This all centers on a group who are planning to go out into the Mojave Desert to shoot a music video. There is Robbie, played by Banfitch, who fittingly holds the camera, his brother Scott (Scott Schamell), plus their friends Ange (Angela Basolis) and Michelle (Michelle May). An opening scene establishes this is going to go terribly wrong as we hear a recording of a 911 call with their desperate and warped voices calling out for help. We then are taken through all the video footage that the group got leading up to and on their ill-fated trip. This is not an overstatement as there are a lot of extraneous elements in the buildup that put a bit of a damper on the pacing. Though some of it proves to be integral to the emotional journey, such as a visit to a family member who will appear later, there is much that can feel like narrative padding. What makes it all worth it is when this all washes away, and we get taken into the darkness that will consume all the characters. It does take nearly an hour to arrive there and would have benefitted from more urgency to its story. However, once we tip over the edge into oblivion, the descent Robbie undertakes also marks the moment in which the film ascends.
The details of how all this plays out, while not something that can really be spoiled too much, are ones best experienced for yourself. What can be said is that it begins with booming sounds in the night, a brief glimpse of a silent shadowy figure in the darkness, a grievous injury followed by a flashing light, and then everything becomes completely upended. The line “my head is raining” is so wonderfully disquieting even as we don’t initially see the full scope of what this is referring to. The film strategically withholds some of the early terror in the darkness as our characters begin scrambling in a panic, uncertain of what has visited them and begun attacking them. Screams are often the only reference points we have to what is happening, which only makes the subsequent silence when they are abruptly cut off all the more maddening. This may prove frustrating to some, as there are several minutes where all that can be seen is a small circle of light tracing blood spatters along the ground, but this is all by design. It is meant to disorient as the deadly forces in the darkness destroy all they touch.
What is causing all of this? That is truly anyone’s guess as the film is more interested in immersing us than it is in answering any questions. In this regard, it completely succeeds as it spends longer and longer getting lost in the landscape that has become distorted. From the unsettling sound design that pierces the silent landscape to the sharp angles at which everything is shot, it becomes clear that there is no salvation to be found anywhere. There is no rhyme or reason to what is playing out as time begins to itself feel like it is slipping through our fingers. The cuts are sudden, flaunting any type of linear progression to instead create the sensation of falling further and further away from reality. The day will become night, dark will become light, and Robbie still is left wandering almost completely alone with his camera.
The fear that begins to creep into his voice as he loses touch with who he was before provides a strong grounding point to the free-flowing experience. Though we only rarely see his face, hearing him try to occasionally yet futilely make sense of the peril that surrounds him before eventually giving into despair is appropriately unnerving. It is like he is being pulled through the fabric of the universe and is slowly losing his grasp on the person he once was that arrived here. Even an attempt to go towards a group of nearby donkeys, as if they are the only thing tethering him to life itself, becomes almost tragic as they leave him lying alone in the dirt. It is as if even these animals seem to know that he is beyond saving and to steer clear of him.
Without tipping off too much, there is a moment where the film fully flips time back in on itself. Thankfully, this doesn’t rob the sense of the mystery to it all. Rather, the revelations that it does offer feel less like answers than they do like the raising of more questions. The only thing that is certain is that we are watching a doomed man who is only slowly realizing this for himself. The film has drawn some comparisons to the masterful recent Skinamarink in terms of how it is also a lower-budget horror production with an emphasis on the sense of atmosphere, but this feels like it is only scratching the surface. The cinematic language that each respective film is speaking in is vastly different from the other and each offers its own distinct delights. In particular, this one is far bloodier the longer it goes on.
While it would have benefited from being more restrained in its buildup to make the subsequent ethereal violence that much more impactful, what it achieves far outweighs the missteps that it took to get there. A stunning embrace of abject horror that peels back the layers of skin just as it does those of the mind, The Outwaters stumbles upon a brutal brilliance in the desolation of the desert.
The Outwaters is in theaters now and is coming to Screambox later in 2023.