Within less than a month of 2023, the horror genre is already thriving with studio hits M3GAN and viral indie phenomenon Skinamark. Writer/director Robbie Banfitch The Outwaters is the best of the bunch, carving out his own slice of fear that’s unique and terrifying. It leaves the viewer in the dark, metaphorically and literally, using the primal fear of the unknown that lurks within to freeze your blood.
Law enforcement successfully recovers memory cards in a remote expanse of the Mojave Desert. The footage shows four travelers named Robbie (Banfitch) and his brother Scott (Scott Schamell) along with their friends Ange (Angela Basolis) and Michelle (Michelle May). They suddenly disappeared as they ventured out on a sun-drenched camping trip that left only questions about the events that had taken place.
Now their footage reveals a mind-boggling trip that sent the group through unimaginable horrors. However, the revelations of their mysteries can add even more confusion as the images they contain are not intended to be seen by human eyes or understood by our minds.
The discovery of The Outwaters‘ Footage is set in early 2022, but events take us back to August 2017. The opening title cards and character introductions fall right into the typical found-footage tropes that audiences have come to expect. Each member of the party prepares for their journey into the desolate Mojave Desert to introduce the travelers, each of whom begins their adventure with their own fears and insecurities that help their greatest nightmares come to life.
Banfitch only gives us a small hint about the world of the protagonists, centering them in family turmoil. Robbie and Scott are brothers who have drawn into family drama of their own, with the latter refusing to visit their mother (Leslie Ann Banfitch). The two talk briefly about her father, reflecting Michelle’s grief over the loss of her mother. Banfitch’s screenplay never plays his cards, even after the credits roll, he keeps his cards close to his chest. How it all fits together or not is up to the audience.
So why are these four friends in the Mojave Desert anyway? Michelle is recording a music video for a song her mother once sang to her. Meanwhile, the other travelers lend their skills to best capture it. However, earthquakes begin before they even reach the desert, and sudden vibrations running through the earth play a role in the ominous environment. The longer the circle of friends is exposed to its harsh conditions, the more disoriented it becomes.
Banfitch is a rare talent offering his skills as a writer, director, actor, producer, cinematographer, editor, sound designer and special effects artist. The found footage format implements a lot of shaky camera movements but takes full advantage of the location in the Mojave Desert. Banfitch takes great care in his design, particularly the placement of the horizon that separates the deep blue sky from the earthy brown in the dirt. This duality is also evident in his use of light and dark, which continue to warp throughout their adventure.
Horror fans will remember it most clearly The Blair Witch Project for what The Outwaters includes his found footage format as well as his missing protagonists, who left only this footage behind. However, Banfitch finds his own groove that places its emphasis on the characters’ descent into utter chaos. It’s madness worthy of HP Lovecraftian storytelling, with an enduring and inescapable desolation.
The Outwaters does not shy away from enveloping his audience in complete darkness. It’s often difficult to discern what’s happening during the night scenes, but they allow Banfitch’s distinctive sound design to stand out. It’s surprisingly effective and makes you feel like you’re seeing something you shouldn’t, as the audio is terrifying enough.
Isolation and loneliness are superficial themes here as the film gradually becomes less of a narrative and more of an experience. There is a constant shift in meaning that perverts the story’s most innocent elements. Even Michelle’s lullaby takes on a new form, moving from beautiful and sentimental to spooky and spooky.
The Outwaters Dips its toes into the darkest depths of Hell, constructing an experimental approach to a tired subgenre that is unsettling and petrifying. It’s undeniably disorienting and a bit frustrating, but it’s just impossible to pull away from this film’s sheer nightmare fuel, seeping out of every corner of its desert setting. Banfitch is one of the most intriguing new voices in the horror genre.
The Outwaters opens in theaters on February 9th and will be streamed on Screambox after its theatrical release.