THE Outwaters REVIEW | Chattanooga Film Festival 2022
Found images are a matter of balance. Balancing clarity with obstruction is the foundation (pun intended) of the subgenre. The moments of pure chaos, where the audience is unable to see what is going on, are all the more touching as they function as a break from the clarity that has been offered to us thus far. But The Outwaters, the feature debut of writer/director/actor Robbie Banfitch, seeks to upset that balance in favor of pure impenetrable mayhem in its second half. It’s certainly a bold and daring move, especially for a rookie filmmaker, but sadly, it just doesn’t pan out.
The Outwaters begins with a black screen and the sound of a 911 call where the audience can clearly hear the operator but can only make out the screams of the caller. We are then shown a slideshow of images and names of four young people who all disappeared in the Mojave Desert in 2017 before a full-screen title card in bright red fills the screen. It’s a great start for a found movie and immediately sets us up to expect something disturbing and thrilling. But the problems start almost directly after this promising opening.
The text on the screen informs us that three video memory cards were discovered in the desert in early 2022 and that this film will show the raw images of these cards in chronological order, without modification of the sound or image. The idea of flashcards as title cards is interesting, but few horror movies incorporate title cards because in a genre largely based on suspense, you don’t want to stop and start the action.
The first two cards take up the first half of the film and introduce the group to the audience: videographer Robbie (Banfitch), his brother Scott (Scott Schamell), makeup artist Angela (Angela Basolis) and singer Michelle (Michelle May), whose music video the group went to the desert to shoot. The second map features strange occurrences like a loud thud on the group’s first night at their camp and what appears to be the sound of water rushing beneath the desert heard through small openings in the rock formations. More alarming though, is a hatchet firmly placed in the desert land, something that should draw more attention and concern from our characters than it does.
It is in the third map that the film gets carried away for its entire second hour. On the second night in the desert, Robbie investigates the thuds and we can make out the silhouette of a man holding a hatchet (presumably the same one) against the horizon who then lunges at Robbie and we can hear an attack. But after that, almost nothing becomes clear again until the last 5 minutes of the film. From there it’s all night shots of a small circle of light on a variety of things and daytime shots of Robbie’s feet as he walks through the desert in a distressed state. The few things the camera clears up, including one of the women’s blood-covered breasts and a castrated penis, often make it look like they’re looking for cheap shock value, especially when given more attention than anything else.
What’s disappointing is that some of the horror is effective. The terror of the unknown is explored in so many horror movies because it can be counted on to upset an audience, and the inability to see what’s going on is a key aspect of that horror in horror movies. images found. The biggest problem with The Outwaters isn’t that the sheer chaos of the film’s second half completely fails (it doesn’t), but that the first half of the film exists.
We spend an hour with four characters, only one of whom is at all relatable or interesting (Angela), and two of whom are somewhat actively annoying. But they’re not nearly as gross as the characters in movies like Hostel where we at least spend that time excited to see them violently killed. They just aren’t fun to spend time with.
Moreover, the film already breaks its own rule and includes non-diegetic sound several times, often on edits (which have no place in found footage, whether there is non-diegetic sound or not). This means that when, on the first night in the desert, the band and the public hear muffled and almost industrial sounds, it is not clear at first if it is a diegetic or non-diegetic sound, something which is key to the film’s attempts to build its universe, and create suspense.
By the time we’re immersed in the film’s relentless chaos, it’s hard to be engaged. Not only because the camera techniques used make it so difficult to gather anything from the footage, but also because we don’t care about the characters and the rules of the film were broken, which means it It’s unclear whether every odd sound is from within the movie’s world or is meant to serve as a score.
The Outwaters is visually too inconsistent to succeed as a standard found-frame horror film, but what’s more frustrating is that it could very well have succeeded as an experimental found-frame film that simply lets it down. the audience in the footage from Memory Card 3. ends up feeling a little too long due to the utterly uninteresting first hour that could have been a lean, purely visceral movie that lasts about an hour by excising this footage.
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The Outwaters is a bold and daring film, but it undermines its effectiveness by breaking its own rules, spending too long leading up to the horror, and simply being impossible to see clearly for much of its runtime.