The Outwaters: A Slow Roll Straight to Hell

Photo Courtesy of Screambox

It’s been almost a year since The Outwaters made waves at Panic Fest. Hal Kitchen was working the festival, and the buzz for the film was excitingly positive. I was working a different festival at the time where the film was also set to play, and for one reason or another, I was unable to catch it. I remember asking Hal what he thought about the film, and in his response, Hal muted my excitement slightly. Paraphrasing, he said that the film wouldn’t be for everybody and that, ultimately, it wasn’t for him. A quote from his review states, “[The Outwaters] second half is as conceptually ambitious as it is incoherent and repetitive,” which, honestly, saddened me to hear.  

The Poster for The Outwaters shows a bloody face in the glow of a flashlight.
Image courtesy of Screambox

Hal’s a great reviewer, and after finally seeing The Outwaters this week, I understand a lot of what he’s conveying about his experience of the film. The first half of The Outwaters can be a bit gnawing. Though the acting is good, understated, and natural, and there are some spectacularly cinematic shots when shots are framed up, the film is presented as uncut footage found during an investigation into the disappearance of the four individuals who appear on the three recovered SD cards. One-and-a-half of those cards is a very slow roll. 

As if plucked from Gale Weathers at the end of Scream, “it all starts with a scream over 911.” which you will want to try to connect at the end and be slightly disappointed. Regardless, it’s a good hook, like a placeholder for chaos to be determined later. Still, the following fifty minutes bring tedium to the audience as they wait for The Outwaters to get where it’s going. Yet, like Haydn’s “Surprise Symphony” was written to rouse members in a sleeping audience, director Robbie Banfitch’s third act is a complete heart-in-your-throat masterclass on how to make a low-budget indie horror flick that threatens the senses.   

Three people walk through an arid, cloud-free desert scene in The Outwaters
Photo courtesy of Screambox

Banfitch wants us pacified as he presents his four characters heading out to the Mojave Desert to film a music video. That disaffected calm that has taken in fifty minutes of various images, asking themselves why any of it is crucial to the plot. The chandelier, the brother characters going to see their mother, the rattlesnake, and the tunnels. Plenty of the film’s first half may feel unnecessary, but there’s a plan in place for most of it—you just have to be patient. Paying attention will also pay off. Now, I don’t think the film is Lynchian per se, but there are elements of Lynch used in The Outwaters that allow us to infer motive and reasoning behind some of what’s happening in that crazy-ass third act. Some will find themselves lost, but others may deduce and question more than a few things up until the movie’s final frames, which I would say provokes vomit induction over anything seen in Terrifier 2.  

What these four find in the desert is much more than they ever presumed. While there are moments where bats, rattlesnakes, and the sound of distant coyotes are filmed, the group finds themselves trapped in the center of a far more powerful predator’s nest. Plagues of insects and sharp nightly noises are more than enough cause for alarm to the unwelcome intruders, yet the desert campers persist. Sound becomes integral to the film, and like Haydn, it will awaken anyone who has passively considered grabbing z’s during Banfitch’s concerto. 

A Faux-Missing-Flyer for the characters in The Outwaters
Image Courtesy of Screambox

When the sh*t starts hitting the fan, my first thought was that, somehow, they found a portal to hell. Whether or not that’s the case is undefined, but I’ve often craved the same onslaught of isolative shots and sensory panic that The Outwaters wrought in a Hellraiser film. This is a harrowing depiction of inescapable cosmic terror shown through liminal light, pointed through a nearly useless flashlight, which, through all annoyance, is also the only thing the viewer has left to cling to.  

When Banfitch’s character finds an item in the desert during the final minutes of the film that certainly could not have gotten there on its own, I looked up its meaning in a dream dictionary. I had a theory about the brothers and their female companions in The Outwaters, and this research led me to conclude my theory may be correct. There are many nuanced clues along the way, explaining what may otherwise be construed as WTF horror at its finest. Either that or I’ve read a little too far into things and need to take a vacation. However, finding meaning in something as abstract as The Outwaters is fully Lynchian.  

A bloody face appears in the flashlight glow and stares into the camera in The Outwaters

If you’re looking for something to compare The Outwaters to, there are a few found footage films that go to the desert, such as Oren Peli’s Area 51 and Blair Witch Project co-director Daniel Myrick’s Skyman. But neither satisfies the way The Outwaters does. The Outwaters is ambiguous enough not to fall into the trappings of those films, admirable in attempting to go against the typical found footage narrative structure, which includes imperfect documentation of events and the suggestion that the lens becomes the eye of an unreliable reality. The most comparable experience I can give you to The Outwaters is a video game called Oxenfree. The game shares a lot of similar plot points with the movie, though The Outwaters takes things up a few notches in the blood and gore area.  

While The Outwaters isn’t as complete of an experience as I would have liked, I still walked away mesmerized, processing the supernatural occurrences and what to make of them. I thought of the Lovecraftian elements and the underlying implications in the narrative. While I flat-out enjoyed the film, I think many people won’t. And it’s not just the first half of the film they’ll cite. Some will hate the limited visibility of the second half, and others will knock the film’s disconnectedness. As Hal had told me, so shall I tell you: The Outwaters won’t be for everybody. The camera is often shaky, and occasionally people will appear out of frame. The plot is vague, and the imagery is fueled by fever dream logic. But if you’re interested in seeing how the pieces fit, debating whether those were tentacles or skinned snakes slithering about, or are just a fan of utterly demented f*cked-up horror movies, The Outwaters may leave you buzzing, thinking about it for days and weeks to come.  

The Outwaters comes to theaters Feb 9 before streaming exclusively on Screambox at a later date. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Written by Sean Parker

Living just outside of Boston, Sean has always been facinated by what horror can tell us about contemporary society. He started writing music reviews for a local newspaper in his twenties and found a love for the art of thematic and symbolic analysis. Sean joined Horror Obsessive at it's inception, and is currently the site's Creative Director. He produces and edits the weekly Horror Obsessive podcast for the site as well as his interviews with guests. He has recently started his foray into feature film production as well, his credits include Alice Maio Mackay's Bad Girl Boogey, Michelle Iannantuono's Livescreamers, and Ricky Glore's upcoming Troma picture, Sweet Meats.

An open window

The Last of Us S1E3 “Long Long Time”

Poster image for Final Girls Berlin Film Festival

Final Girls Berlin Film Festival: Creatures Short Film Block