The found-footage horror subgenre’s biggest claim to fame has always been its pretense of authenticity — films like The Blair Witch Project or the original Paranormal activity they were designed as such convincing facsimiles of real life that they were meant to be indistinguishable from the finished work of some doomed amateur documentary maker. But as the subgenre expanded, producing great films like [REC.] and awful like diaries of chernobyl, the idea of these films capturing “real life” became an excuse for low-budget, low-fi motion pictures. That’s what it does The Outwatersthe new horror film written, directed and starring Robbie Banfitch, so interesting: It uses found footage footage so Banfitch can cleverly break the rules once things get really creepy.
The Outwaters follows a group of four 30-somethings who adventure into the desert in hopes of recording the perfect music video. The film begins recognizably enough: Robbie (Banfitch), a documentary guy, holds the camera, capturing moments of the group’s life together and their early days in the desert in extreme close-up. This gives the film a remarkable sense of creeping loneliness early on, as the open Mojave surrounds them.
But even in these early moments, the camera does more than report what’s going on, as found footage films usually do. Instead, it also shows us Robbie’s thoughts and longings, letting us sit with him as he films Michelle (Michelle May), the lead singer of his band, for far longer than it should. These moments fit The Outwatersstyle, but they are in direct contrast to the usual tropes that have been found. These bumps would look weird in the real world and would certainly be noticed by Robbie’s friends, let alone his actual girlfriend. Instead, it is the first real clue The Outwaters it pushes the boundaries of found video rather than playing by its rules.
Further breach of contract, The Outwaters it does not enhance its action like most found horrors. Instead of subtly plotting creepier and creepier moments before letting things really open up, Banfitch focuses tightly on the friends’ normal camping for a grueling (and very long) 45 minutes. Once the characters finally get into trouble, all hell immediately breaks loose.
This is where the real trick of the film begins. Characters die, characters injure themselves, strange men appear with axes and frame the horizon, and most importantly, Robbie completely loses it. The further from reality, the more his footage devolves into something that feels shot directly from his slowly warping brain, rather than any kind of camera.
Getting these almost point-of-view shots from Robbie is a fantastically disorienting experience. Banfitch is still camera-aware and still uses its limitations often, which makes subjective changes even more difficult and annoying. It’s as if something has reached over Robbie’s shoulder to hold the camera for him, just so we can get a sense of whatever new, downright gruesome project his disappearing mind has set.
When it works, The Outwaters it feels like the audience has been invited to witness the horrors running through Mike’s head at the end of The Blair Witch Project as he looks around the corner in the basement. Robbie witnesses the horrors of a warped reality, but also things more mundane and less earthly, and we get to see both first hand thanks to the film blending of his footage and his breakdown. At its best, The Outwaters it places us so far inside Robbie’s brain that we can’t get the distance we want to understand what we’re being shown. But he finds his biggest problems when he returns to reality for more specific fears.
Among the problems with this ethereal footage method – which is sometimes reduced to just being a first-person experiential film – is that it’s rarely easy to keep the camera trained on anything happening to the characters. All too often, Banfitch goes dark The OutwatersThe biggest moments, downplaying their chilling potential. Scenes in the back half of the film are usually lit by a flashlight or not at all, making the action frustratingly difficult to see and obscuring what could have been more substantively creepy additions to the film. The near-blindness is mildly annoying, but it’s more confusing than anything else, leaving some sections without any sense of direction or dread.
Maybe The OutwatersThe most definitively found-footage-inspired theme comes in the framing device: a series of three memory cards that we’re supposed to believe were found somewhere in the desert, the final evidence of the characters’ disappearance. This is a classic subgenre: the “Anything Could Be True!” I imagine some found footage films have used it to give the film some real weight. But The Outwaters no need for this trick. His footage is effective enough on its own, especially when we witness things that seem impossible for the camera to have captured, which strains the memory card’s framing beyond belief. True immersion is great, but fake immersion doesn’t track.
The Outwaters it’s not as great a subversion of the found-footage subgenre as something like Joel Anderson’s 2008 horror mockumentary Lake Mungo, where the inherent fakeness is not only built into the plot, but also at the end of it. In Lake Mungothe idea that the images on the screen are fake is fundamental, calling into question the accuracy of the story, the subjectivity of who is telling it, and whether any of it is to be trusted at all, even in a fictional film. Lake Mungo uses the questions behind the video as a basis for the different ways we process grief and the ways the dead stick with some of us in photos and memories (and perhaps other places) long after they’re gone.
While The Outwaters Never quite reaching those lofty heights, it likewise demands more of its audience than the average found footage film. It operates within genre boundaries only long enough to break conventions, and by the time all hell breaks loose, it’s so overstepped the boundaries of subgenre that it becomes something else entirely. The combination of point-of-view shots, traditional found footage, and the sense of some otherworldly third observer, detached from time or reality, all create an effect that takes us deeper into Robbie’s unfolding mind than a film ever could. more conventional horror film.
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