar eye on intrinsic terror, namely in being stranded and unknowing. Like Skinamarink, The Outwaters seems to be crafted with its audience’s intelligence in mind—but with a little bit more to chew on. It dares you to make what you will of its macabre montage, an approach that is worlds away from hack-’em-up slashers and ghost stories that only rely on jump scares. For so long, people have been talking about “elevated horror,” which is just another way of discussing movies with distinct senses of vision (which most aspire to, at any rate). The abstract approach in Skinamarink and The Outwaters has produced movies that at last deserve such a distinction.

In The Outwaters, nightmare visions flash back to the pre-desert section of the movie—there isn’t an explanation, per se, of exactly what is going on, but there is a symmetry that reinforces the rift in reality that has taken place. “Somebody help me,” says Robbie. “Who am I?” For all the external threats, and the harshness of the environment, The Outwaters suggests that a lack of center resulting from a disrupted sense of perception is the scariest thing.

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