Sign up for Sight & Sound’s Weekly Film Bulletin and more
News, reviews and archive features every Friday, and information about our latest magazine once a month.
Robbie Banfitch – director, producer, cinematographer, editor, effects man and lead actor – takes risks in The Outwaters. Like Enys Men and Skinamarink (both 2022), Banfitch’s film is short on story and long on effect, and liable to make some viewers frustrated enough to vent online and suggest that any enthusiastic reviews are somehow inauthentic. The same, of course, could be said of Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975).
We open with a panicked 911 call and captions that deliberately evoke The Blair Witch Project (1999). The film purportedly consists of footage shot in 2017 by four people who went into California’s Mojave Desert to make a pop music video. Singer Michelle (Michelle August), who has recorded a haunting version of the traditional song ‘All the Pretty Horses’, is accompanied by make-up artist Ange (Angela Basolis). Filmmaker Robbie (Banfitch) has brought along his brother Scott (Scott Zagorac). Character issues – Michelle is grieving for her mother, Scott is semi-estranged from his own mum (Leslie Zagorac) – turn out to be inessential. The story stalls when five burros turn up and stare at the interlopers, halting the group’s mission. Banfitch turns his camera instead on the natural splendours of the desolate environment.
Soon, specks and splotches of red begin to recur in the desert and the dark in increasingly disturbing forms. The kinds of phenomena endemic to found-footage horror films plague the quartet: booming thunder without lightning, red snakelike creatures, an axe later picked up by a figure at the edge of the camp, fits of irrational (and rational) fear, mutilation, timeslips, impossible presences, shining rips in the fabric of space and time, and ritual-like cairns of stones and dust raised above gobbets of flesh.
Found-footage horror films generally cheat on their premise, shaping material or just ignoring the fact that most folks in situations like this would drop the camera and run: compare the satisfying narrative of Paranormal Activity (2007) with the apparent formlessness of Werner Herzog’s actual found-footage documentary Grizzly Man (2005). Banfitch, on the other hand, takes first-person camera as a given, then subjects audiences to a 45-minute bombardment of images glimpsed through pinholes of visibility in velvet darkness or the eventual blinding light of day after stretches of near-total darkness. Equally assaultive sound design conveys either Lovecraftian forces from the beyond or a literal desert storm. If the job of a horror film is to terrify, then The Outwaters is refreshingly direct and astonishingly successful even as it is, in certain ways, wilfully obscure.
► The Outwaters is in UK cinemas from Friday.