The Outwaters Film Review

The found footage film subgenre still has it. I never knew a FF film could be as profound as it is scary, given that its restricted legroom can only do so much. But going back years ago, this exact curtailment made The Blair Witch Project (1999) an exemple of how horror could thrive in the film landscape during the evolution of visual storytelling. The Outwaters (2022) proves that the genre’s constraint is its most prominent and potent strength.

The Outwaters (2022), poster

Saying that The Outwaters is surprising is an oversimplification. It brings out emotions that movies in the subgenre have attempted to engender for so long. Indeed, we have seen wonders in these films like aliens, monsters, or even monsters dressed as human beings. They indulged us with absolute horror, and we loved how we feared that maybe what was happening before us was non-fictitious, as if we are nuts about the illusion that something so absurd could feel so real. But The Outwaters has overdone itself, not only giving us a sense of realism but also stripping our grasp on reality at the same time. The idea is crazy, but it gets even crazier when watching the film.

The premise is nothing out of the usual sinister southwest horrors. A group of travelers runs into terrifying encounters while shooting a music video in the xeric Mojave Desert. Like The Hills have Eyes (1977), Tremors (1990), and Southbound (2015), The Outwaters utilizes the idea of being in the middle of scarce resources and extreme desolation, effectively setting up the horror of isolation. The desert also poses perfect imagery that contributes to the culminating existential query of the film.

The Outwaters is divided into three chapters, presented by the police as a series of found footage tapes. The first tape covers random videos chronicling their personal lives before the trip. These apparently random home videos show us a glimpse of how average their lives are before experiencing the bizarre aggressions to come. Like every found footage film, which prides itself on its glacial pace to ideally establish an emotional bond between the characters and the viewers, The Outwaters presents us with a feast of buddy clips that make a perfect mirage of a road movie.

The second tape progresses their apparent quest for self-discovery, freedom, and human connection. What makes the first two tapes tolerable despite some dragging moments is the spectacular frames that capture the magnificence of the desert. The emptiness from camping on the outskirts of civilization and the silence hovering over the place is perfectly accentuated in the cinematography. At least things begin to build up bit by bit in this chapter as the story starts to feel stretched out gratuitously already. But the crumbs given to us might feel short and futile as they don’t rouse any sort of threat or, at the minimum, show any apprehension on the characters’ end after experiencing successive anomalies.

That is why the outset of the third tape is not specifically shocking, as the climax becomes bathetic rather than generative because of its brief and underdone escalation of events. But the third tape quickly recovers from this shortcoming as the film’s last chapter raises the bar for every known found footage film ever. The forthcoming sequences are literally maelstroms that one can’t regain from easily. Robbie Banfitch, the director, seems to have fun taping and editing this whole chapter, pulling out all the stops to create a restless yet watch-worthy visual and aural odyssey. He manages to tap the subgenre with respect and ingenuity, preserving the film’s intensity and level of realism while pushing the boundaries of found footage storytelling. It is an admirable effort from an up-and-coming director.

An amalgamation of the brain-racking Annihilation (2018), the grotesque of The Borderlands (2013), and the surrealism of As Above So Below (2014), The Outwaters is a manifold experience that exceeds beyond its graphic images and horrifying scenes. The film begs the question: what happens if we are stripped of our humanity? Reconnection and human intimacy are the recurring themes before the otherworldly events unfolding in the film.

The film spends ample time establishing how the characters long for and prize relationships. It is what keeps them grounded and sane behind all sporadic natural phenomena (typhoons, earthquakes), proving that relationships can stand the test of time. During half of the film, we become comfortable because of their interactions, establishing a friendly and familial atmosphere that many might find relatable. Their trip to the desert begins as a measure of whether the seclusion from the city makes or breaks them. Temporarily, the desert proves a place of clarity, where they could reevaluate their relationships in peace. Unfortunately, this place is just a mere presage of what will soon fall upon them.

The Outwaters (2022), Found Footage

The last chapter wrecks all the coziness from the previous tapes. The desert becomes an endless region of despair as opposed a place of discovery. The scorching heat turns cold as Robbie, played by the director and one of the main characters, finds himself traversing the sands alone and helpless. The entity, who messed up the bunch, tortures the camera-yielding survivor in eternal planes of horror where time, space, and logic are all irrelevant. We witness the character undergo nyctophobic episodes and mentally exhausting trials, which would no doubt detach anyone from every worldly feeling and emotion they once had.  The found footage treatment is at its peak here, as the lack of clarity makes every scene deeply unnerving and unpredictable. Bloody episodes are utterly gory and flinching, thanks to its raw use of practical effects.

The whole ordeal, in turn, humiliates us with the idea that humankind is just a petty race compared to them. In the end, the character ultimately castrates himself from humanity, forced to strip his mortal and carnal nature. We begin to ask ourselves another existential question: Is humanity pointless after all?

The Outwaters is an experience you wouldn’t want to miss. It is a love-it-or-hate-it film made specifically for those who love horror films that take risks. It is an intense effort to expand the depth and possibilities of the found footage genre.

 

The Outwaters is screening as part of the 2022 Unnamed Footage Festival

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