We’re less than a quarter into 2023 and independent horror appears to be having a moment. Technically it started several months ago when Kyle Edward Ball’s “liminal horror” Skinamarink gained word-of-mouth buzz after leaking online, but its official release in January spawned an inexplicable indie hit. A slow, dread-inducing experimental work made on a micro-budget, Skinamarink received comparisons to avant-garde filmmakers like the late Michael Snow and somehow earned millions in a semi-wide release. One month later we have Robbie Banfitch’s The Outwaters, a found-footage horror movie with an experimental edge. Given both films’ willingness to buck convention, earn raves from terrified viewers, and receive theatrical runs so close together, lumping both Skinamarink and The Outwaters together feels inevitable (even the New York Times had the directors interview each other when reporting on them).

So with that context established, let’s compare. Both are slow burns taking their time to build dread and tension while introducing central mysteries with no real explanation. But while Skinamarink exists in its own, singular realm of dark, empty rooms and hallways, The Outwaters sticks to the familiar. The film introduces itself with title cards explaining the disappearance of four people in the Mojave desert, then plays footage from three memory cards retrieved by police during the investigation. These videos show Robbie (Robbie Banfitch), Angela (Angela Basolis), and Robbie’s brother Scott (Scott Schamell), who head into the desert to film a music video for their friend Michelle (Michelle May). Like most found-footage films, its first act amounts to a lot of meandering–only Banfitch avoids exposition to the point where it’s difficult to parse the circumstances and motives for their desert trip. Maybe it’s a choice meant to reflect the raw nature of the recovered footage, but given what we see is clearly compiled and scored, it’s hard to perceive the lack of information as anything but sloppy.

It’s those first two acts / memory cards that hurt The Outwaters most: its lack of development or basic characterization amounts to a slow, impatient journey to the gonzo horror of its final third. It doesn’t help that Banfitch spends almost half of a nearly two-hour runtime on build-up, with a few foreshadowing scenes of strange sounds at night to break up the monotony. Once The Outwaters finally decides to let loose, it almost immediately does away with the majority of the cast in an effort to subvert expectations. This may have worked if its build-up was well-executed or its characters had any sort of substantial development. The act of subverting expectations doesn’t have merit on its own; without any weight behind it, it’s easy to maintain a distance from the intended effect.

Most of these feelings come from a place of frustration. The Outwaters takes too long before it shows promise: that final half, where Robbie finds himself at the mercy of whatever malevolent forces surround him in the desert, unfolds as the kind of unrelenting sensory attack one might see from Gaspar Noé. Unfolding in the dark with nothing but a tiny beam of light frantically moving across the frame, Robbie’s mad dash to escape the desert dislodges him from time and space, thrusting viewers into an unknown realm full of implied horrors. The inability to find any solid ground in the chaos onscreen, where the obscured visuals compel you to look closer and look away at the same time, suggests there’s a far better film hiding somewhere in. At least Skinamarink, with its seizing upon childhood fears and nostalgia, stays uncompromising from frame one. The Outwaters is more of a misjudged bait-and-switch, relying on the exhausted found-footage format to sneak in something more like Event Horizon than The Blair Witch Project. There’s a lot of potential in that concept, and I can’t help but respect Banfitch’s attempts to realize it in such an abrasive way. But that’s all I can muster for The Outwaters, which drowns its good ideas in shoddy filmmaking.

The Outwaters opens in theaters on February 10.

Grade: C

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