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The Outwaters Review: Frightening Found Footage

EDITORS' RATING : 8.5 / 10
  • The found footage is absolutely terrifying
  • It's visually beautiful
  • The cast is completely committed and makes the movie feel lived-in
  • It could have expanded its mythology just a little bit more

We've come far enough in our understanding of the found footage subgenre of horror to understand that any film using that particular style, no matter how realistic it might seem, is still an engineered work of imagination using certain techniques to pull us along its story thread. The days of believing "The Blair Witch Project" might have actually been assembled from a chunk of abandoned footage left by three missing students are over, which means found footage filmmakers can't count on that sense of the forbidden anymore — at least, not inherently.

"The Outwaters," a new found footage effort from director Robbie Banfitch, begins its story with a plot firmly rooted in the "Blair Witch" tradition of the subgenre, and therefore gives willing audiences something they think they can predict. It's yet another movie about a group of young people who set out to film something in a remote location, then meet with some kind of possibly supernatural doom. We've seen this setup, we can tell ourselves, and since we have all of this inherent cultural knowledge of how found footage horror works, we can sit back and watch with a firm grasp on the reality that it's only a movie, that all of these people are fine, and that all the danger present onscreen is manufactured.

What happens next, though, is what makes "The Outwaters" special. Even with everything we think we know about found footage horror firmly entrenched in our minds, Banfitch's film has the power to overwhelm with its sense of pure, immediate terror. It's a film that overrides your grip on reality, pushes you right into its nightmare, and emerges as one of the best found footage movies in years.

Let's make a movie

As we've already discussed, the terror that will become "The Outwaters" starts from a somewhat familiar, even comforting place of horror movie structure: A group of friends heads out on a trip with no idea what's coming. The film follows Robbie (Banfitch), Scott (Scott Schamell), Angela (Angela Basolis), and Michelle (Michelle May) as they head out into the Mojave Desert for a combination camping trip and music video shoot. From there, Banfitch and his co-stars start to layer in the strange while celebrating the desolate beauty of the desert, slyly establishing a certain geography for the film even if the audience doesn't know it yet. We need to know what this environment is like because we need to know what characters will be forced to venture through when everything goes wrong.

And, indeed, everything does go wrong. After one night of sleep in the desert produces strange sounds and weird animal behavior, another night descends into absolute chaos, punctuated by booming in the sky and strange silhouettes on the horizon. Before long, the foursome is plunged into terror, running and hiding for their lives as something pursues them.

Once that terror begins, it never lets up. It might slow down for a moment so Banfitch can focus on a particularly gripping image or drop some crucial hint as to what exactly is going on, but the second half of "The Outwaters" is more or less a nonstop ride of tension and chaos — and yet, it never feels totally chaotic. One of the pitfalls of found footage is that, by making the footage look realistically jumbled and amateurish, you risk giving your audience little more than a series of shaky, disjointed images that can grow stale after a while. Banfitch avoids this through a few careful narrative and cinematic choices, and together they make the film better.

Non-stop terror

Though it might look like — and feel like — the chaotic final hours of a group of friends recorded on a series of memory cards, "The Outwaters" is at its heart a carefully designed piece of filmmaking that's bolstered by Banfitch's design to make his primary point-of-view character a filmmaker trying to cling to his sanity as something strange happens around him. Through the music video shoot that front-loads the story, he establishes certain visual motifs, from the vast expanses of cracked earth to the often prickly foliage of the desert to a tendency to flip the camera upside down for a dreamy effect. These motifs then recur throughout the rest of the film, giving the camera itself a sense of character even as the humans populating the film start to descend into madness. There's a clear point-of-view throughout, and that sustains our attention even as the horror elements just refuse to stop.

There are no "Blair Witch Project" lulls in this narrative once the horror kicks in, no sweet reprieves brought on by the break of day. In fact, for every moment of nightmarish darkness, there's an equally nightmarish moment that unfolds in broad daylight, as the four friends do their best not just to survive, but to make sense of what exactly is happening to them. It's enough to create the sense of something inescapable, whether it's lurking in the narrow beam of a camera's light or under the blinding canopy of the desert sun, and that both propels the film and grounds it in a sense of terror that other found footage films have perhaps lost over the years. We know "The Outwaters" isn't real, that the people who made it are alive and well and out there promoting it right now, but thanks to some very clever filmmaking and the committed performances of the cast, a part of us is pulled back into that instinctive sense of dread that all found footage films hope to conjure. A part of us is always eyeing this film with suspicion, wondering if we're supposed to be watching it, wondering if it's ever really going to be okay. That's rare in the subgenre these days, and it makes "The Outwaters" a particularly chilling found footage achievement.

"The Outwaters" hits theaters on February 9 and arrives on Screambox later this year.