The Outwaters (2023)

You’d think that after a half-decade of horror’s outer limits being defined by A24’s emphasis on atmosphere & metaphor, the genre would overcorrect by snapping back to surface-level cheap thrills, just for the sake of variety.  And I guess in some ways it has.  Recent breakout successes like M3GAN, Barbarian, Smile, and Malignant have signaled a wide audience appetite for high-concept gimmick premises with traditional jump-scare payoffs & haunted house decor.  At the same time, though, some of the buzziest horror titles in recent memory have dug their heels even further into arty atmospherics, carving out a new horror of patience & subliminals.  I’m thinking particularly of Skinamarink—which simulates childhood nightmares by applying eerie digital filters to public domain cartoons & shots of empty hallways—and We’re All Going to the World’s Fair – which borrows heavily from online creepypasta lore & imagery without ever directly participating in the horror genre.  These are low-fi, low-budget works that distort the atmospheric horror aesthetic of recent years into D.I.Y. bedroom art, removing even more of the genre’s crowd-pleasing tropes & payoffs so that it feels entirely abstracted & unfamiliar.  And now the arrival of the found-footage cosmic horror The Outwaters makes that doubling-down feel like a legitimate trend.

For anyone curious to dip their toe into this (loosely defined) low-fi horror trend, The Outwaters may be the most accessible entry point.  It will test your patience just as much as its sister chiller Skinamarink, but it rewards that effort with a much more pronounced, traditional payoff.  It’s my personal favorite among these recent low-key creepouts, anyway, since I tend to prefer bloody catharsis over eerie atmospherics.  The Outwaters effectively splits the difference between horror’s current trends towards both moody abstraction & on-the-surface cheap thrills.  It starts as a low-key, mildly spooky drama about parental grief, but eventually ditches any tidy metaphorical readings for a lengthy, bloody, freewheeling freakout in the Mojave Desert.  As trippy as it can be in its Skinamarinkian disorientation, it’s anchored to a concise, recognizable premise that could neatly be categorized as The Blair Witch Project Part IV: Blair Witch Goes to Hanging Rock.  It strikes a nice balance between the slow-moving quiet of its bedroom art brethren and mainstream horror’s return to big, bold, bloody haunted house scares.  Maybe that makes it a less artistically daring film than World’s Fair or Skinamarink, but it also makes it a more overtly entertaining one.

I’m likely overselling the relative accessibility of The Outwaters here.  By design, the first 2/3rds of the runtime are kind of a monotonous bore.  The film is presented as the raw, unedited footage of three memory cards recovered in the desert, revealing the final days of four twentysomethings who went missing in 2017.  The switch between memory cards provides natural chapter breaks as the four friends leave their urban comfort zone to shoot a music video in the sun-bleached wasteland.  They reminisce about dead parents, wake up to deafening booms in the night sky, and become increasingly distracted from the art project they originally ventured to shoot.  Otherwise, though, there isn’t much in the way of horror on this road trip into the abyss – just good buds being buds.  Then we get to Card 3.  The Outwaters saves all of its go-for-broke haunted house freakouts for its final chapter, where it unleashes an axe-wielding maniac, intestinal snake monsters, genital gore, and enough cyclical time-loop mindfuckery to make Benson & Moorhead seem like timid cowards in comparison.  By the end of the third memory card, I was desperate to return to the aimless hangouts of the first hour.  The finale is a relentless, disorienting assault on the senses, and I loved every squirmy minute of it.

You can tell The Outwaters was made cheaply just by glancing at the credits, where Robbie Banfitch’s name repeats as writer, director, actor, producer, cinematographer, editor, sound designer, and special effects artist.  The most encouraging thing about this recent crop of low-fi horror freakouts is how far & wide they’re being distributed. In decades past, they would’ve been left to rot at local film festivals & VHS swaps.  In that context, I greatly admire Banfitch’s attempts to offer his audience the same startling scare gags they’d find in much less artistically ambitious horror-of-the-week products from major studios.  The Cronenbergian flesh snakes who screech and lunge at the film’s small cast are some of the most disturbing onscreen monsters I’ve encountered in a while, regardless of budget level.  Meanwhile, Skinamarink has a more novel approach to D.I.Y. nightmare imagery, but its visual language is limited to recognizable, everyday objects: popcorn ceilings, vintage toys, cathode ray TVs, etc.  I still don’t think The Outwaters could be honestly marketed as an accessible, mainstream horror flick; most audiences will feel alienated by it.  It does reward your attention & patience a little more than its easiest comparison points, though; maybe even more so than the original Blair Witch.

-Brandon Ledet

2 thoughts on “The Outwaters (2023)

  1. Pingback: Lagniappe Podcast: Delirious (1991) | Swampflix

  2. Pingback: Jethica (2023) | Swampflix

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