Robbie Banfitch breathes new life into an exhausted sub-genre with this nightmarish, experimental vision set in the Mojave Desert
Found-footage horror broke through in 1999 with The Blair Witch Project, liberated by the possibilities of small handheld digital cameras on low-budget location shoots. The mass success of that instant classic was followed, inevitably, by a wave of imitators, some more successful than others, the best of which pulled and teased apart at the digital textures of 21st century cinema – the high-grade schlock of [REC], the static footage of Paranormal Activity, followed by the emergence of the genre’s zoomer sibling, the screen horror (Host, Unfriended, the upcoming Missing).
This leads us to The Outwaters, a frankly incredible and audacious work of found-footage horror that is thrillingly experimental and avant-garde, taking the basic structure of the genre and pulling it apart to unearth something fresh, the pixelations and hard lights of digital cameras being crushed into an altogether different texture. It’s often the case with horror that a sub-genre falls out of fashion after one too many repeats, before reinventing itself in a post-modern fashion. Between this and Skinamarink, the genre may well have reached such a phase.
The film follows in the tradition of DIY American cinema. Director Robbie Banfitch is also (deep breath) writer, actor, producer, cinematographer, editor, sound designer and special effects-er. The rest of his cast come across more like friends; there’s certainly an easy chemistry between them, as they set off on a camping trip to the Mojave Desert to film a music video.
Unsurprisingly, things don’t go to plan. In the unending heat of Death Valley, the group’s mental headspace quickly comes undone. First, strange booming noises at night – like thunder, but not quite – then strange behaviour from the local fauna, and a rock that appears to sing when the wind blows through it. It’s spooky enough to hint at something more, but we’ve all seen plenty of horrors that overpromise and underdeliver. Then, right at the halfway point, there is an image that froze me entirely.
From here on in, the film jumps headfirst into the abyss, Banfitch throwing everything at the wall, sending us down the ugliest rabbit hole possible. The cult experimental horror Begotten from 1989 comes to mind, which took the distortive grainy qualities of 16mm film and pushed them to a breaking point where we were no longer sure what we were looking at, yet the image was imbued with a terrifying power of its own. Banfitch applies that same thought process to modern digital, by way of Lynch’s Inland Empire. The film’s night-time scenes are often lit with just a single flashlight, a single point of visibility swimming in an ocean of pitch-black, whereas the daytime makes use of Death Valley’s visual intensity – bronzed yellow landscape pushed against harsh blue skies.
Banfitch proves himself to be a fantastic sound designer, too, creating a soundscape that is every bit as distorted and anxiety-inducing as the images. From that midpoint, all sense of narrative goes out the window – this becomes an exploration of how far one can push the specific qualities of digital handheld images and what feelings you can get out of them (turns out, none of them are pleasant).
Experimental cinema that plays with the pure texture of film form and film technology rarely has an opportunity to emerge beyond the art gallery. The glorious thing about The Outwaters is that it packages that textural experimentation in the context of a routine horror, immediately opening it up to a wider audience. Now that’s one hell of a Pandora’s Box… and how utterly terrifying it is to witness.
The Outwaters is released in UK cinemas on 7 April.Where to watch