Review: With Few Visuals and Limited Narrative, The Outwaters Is a Frustrating, if Brutal, Low-Budget Thriller

Perhaps it’s not so surprising that the new horror offering The Outwaters is being released in the immediate aftermath of the much-talked-about Skinamarink, since both films have an experimental visual style and seem to embrace the less-is-more style of eliciting fear from its audience members. To be clear, these are very different movies, but they share enough of the same spirit that I understand the comparisons. Skinamarink is meant to resemble childhood waking nightmares and play off a child’s fear of abandonment; The Outwaters is meant to be a more visually accurate found-footage, first-person narrative, where a great deal of what's captured is barely visible or sensible. That being said, the audio is clear and often horrifying.

The film is the brainchild of writer/director Robbie Banfitch; he also plays lead character Robbie, who is preparing for an excursion into the Mojave Desert with his brother Scott (Scott Schamell) and friend Angela (Ange Bocuzzi), to make a music video for singer Michelle (Michelle August). Robbie documents the entire trip, which includes a night of camping and generally roving the desert to get some picturesque b-roll for the video. As is explained in the opening, the entire film takes place over Robbie’s camera’s three memory cards, which nicely frame the film’s three parts, the first of which is fairly banal travel diary stuff occasionally punctuated by late night explosive sounds, wildlife behaving strangely, and apparent wave-like vibrations coming from under the ground and sometimes in the air.

But on subsequent memory cards, things take a turn and become a little more difficult to explain in this review, mostly because it’s very difficult to see anything. With much of the film taking place in the dark, I pieced together that something runs up on Robbie and attacks him; he stumbles, injured, back to the oversized tent the four friends share and he either attacks his friends or leads the thing that mauled him to them. When Robbie opens the tent flap and says, “My head is raining,” I got the chills. But then for the next hour or so, The Outwaters becomes an exercise in severe frustration. I certainly appreciate Banfitch’s commitment to using sound as his primary source for generating fear, but it becomes tiresome quickly, especially when he combines it with visuals that look like they were lit with a single penlight, giving us the tiniest diameter of visibility imaginable so that we only catch glimpses of whatever is in front of Robbie.

Sometimes the images are clear (a bloody face; a desert bush; weird, screaming snakes covered in blood and clearly being pulled by fishing wire), and other times, they are just flashes of something in front of the camera. Admittedly, the last 30 minutes or so of The Outwaters is the best part of the movie, primarily because things slow down a bit and become somewhat more recognizable. I don’t need everything spelled out for me or every question answered in my horror movies, but I wouldn’t mind being able to actually know what it is I’m looking at during key moments that I suspect are meant to be suspenseful. By the time we get to the truly grotesque portions of the final act (which are crystal clear, I might add), I’d mostly tuned out. This is not to say the ending isn’t impactful—quite the contrary—but the film as a whole was taxing for my eyes and my spirit.

The film is now playing in select theaters.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.