The Outwaters tries and fails to find horror in the unseen
Darkness is perhaps the horror genre’s most reliable source of terror, a factory of fear that churns out multitudes of things that can scare even the most hardened of fans. Used smartly, it can allow audiences to fill in obscure spaces with the ugliest, most terrifying things you can think of by only offering a hint as to what might be moving in the shadows.
Robbie Banfitch’s found footage film The Outwaters is fully invested in seeing this idea through in a way that indulges darkness to the fullest extent. Unfortunately, it stumbles by keeping things too tucked away in the dark to allow audiences to effectively populate the shadows with monsters that defy the very concept of reality (a problem that also hindered Skinamarink’s exercise in unseen and suggested scares).
The movie follows a small group of friends on their way to the Mojave Desert to shoot a music video. A string of earthquakes and aftershocks rock the area they’re going to be filming in and a series of eerie sounds and vibrations start disrupting the silence of the desert in a way that hints at something big crossing over into our realm. Then, reality shifts and the monsters come out.
The story takes its time building up to the horror, but it’s to the point of distraction as very little from the first third of the movie barely affects or colors the events that affect the group as it gets caught up in all the bad that bleeds into our world. What does work to great effect is the sound design, which carries itself well throughout the entire film.
Not one sound reveals exactly what or where it’s coming from and they do an excellent job of helping the audience guess at what their point of origin could be, or what unholy creatures are making them. At times they come off as deep underground explosions, at others it sounds like something impossibly large is marching down the desert.
Once the story transitions into full horror, ambient sounds hint at creatures in pain or angry demons out on the hunt. If there’s one thing The Outwaters succeeds at is in doing a healthy amount of worldbuilding by sound alone. Had the movie leaned more into this, it would’ve have resulted in something entirely new and surprising. But it didn’t.
As I stated earlier, darkness is one of horror’s greatest allies. It gives everyone permission to bring their own fears into the experience so they can mix them in with the stuff the filmmaker decides to reveal. It can be a delicate thing to balance out, which means that keeping the visuals too obscure for an extended period of the movie’s runtime can lead to a whole lot of nothing.
If you think about it, darkness in horror movies are like sandboxes that invite audiences to come in and play with their toys. It’s a challenging play area, though, as its dimensions are almost always just faintly outlined and can change at a moment’s notice. The Outwaters opts for the faintest of outlines, keeping its toys largely inaccessible to the viewer and lost within the darkness it creates. It makes for a frustrating watch as our imaginations can only do so much until we realize we’re staring at a black screen for big chunks of time.
There are daylight sequences that pull the veil back somewhat on a few of the story’s monsters and their particular kind of violence, and they do lead to the occasional striking visual in the process (especially as it reaches the final stretch), but the director’s insistence on keeping things barely visible and disorienting achieves little other than frustration.
Filling in the blanks can be an interesting exercise from a viewer’s point of view, but it’s not unfair to ask the filmmaker provide a bit more to latch onto as well. The audience shouldn’t be doing all the creative heavy lifting, in this regard.
This is compounded by the dizzying camera work that often just hangs loosely on the character’s hands to communicate the idea that what’s captured isn’t being filmed on purpose, as if it’s an automatic reaction from a person that’s lost their mind. It’s an interesting response to found footage conventions, but it’s also overplayed and it doesn’t add to the overall sense of horror it’s going for. It’s another distraction that can have viewers trying to figure out if there’s anything worth searching out for in each shot or not. There usually isn’t.
The Outwaters had the potential to innovate if it had further developed its unsettling sound design. Instead, it goes for a slow burn dominated by drawn out sequences where all the audience gets is a black screen with creepy growls here and there. It misses the point when it comes to inviting the audience to use their imagination to flesh out the monsters that stick to the periphery. There comes a point where showing nothing amounts to just that, nothing.