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Few things plunder the soul like the realization that there will always be a limit to what we understand. The anxiety, the terror, the shattering notion that hits you every time you bear witness to something that you can’t find the words for. It has been used to the advantage of many, many artists and writers throughout centuries; if it isn’t quite meant to confront the mysterious, all-consuming phenomena of nature’s workings, it may rather be a platform for allegorizing wordless, abstracted fears that feel only so by design. In order to achieve the former of these two motives, one mustn’t flinch, and to achieve the latter, one must shroud their canvas with a horrible, grey cloud of obscurity. It is both chords, however, that happen to be struck with reckless abandon by writer/director/editor/star/sound designer Robbie Banfitch in The Outwaters — a cosmic miracle of found-footage filmmaking that frequently feels like the rallying cry of succession that this subgenre has been waiting to herald in the twenty-four years since The Blair Witch Project inspired and sprouted a turn-of-the-century generation of artists.
Like Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez’s definitive landmark, as well as really any successful horror, The Outwaters forces you to behold an experience before any sense of cohesion. Despite the initial clarity of its narrative — a group of friends traveling to the Mojave Desert to shoot a music video (all documented by Banfitch himself), all before a relentless array of phenomena brutally tears each of them apart — the film simply does away with the idea that you may come into it with questions and then come out with even more. It pronounces its structural boldness by the moment it opens, imbuing the casual DSLR documentation of its first half with the inevitability of its second, in which no matter how safe things seem, the road of these people we get to know and care for will end through manipulated screams in pitch-black dark. A gradual buildup to unfiltered Cthulhu-esque terror always in clear sight, even beneath earthly tremors and distant but cavernous sonic booms, no matter how often Banfitch’s characters attempt (and fail) to keep their heads together throughout. But suddenly unfurling the slow buildup of its first half by practically setting it ablaze, Banfitch lets his horrors obliterate the senses like a plague of locusts, creating the most petrifying soundscapes that horror has provided us in years through alien distortion, often inhumanly layered screeching, and mumbled whispers of madness. This texture of soul-shaking, stomach-churning, brain-breaking dread arrives like a mist of blood, spitting venom down the throat of contemporary horror that has often broke its own back on overcooked formalism or pre-determined allegory, establishing Banfitch as not only an essential and singular voice in American horror but also a promising beacon of resurfaced interest in the incomprehensible, dimension-shattering nightmares that recall the work of found-footage titan Kōji Shiraishi.
It didn’t take long for audiences to draw comparisons between Banfitch’s film and the avant-garde nature of Kyle Edward Ball’s Skinamarink — two works of queer filmmakers that each leave their own distinctively experimental mark on an otherwise familiar schematic and have since recently broken out in spades of popularity for it, but apart from that, there couldn’t be a broader line of difference between the two. Where Ball’s film preys on the universal submission to nostalgia through a slow-motion dissolve of childhood safety, The Outwaters ramps up the speed of its own collapse to a devastating, fast-forward implosion that exponentially pays off within its structure of found-footage divided into three recovered SD cards — each practically their own act of the story. By the time the third card is presented, and within seconds of incitement, our characters devolve into horrified confusion and childlike pleas for mommy, the only remaining feeling of certainty (or lack thereof) being the same shared by those both on and offscreen and both heard and obscured through the vulnerable aura and audible lens adjusting of a Canon camera. It is as unforgiving in its depiction of irrevocable Hell as it is in leaving your hand un-held throughout its star-traversing, body-warping horror.
Do I dare ask how one is able to process a film like this? It goes without saying that Banfitch’s film has since drawn the kind of division upon division from its viewers that Blair Witch aptly acquired when it premiered in 1999. But twenty-four years of found-footage spoils have since been reaped by horror fans, so I suppose it was only a matter of time before another film that dared to withdraw where the past two decades of the genre presented with aberrant glee would sprout from the dirt like a sickening, ungodly harvest.
On the topic of ungodliness, by the time the film’s descent within the last third reaches its crescendo, Banfitch’s camera achieves something extraordinary. Amongst the film’s many detours into otherworldliness, it is a minute-long sequence — an utmost cosmic transcendence that veers through starry lights like a reckless Formula One racer and suddenly peaks with the faintest beat of stillness. The stars stop, the sounds mute, and then both continue like they never stopped to begin with. It is this sequence that at once synthesizes the wavelength of avant-garde artists like Stan Brakhage into a decades-old format that becomes reinvigorated from it. The kind of filmmaking that wows you into submission to the point where you have less interest in how what’s onscreen was achieved and more into the simple awe that it was. To still have new filmmakers who dare to make an attempt to not only tap into the unspeakable lengths beyond mere existence but also mine endless, brutal and mystic dread from the other side is to have another reason to be optimistic about cinema as a medium. There is no single, solitary way to take in The Outwaters, and we’d be lucky to have genre filmmaking this dynamic and unflinching more often than we likely deserve. But for any artist who aspires to achieve the same as Banfitch does here, look no further than to absolve yourself of explanation. Lay bare the notion that the audience is owed nothing when it concerns films this radically abrasive. Let them take it in. Simply above all else, as an offscreen entity mutters in the most paralyzing tone — show them.
The Outwaters screens Friday, March 31st.
Friday, Mar 31 – 10pm