While its razor-thin plot may leave some viewers out in the cold, fans of moody, atmospheric horror will likely love this fawned-over film.
It’s a tricky thing, attempting to review a movie lauded as horror’s next great evolution.
I know that fear is subjective; everyone finds different things frightening, and you know what, that’s fine. That’s fair. Even knowing this, every time a movie receives the delirious praise The Outwaters has, I throw myself into the experience. Like many horror fans, I’ve become a bit desensitized. It takes a lot for a movie to truly scare me.
I’ve been chasing the high I last felt watching The Strangers in a dark movie for years.
All that is to say that, in light of the blissful raves pouring in for The Outwaters, I built my hopes up again. But I am going to make every effort to provide a clear-eyed assessment of the movie, separate from my own elevated expectations.
It’s a complicated movie; there’s a lot to admire about it, and I can see why for many, it’s impactful.
I was not the audience for it, and I want to be honest about that from the outset. I am more narratively driven, and The Outwaters is all ambiance. And while I cannot hail it as the nightmare I’ve been waiting for, I will enthusiastically say it builds one hell of a mood.
The plot, in as much as there is a plot, revolves around four friends who go into the desert to make a music video.
Michelle (Michelle May), the singer, is grieving her mother. Robbie (Robbie Banfitch) spearheads the operation with help from his brother Scott (Scott Schamell). Angela (Angela Basolis) comes along to do makeup and enjoy the scenery.
The first 40 or so minutes of the movie are dedicated to establishing the group dynamic.
These are nice people. The worst you can say about any of them is that they might more closely resemble the Coachella kids they poke fun at than they’d care to admit. While I appreciate this world-building, it does test the boundaries of how thinly you can spread zero plot.
Though the pacing lags a bit, the opening segment is beautifully shot.
Robbie Banfitch, who wrote and directed in addition to starring in the film, has a hell of an eye.
However, sound design is where The Outwaters shines.
The movie picks up small noises we take for granted and makes them feel heavy with unspoken purpose.
The wind whipping past us blows in danger.
Additionally, Banfitch cleverly builds a soundtrack by having his heroes listen to music through much of the first half. When the music stops, it’s a subtle and clever hint that things are about to turn to shit.
And turn to shit they do.
I’m not excessively concerned about revealing spoilers here because I’m genuinely unsure how I could if I wanted to. Trippy, psychedelic nightmare imagery ensues. Why? Unclear. How? Even less clear. Robbie loses track of his friends, and much of the film’s end is spent with him alone.
Robbie is likable enough, and there’s no joy in seeing him suffer.
But here is where mileage may vary: the absence of narrative coherence lost me. There’s not much of what you could call a linear plot or forward momentum.
However, The Outwaters teems with hellish imagery.
There’s blood a-plenty, and I would recommend front-loading your snacking because some of the scenes are fucking gnarly.
There are Lovecratian hints towards cosmic horror, and the last 10 minutes are truly haunting.
The nearly two-hour run time may strike some (me) as excessive. I’m sure for some, it simply allows the nightmare to unravel at a comfortable pace. However, the movie might have benefited from some conflict — any conflict.
Angela, at one point, pushes Robbie to leave the desert, adding an element of tension. The Outwaters could have done with a bit more of that.
The Outwaters is full of portents.
There are two earthquakes before our group even heads to the desert. Even small things like the rare California rainfall seem to hint at bad days ahead. Thunder without a storm and several unamused donkeys all hint at what’s to come.
The movie’s bound to inspire a wide variety of interpretations.
The found footage conceit complicates the whole thing; while it’s clear the movie has greater metaphorical ambitions, it’s also got to be literal because everything has been recorded as it happened.
This leads to my final critique, I promise, and it’s hardly limited to The Outwaters.
It’s difficult to conceive of any reason Robbie would continue filming once things go tits up. The camera serves no purpose. It’s not an easy nut to crack, and I understand that with any movie, you tacitly accept certain suspensions of disbelief. However, found footage is the only genre where the camera is a character and a plot point as well as the outside observer with its feet in reality.
THE OUTWATERS has very much been many people’s jam, and it’s exciting, even as an unconverted, to see the horror community so damn enthused.
There’s a lot to praise about the movie, even for me, a girl who thinks it could have been half an hour shorter.
Mileage is going to vary with this one. Know your horror poison going in.
Do you need plot to enjoy a film? This one may not be for you.
However, if nightmare images and sounds impact you, watch The Outwaters immediately.