The Outwaters

As missing posters appear on screen for Michelle August (Michelle May), Angela Bocuzzi (Angela Basolis) and Scott (Scott Schamell) and Robbie Zagorac (Robbie Banfitch), all last seen on 8/8/2017 when they went into the desert to shoot a music video, we can hear the ungodly, incoherent screaming that greeted a 911 dispatcher who picked up one of their calls.   Now, almost five years later, the Mojave County Police Department has found three memory cards as evidence, which, combined with another found at one of the missing’s apartment, will allow us to experience what happened through cameraman Robbie’s POV in “The Outwaters.”

Laura's Review: B

Writer/director/cinematographer/editor/star Robbie Banfitch takes the slow cinema approach to found footage, taking his time through three memory cards to allow us to get to know the four people who disappeared in 2017 and the oddness of the landscape where they vanished.  It isn’t until we get to that fourth card (evidence card #3) that the sheer horror begins and while it features some extremely disturbing imagery, it goes on for so long one becomes numb to it.  “The Outwaters” is a creative take on a descent into madness, but some judicious editing would have made for a better film.

The film begins with great promise as we realize the four people we’re about to spend time with are a lot more mature than the usual subjects of this type of movie, old friends invested in what they do.  We witness Robbie giving his older brother a backpack for his birthday (and, presumably, the trip); Angela talking about sourcing wardrobe for the shoot and the benefits of marriage and Michelle, the subject of the upcoming video, singing a lullaby.  She will frequently hear that she both looks and sounds like her mother, who we surmise has passed.  Before they leave L.A., they’ll experience foreshadowing earthquakes.  Robbie’s footage from the car once they leave is upside down, the tops of pine trees pointing down from the sky like daggers, an unsettling image.

Evidence card #2 features tents being set up, a pack of wild donkeys and test footage of Michelle, looking lovely in blue tinted glasses, running away from Robbie’s camera into the horizon, obvious music video footage.   They will also find a hatchet embedded in the ground.  That night, there is a cacophony of wild animal noise and weird bangs, something-like-but-not-quite thunder, reverberate loudly.  Angela begins to freak out.  The next day, Robbie recounts seeing a ball of light that folded in upon itself.  He’ll also send a boom mike into a hole in the rocks and pick up a loud, unnatural sound.  Michelle twirls around and runs in a floaty dress, but winds pick up so strongly, audio is distorted.

Now we get to evidence card #3 and while many reporting on this film give the impression that the footage is horrifying but mystifying, it is actually fairly easy to figure it out, especially considering that after another of those sonic booms, we see a figure in silhouette holding that hatchet, then a voice saying ‘Who is that?’ followed by a wet-sounding thud and a very bloody hand and arm reaching out inside a tent from behind the camera.  We will consistently see the blood-drenched bare legs and feet of a man and fleeting images spotlit by the camera or a penlight.  Scott and Angela are inside tents, seemingly disoriented (‘I want to go home now’) and drenched in blood.  Weird red intestine-like things skitter across the desert, screeching (and their later reappearance makes them less effective, like stuffed streamers being pulled along by strings).

There are blinking lights, like movie kliegs, and configurations of tiny lights suggesting inter-dimensional travel, overkill considering everything else that is going on here, like a partially obscured ‘Restricted Area’ sign and gas mask on the ground.  Things get oddly sexual.  The donkeys reappear.  By far the best image is a repeat of Michelle running off into the horizon, this time pictured upside down, her white dress now drenched red, not the last time we’ll see her.  The final images are the most gruesome and tell us everything we need to know about what actually happened here if not exactly why.  At this point you may recall having heard Michelle way back on that first memory card talking about something in the desert getting into your spinal fluid and causing something like an acid trip.

The film requires some patience, but it is a new twist on the well worn found footage horror genre.  This troop is talented.  The soundtrack is exceptional and provides a signpost of sorts to the narrative.  Banfitch is an imaginative filmmaker and “The Outwaters” should have folks looking forward to see what he does next.

Cinedigm releases "The Outwaters" in theaters on 2/9/23 - click here for play dates (and note that there are tabs to continue with the listing).  Cinema Salem is holding an advance screening on 2/2/23.