With all the (horror) world buzzing about Skinamarink, a new challenger has appeared in the world of experimental horror, and his name is Robbie Banfitch. In his debut film The Outwaters, Banfitch has created a found-footage nightmare that plays with many of the esoteric vibes as Kyle Edward Ball’s minimalist, atmospheric spook-a-doodle, but careens in the opposite direction with more of a maximalist take.
The Outwaters follows a foursome – brothers Robbie (Banfitch) and Scott (Scott Zagorac), singer Michelle (Michelle May), and makeup artist Ange (Angela Basolis) – who head out into the Mojave desert in 2017 to film Michelle’s music video. The film opens on a harrowing 911 call, and reveals to us that all four went missing, with footage in the form of three memory cards recovered from the camera in 2022. Disarming you with a charming normalcy, Banfitch (who plays Robbie and is the primary custodian of the camera) lulls you into a false sense of security in a way in which many found-footage horrors slip up. He takes his time in introducing each character, developing their relationships with each other and cultivating likeability and vulnerability in all of them. Singer Michelle gives off neo-hippie vibes that would seem disingenuous with a different presentation, but her quiet confidence conceals a deep sense of loss for her deceased mother. She sings the refrain of All The Pretty Little Horses beautifully, but with the knowledge that there’s a pain bubbling underneath. And there’s poor Ange. She’s imported from New Jersey to do makeup, and feels like she’s just along for the ride. A visit to Robbie and Scott’s mother just before they embark into the desert lets you know that the group is leaving a lot behind.
When you think about a lot of the big found footage movies – films like Blair Witch, Paranormal Activity, The Last Exorcism, or As Above, So Below – they’re about people willingly putting themselves in dangerous situations. Wandering into the woods to find a ghost, or setting up cameras all over the house to catch a ghost, or filming an exorcism and encountering a ghost. In The Outwaters, this group of people is just trying to make music, to work on their writing, or just enjoy the scenery, or at least to produce a music video. They’re asking for none of what’s coming for them, which makes the terrifying and brutal outcomes they’re about to experience even harder to watch. In a lot of ways it’s like watching your favourite band be torn apart in front of you, and not in a metaphorical way like an Oasis tour video.
But at the back of your mind, you know you’re watching a horror movie. And further, you’ve heard the 911 call at the beginning of The Outwaters and are tragically armed with the knowledge that this isn’t going to end well. So when the ominous signs start popping up around our foursome, like an unidentified animal skull or an axe embedded into the ground, you’re immediately on edge. Things that should be funny like a sinister-looking pack of donkeys are drained of their levity because you’re worried about what lurks right behind tham. And then there’s the nightly explosions and the earthquakes that permeate the landscape, punctuated with dissonant audio in the forms of the desperate notes of an acoustic guitar, and piercing screams. You’re constrained to what Robbie shows you through the single lens of his camera, and there’s always a feeling that something you need to see – even if you don’t want to – is just out of frame. With these limited tools and perspectives, though, Banfitch creates a sensory landscape that beckons you in, even as it’s about to turn on you.
The Outwaters is, above all else, an experiential outing. You shouldn’t go in expecting an explanation for what you’re about to see, hear, and feel. That would, I think, cheapen things. Instead, like Skinamarink or any other experimental horror, it works best if you let it overtake you. There are horrifying delights down every path, every hole, and every dried-up lake bed that Banfitch takes you down. And as with Skinamarink, there is a substantial amount of what you might mistake for nothing that’s punctuated by strobing effects and deafening aural tones. But the distinction between Kyle Edward Ball’s vision and Banfitch’s is that the latter is more of a maximalist experience than a minimal one, instead choosing to do a lot with a lot. At times, especially in the film’s back half, I felt myself reflexively flinching away because it was all too much, and the first-person perspectives, sometimes inverting itself in case you weren’t dizzy and disoriented enough. I love that The Outwaters takes this route, and that both it and Skinamarink exist as two opposite ends of a found-footage spectrum. It shows that horror is all sorts of things, that a pile of Lego or a blood-soaked tent are equal sources of terror if you just open your mind to it. The Outwaters may turn out to be just as divisive as Skinamarink, but almost for opposite reasons. Horror is a land of contrasts!
Banfitch is playing at something far beyond a typical found-footage horror here. There are callbacks and references to innocuous-seeming lines from earlier in the film about psychedelics or earthquakes. There are long, upside-down tracking shots that evoke a parallel world of violence and Lovecraftian monsters. Perhaps Banfitch’s greatest achievement in The Outwaters is making the deliberate seem accidental; that shots of blood streaking the sand or the side of a tent are naturally-occurring and that the camera has just happened upon these scenes. When things really get weird, these scenes bolster the film’s authenticity. That means that the nightmare you’ve been thrust into feels altogether too real.
The Outwaters is truly one of the scariest, most compelling movies of 2023 so far. It’s only February, but the characters and atmosphere that Banfitch has created here will be tough to top. But, maybe topping it isn’t the point. Banfitch has meticulously crafted an experience that you truly feel you’re sharing with the four main characters, and Banfitch himself behind the camera. You’ll feel every bit of the disorientation, the confusion, and the helplessness that they take with them into the hellscape of the Mojave. As the beauty of the landscape and the pure motives of the protagonists become clear, you’ll always know that doom is coming for them. How, and why are less clear, and that’s what makes it all so terrifying. With The Outwaters, Robbie Banfitch and his cast and crew have created what I can only describe as one of the best and most harrowing found-footage films I have ever seen.
The Outwaters is playing in select theaters nationwide (US and Canada) beginning February 9. You can find a list of theatres here. Following its theatrical run, The Outwaters will be released exclusively on Screambox.
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