The Outwaters review – extreme found-footage horror runs amok in the desert | Film

We’ve reached the late baroque stage for found-footage horror movies; the signature moves of the genre have become so familiar that directors are reaching for new extremes. Jump scares are even more abrupt, and the gore, often just glimpsed for microseconds, is so horrible it verges on ludicrous. The cinematography is so verité-shaky, the storytelling so eerily elliptical, that you get a film like this – entirely abstract in its last act. Be warned: the end of The Outwaters is mostly just darkness pierced by a wee spot of light from a handheld camera illuminating blood-drenched crime scenes and desert floor all smeared together. It lurches towards a climactic act of self-harm so horrible it’s up there with art history’s worst sufferings of saints.

Writer-director-cinematographer-editor Robbie Banfitch plays a character named Robbie who wants to make a music video in the Mojave desert starring his friend Michelle (Michelle May), singing the lullaby All the Pretty Horses. The first chunk of the film observes Robbie, Michelle, Robbie’s brother Scott (Scott Schamell) and their friend Angela (Angela Basolis) in Los Angeles as they plan the shoot, visit the men’s mother and party a bit with cocaine and booze before the trip. So far, so ho-hum; it’s all a bit boring and banal, as is the way of found-footage films, which usually don’t want you to like the characters too much before they start killing them off.

Once they get to the desert, though, things get really whackadoodle. First, uncanny sounds seem to emanate from the earth, then mirages of red-clad figures appear in the distance, sometimes holding an axe (not a good sign). Animals howl, evil snakes scream and so on. This feature differs from a lot of its genre brethren by offering almost no explanation apart from the odd rusty sign saying they’ve entered a restricted zone.

Like OG found footage film The Blair Witch Project, evil seems embedded in the ancient landscape itself – so fundamentally alien from 21st-century hipsters with their talk of Coachella and camping equipment. That mysteriousness seems to have bewitched a fair few critics in the US, where it’s been well received. But while its craft is certainly interesting, there’s something decadent and empty at its heart.

The Outwaters is released on 7 April in cinemas.

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