Although there have been examples of it before (with Italian director Ruggero Deodato’s 1980 film Cannibal Holocaust considered by many to be the first), it wasn’t until 1999’s The Blair Witch Project that found footage films became a thing in the mainstream.
That particular run of films it helped populate has subsided of late, but it seems like a genre that isn’t ready to go ‘unfound’ any time soon if this film is anything to go by.
2022, and the Mojave Police Department recover three memory cards in the dessert. On playing the footage back, it gives an indication as to what happened to four people who disappeared in the area on the 8th of August, 2017.
The footage first reveals the guy behind the camera, Robbie Zagorac (Robbie Banfitch) preparing for a trip with his brother Scott (Scott Schamell), and friends Michelle (Michelle May) and Ange (Angela Basolis) into the desert. The reason for their trip is that Michelle is a singer, so Robbie intends to shoot a music video with her, with the incredible landscape the Mojave desert brings as a backdrop, with Ange roped in to help with hair and make-up and his bro on hand to help out if need be.
It’s not financed by anyone – except themselves – so it’s all done on the cheap, with all of them camping with basic provisions.
The footage shows that it all started well enough, With Robbie seemingly getting all the material he needed, but then they are all alarmed at night by the strange noises the desert brings. But is there something more sinister behind these noises? The last memory card to be played back appears to hold some of the answers, and it doesn’t make for pleasant viewing.
Not only does Banfitch star in the film, he also makes his directorial debut with it – as well as writes, produces, does the sound design, cinematography, oh and the special effects - and it has to be said, it’s quite a striking piece of cinema. Although the lost footage genre is somewhat of an acquired taste, and it did feel for quite some time that it had been done to death after the runaway success The Blair Witch Project enjoyed, there’s every chance his film will get under your skin.
It’s fair to say that the first hour or so is all rather self indulgent. Banfitch spends much of the time developing his characters, in the broadest sense, as they hang out before the trip. It adds a bit of colour, but it does go on for a bit, unnecessarily so.
It gets a little interesting once they finally get out to the desert, but he still holds back a lot, making it a slow burner. And when it all kicks off in the final third, even then it’s never completely clear as to what the hell is going on. Certainly the fact it’s all supposedly shot with one camera doesn’t help, with the audience heavily relying on what the camera sees – and doesn’t see – to grasp the situation. For a length of period in the thralls of it all, there’s is one torch as a source of light, in the darkness, frantically trying to reveal something. It’s actually quite a strain on the eyes, and borderline frustrating in not knowing fully what’s actually occurring.
And yet the film still manages to be not only intriguing, but also quite unpleasant to watch at times.
It’s because of this that Banfitch can be forgiven for all the self indulgence early on, as he creates something truly atmospheric and unsettling. And considering that Banfitch basically financed the film himself, from the money he made working with Greenpeace, it’s some achievement.
It’s safe to say that his debut won’t be to everyone’s liking, with the first half being long-winded, and the second half of the story possibly too vague for some, and admittedly it was for us too, but you have to admire the impressive skill the young film-maker brought to both his film and the genre, which may well make him somewhat of a prize find himself, and someone certainly worth keeping an eye on in the future.
The Outwaters is a curiosity for sure, with equal measures of being unnerving, disconcerting and puzzling, but there’s a unique fascination to it that’s strangely rewarding.