This is a little piece that I like to call “Why I hated The Outwaters and why I think you should give it a go”.
This is not the traditional sort of film review, because this is not the traditional sort of horror movie. The Outwaters, which comes written, directed, produced, and starring Robbie Banfitch, is a 2022 found footage horror film that is getting a theatrical release in the USA on 9 February before streaming exclusively on Screambox. It follows four people – two brothers and their respective partners – as they head out into the Mojave Desert to record an independent pop-folk music video. Once out on their own they begin to experience strange and uncanny events. So far, so Blair Witch Project. What they find, however, and what the viewer sees and hears through three recovered memory cards, pushes well beyond the typical feature of this style and into some of those most challenging territory I have ever watched in a horror film.
Let us be clear on definitions of that term: ‘challenging’. I do not mean it in terms of confrontational imagery – although there is some – or blood and gore – and there is a lot of the former and a little of the latter. This is challenging material because Banfitch essentially takes the found footage format, typified by the likes of Blair Witch, Cloverfield, Cannibal Holocaust, and Paranormal Activity, and stretches it for all that it is worth. People who loathe found footage for its nauseating shaky camera work will want to run a mile. People who like to clearly see what is going on should probably follow them. The beauty of found footage, particularly in horror, is that it aggressively limits the viewer’s point of view to match that of the protagonist. If they are frightened by weird noises without a source, we are no more illuminated as to what is out there than they are. Different filmmakers can manipulate this aspect as they see fit. In Cloverfield (2008) Matt Reeves uses it to gradually reveal the mysterious giant monster that is terrorising New York, leading to a ‘money shot’ climax where we finally gain a proper look. In The Blair Witch Project (1999) Myrick and Sanchez use it to keep the threat invisible and unknowable. We see the effects of the witch on the characters and their environment, but the full nature of the witch is kept unknowable.
Banfitch takes it all that critical step beyond – and many, including me, will consider it a step too far – and turns the found footage horror movie into a viscerally chaotic and confused blind panic. The precise nature of what occurs is absolutely a matter for the film itself, but it is important to know going in that this is less of a narrative and more of an experience. Myself, I prefer some story with my abject terror. The film also feels maddeningly long. Once the terrors begin, it sometimes feels as if it is never going to end. It feels very much that this is deliberate, and part of Banfitch’s intent. It will absolutely have its best effect in a movie theatre.
I cannot in all honesty ever imagine sitting through The Outwaters again, but I am very glad to have sat through it once. It is a wonderful experiment, and the audience that does embrace it is clearly going to embrace it hard. Make no mistake: this is going to be a divisive film. At the same time, it is almost certainly one of the horror films of 2023 that enthusiasts and critics alike are going to talk about. If you want to participate in that conversation, you are going to want to try it out for yourself.
Cinema grows from experimenting, and thrives from pushing boundaries. While a traditional three-act commercial narrative can entertain us, it is films like this that advance the medium. In a world of ‘safe’ movies, it is always preferable to be an Outwaters.