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The Outwaters

It’s funny how brightly lit and close-up the first quarter of “The Outwaters” is because the rest of the film will be seen largely through an incredibly small flashlight, the kind of illumination your phone provides in the middle of a pitch-black night. Following in the footsteps of the low-budget hit “Skinamarink,” 2023 has already produced another minimalist mindf**k, one that dares you to use your imagination regarding what’s happening outside that tiny beam of light. This film takes no prisoners, offers no explanations, and forces you to go on its twisted journey that blends found footage structure with something that H.P. Lovecraft might have dreamed up. It’s a ride.

“The Outwaters” opens with a terrifying 911 call that consists solely of an operator trying to get the attention of the caller … who is screaming at the top of her lungs. There are disturbing noises behind her, but she’s so terrified that language has been lost. It’s a great prologue, and it makes clear that very bad things are going to happen.

And then almost nothing happens for what feels like a long time. Title cards reveal that this found footage is being assembled by authorities, but the truth is that the cops would have cut the mundane material that introduces our victims. It’s a slow burn, a film that offers footage that most people would delete from their iCloud as we’re introduced to the players: Robbie (Robbie Banfitch), Michelle (Michelle May), Scott (Scott Shamell), and Ange (Angela Basolis). Banfitch is also the director, cinematographer, and editor of “The Outwaters,” giving the whole thing an extra layer of immediacy in that it truly feels like these people are playing variations on themselves.

Robbie is an L.A. filmmaker who takes Michelle, a singer, to the desert to shoot a music video. His brother Scott is along for the ride, and Ange will handle makeup and hair. That’s about it. That’s all you need to know. These four people are going to the middle of nowhere. They’re going to die there. That’s not a spoiler as much as the tone the film sets up. You know how most found footage films play with foreboding and end just as their characters are about to get rocked by something unimaginable? Banfitch goes further by setting up his people and then dropping them into Hell. It makes for a deeply unsettling experience, one in which we’re supposed to feel as disoriented and terrified as Robbie himself.

It starts simply enough with sounds in the desert, an odd number of bees, and what seems to be extreme weather threats. Is that thunder or something else? What is that bright light on the horizon? And what is that low humming sound? Shortly after Robbie puts his mic into a hole in the ground and hears something inexplicable, “The Outwaters” unleashes absolute terror. The sound design becomes a blend of screaming, grunting, and viscera hitting the ground. That tiny little light illuminates almost nothing, and what it does reveal is terrifying. Bloody flesh. Teeth. Something demonic, maybe? It’s a film designed to pummel you with confusing terror, and it has some incredibly effective passages. Even though Banfitch doesn’t let up once the nightmare begins, he somehow makes it build, and his carefully considered filmmaking plays with time and space to replicate horrific confusion.

“The Outwaters” is not for everyone. It’s somewhat exhausting, but that’s what makes it special. Horror is often a passive experience—look at what happened to these poor schmucks who chose to leave the house. Aren’t you lucky you’re safe at home? Banfitch goes for something far more primally intense. He doesn’t just want you to observe the horror; he wants you to feel it in your bones. And in the fleshy parts, too.

On VOD and in theaters today.

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Managing Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and GQ, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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Film Credits

The Outwaters movie poster

The Outwaters (2023)

Rated NR

100 minutes

Cast

Robbie Banfitch as Robbie Zagorac

Angela Basolis as Angela Bocuzzi

Scott Schamell as Scott Zagorac

Michelle May as Michelle August

Leslie Ann Banfitch as Leslie Zagorac

Director

Writer

Cinematographer

Editor

Composer

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