Saturday, July 15, 2023

The Outwaters / * (2022)

Somewhere in the vacant expanse that is the Mojave desert, four friends with unfledged verbal skills will partake in a sad, confusing ambush in the dark that culminates with lots of screaming and blood splatters, all to be barely spied by a camera lens that is always shooting at unflattering angles while a small flashlight ray attempts to zero in on thoroughly uninteresting findings. That is the central engine behind “The Outwaters,” yet another found footage yarn that comes to us with an even loftier promise: all that is about to happen will defy the very basic notions of this subgenre’s primary formula. Defy it does, but to what end? To confuse and sadden the audience? To get them thinking beyond ordinary horror movie trappings? I would have only welcomed that change. Alas, director Robbie Banfitch, obviously new to the fold of this form of storytelling, finds nothing in the dark other than our collective anger at having been left adrift in a confusing and listless story that ends with few certainties and even fewer solutions. There is nothing to think about on screen, no image to anchor curiosity or theme to create a sense of investment. All that might have been eased by the existence of characters who knew how to discuss their plight, but the movie only gives us simpletons who don’t seem to remember basic emotional cues, much less create a running dialogue about what may be lurking in the shadows of the desert.

Why are they there in the first place? The first hour slowly unpacks the premise as if it lacks general interest in the details. We first meet Rob (Robbie Banfitch), an aspiring filmmaker, and his brother Scott (Scott Schamell), whose early footage basically consists of them smiling aimlessly at little discoveries while engaging in sparse small-talk. Eventually their boredom is interrupted by the arrival of Ange (Angela Basolis), a bohemian artist who specializes in pseudo-psychedelic folk music and is nearing the release of her first album. That leads to an arrangement in which Rob and Scott will accompany her into the desert to shoot her first music video, alone and isolated (conveniently) from those who might be useful in assisting in obligatory rescue. Also along for the ride is a hairdresser named Michelle (Michelle May), who is likely only there just so the story has enough screaming victims to exploit in the final act.

While there, the party stare cutely and aloof at each other, bask in the sun, go swimming, contemplate their place in nature and only communicate verbally long enough so that each other knows the other is nearby. They are all smiles, of course, but that is only based on the slimmest of evidence; Rob’s camera – the lone source of footage – is rarely focused on anything in particular, often beginning and ending takes in mid sentence or pointed downward on bare feet standing atop the arid desert sands. Given the hyper-docile approach of the material, one might surmise Banfitch is attempting to mimic the casual in-the-moment realism of Linklater or Malick, but their films at least had the benefit of dialogue that seemed written. “The Outwaters” consists of everyone speaking in fragments of stray thoughts. They don’t seem to be present in any moment or situation, so that when weird and inexplicable things begin to happen to them out there in the dark, they don’t have the cognizance to react plausibly. Theirs is an existence that a more alert or observant picture would recognize as a drug-induced haze.

At the halfway point of this 110-minute slog, things begin to descend into total chaos. Not just in the regard of the obligatory horror formula, mind you, but also in respect to what the camera captures. Darkness comes. Noises transfix the four observers. A strange, almost supernatural phenomenon occurs in relation to a mound of dirt near their campsite, which emits strange vibrations of energy that Rob’s audio equipment is quick to pick up on. An abandoned ax is found ominously sitting at the top of a hill. Insects gather on the surface of the sand in alarming numbers. They are swarmed by bees, fire ants, and locusts. When night falls on the penultimate night of their proposed fate, all details are lost as a single beam of flashlight attempts to piece together the reality of the nightmare, and fails miserably. We hear all the perfunctory indications of a horrible situation – including screaming, running around and breathless denials that echo in the camera microphone, but what are they up against? Is there a monster out there? An alien entity? Something they are manufacturing in their minds? Characters with more pronounced social skills might have offered enough in the way of clues to guide our suspicions. These four are so detached from the mere notion of their terror that their alarm seems sourced out of some inner hysteria they refuse to enlighten us on.

The one possible indication, at least from what I can gauge from the shoddy daylight footage, is that the foursome are being attacked by giant red worms that emit high-pitched screams as they slither nearby. That is only theoretical, however, given that they are never actually seen in attack mode, and only show up long enough to slither between exposed legs and then out of the camera frame again. Think about the impulses of a competent cameraman who might be in fear of his life while clutching a handheld video device. Wouldn’t he want to focus on the source of his terror? To pursue it for as long as he draws breath? Or at least get a good shot for posterity instead of artistically focusing on quirky angles to shoot the desert floor with? Common psychology dictates that the presence of recording equipment in the middle of danger makes it a lifeline to its possessor, as if holding onto it is a measure of protection against something that might attack or be fatal. The victims in “The Blair Witch Project” and nearly all found footage films that came after understood this assignment. Did Robbie Banfitch pay attention to any of this in his studies, or was he too enamored by the audacity of the unconventional to allow common sense to take root?

The movie is without thrills, pacing, skill or basic engagement, existing on screen for nearly two hours while simultaneously refusing to give the viewers anything to think about or be scared of. That is a sad conclusion to make for any film, but especially frustrating is having to say it about a movie that at least seems to be made from the conceit of something novel: no matter how you might feel about the end result, at least no one can accuse its director of just sticking to the tired formula. In some circles that was more than enough reason to endorse the material, too. Just take a glimpse of a handful of the reviews on the Tomatometer if you are curious: while some argue the slow and deliberate pacing only adds to the intrigue, others have heralded the material as something bold and decisive. One critic, in fact, even writes that the film is in the bold tradition of H.P. Lovecraft, who too was enamored by giant slimy beasts dwelling in the sand. If he had been alive today, one wonders if he might have resisted the urge to file a lawsuit on the writer for defamation of character.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Horror (US); 2022; Not Rated; Running Time:
110 Minutes

Robbie Banfitch: Robbie Zagorac
Angela Basolis: Ange Bocuzzi
Scott Schamell: Scott Zagorac
Michelle May: Michelle August
Leslie Ann Banfitch: Leslie Zagorac

Produced by Robert Abramoff, Robbie Banfitch and Beau J. GenotDirected and written by Robbie Banfitch

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