Arts & Events » Movies

Acid Dreams

Add the artsy horror film “The Outwaters” to the small list of found footage films that actually work; while the sci-fi horror of “Significant Other” gives away too much.


“Found-footage” horror movies are the cinematic equivalent of a sensory deprivation tank, involving characters who utter improvised banalities while wandering around with cameras that only appear to be catching about 10% of what we should be seeing.

The characters are narcissistic, the images are grainy and under-lit, and the narratives are skeletal. After an hour or so of this noodling about, something evil might flitter into the frame, which is meant to sustain us until a climactic non-ending. The purpose, besides allowing amateur filmmakers to pretend that said amateurism is intentional, is to lend supernatural schtick an illusion of reality, allowing you to pretend you are actually brushing up against the supernatural. Until recently, this sort of thing has worked exactly twice, in “The Blair Witch Project” and the first “Paranormal Activity.”

Now we can add Robbie Banfitch’s “The Outwaters” to the small batch of found-footage horror movies that are more than a glorified con job. What Banfitch, a one-man-band who wrote, directed, shot, edited, and starred in “The Outwaters,” does with the spare parts of the found-footage subgenre is extraordinary. Namely, he’s found a way to make this kind of movie authentically cinematic. ‘The Outwaters” is an intensely filmic experience, a feast of hallucinatory textures that gradually leads us down a path toward an unnerving purgatory.

Banfitch is canny about which rules of the found-footage subgenre he chooses to adhere to, which is to say that he uses those rules against the cynics in the audience, leading us to expect something boring before unleashing a sensory assault that’s nearly the equal of Tobe Hooper’s “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”

The plot of “The Outwaters” is predictably spare in accordance with the genre. Robbie (Banfitch) is traveling to the Mojave Desert to shoot a music video for his singer friend, Michelle (Michelle May). In tow are Robbie’s brother, Scott (Scott Schamell) and their friend, Ange (Angela Basolis). What we are seeing is supposed to be from three, cobbled together memory cards from Robbie’s camera, footage shot in 2017 and recovered last year.

One of the film’s flaws is very shrewdly achieved. Namely, we have to watch these characters saying and doing the usual horror-movie-asinine things for at least the entire first act. There’s footage of parties, of talking to the camera, of the gang drinking and bullshitting. Even here though, additional qualities are allowed to bleed into the film. Since fictional Robbie is also a filmmaker, Banfitch has given himself permission to allow the images to be accomplished. There is a subtle attention to how lights hit the characters, underscoring their vulnerability. Michelle is gorgeous, and Robbie, clearly very aware of this, frames her in worshipful compositions that underscore his longing and her sadness, as she is nursing issues over her musician mother’s death. It is particularly resonant, and beautiful, how the sun catches Michelle’s blue eyes. Scott, aloof, alone, often drifts into the back of images, away from the action. Ange mugs for the camera, but there’s something off, pleading, in her clowning.

These emotions intensify in the Mojave. Banfitch busts a now-obligatory move—the Ari Aster upside-down tracking shot—and casually tops it, his unhinged portable camera making seemingly impossible motions that suggest a world off its axis. The cracked, parched desert floor, the blue sky, the canted angles, the shards of light, the lizards, the sense that we are on drugs whether we’ve done any drugs or not—Banfitch is in the territory of 1990s-era Oliver Stone here, when the director was allowed to cut loose and make extravagantly-budgeted head movies. He’s also in the territory of Dennis Hopper, particularly his profoundly underrated mind game, “The Last Movie,” in which filmmakers went to Peru and illusions of cinema and reality collapsed together.

The sounds of “The Outwaters” work in tandem with the images to suggest an alternate dimension hidden in plain sight. The Mojave of this movie is riven with inexplicable hisses and gurgling. Something seems to be in the ground. Robbie sticks a microphone into various crevices and hears vibrations. A dry lake bottom, so flat and barren it suggests the moon, is a relentless wind tunnel. Robbie shoots Michelle walking across its surface for the video, his camera speaker mute to blot out the wind, though we still hear vibrations that suggest the movement of something underwater. The constant mismatch in this movie of sound and image, suggesting something we can’t see or are seeing incorrectly, is astonishingly creepy, and that’s before Banfitch even brings the pain.

As creepy as the moody foreshadowing of “The Outwaters” is—I haven’t mentioned the rockets shooting into the sky, or inexplicable sounds of explosions, or signs barring entry to the space—this long set-up still lulls us. At a certain point, we assume we’re watching an arty horror movie that’s far more sophisticated than the usual found-footage whatsit—a suspicion that is correct—and that its emotional effect will be based on tone rather than viscera.

We assume that we’ll walk out of “The Outwaters” talking about alienation and using high-flown words that one usually reserves for Antonioni films. At around this time, just as you’ve settled in, the bottom drops out of the movie.

The brightness of the early portions of “The Outwaters” gives way to near-total darkness. As in the stories of H.P. Lovecraft, here we always appear to be on the verge of seeing something unimaginable and perhaps reality-shattering. Robbie is alone in the night. Carnage erupts out of nowhere, unexplained. The film becomes a slipstream, and Banfitch reveals just how tight of a command he has over this medium. I’m not a spoiler-phobe, but there doesn’t seem to be much use in describing the second half of this movie, which virtually defies description anyway.

There is something in the Mojave that destroys Robbie and his friends, and we are stuck in Robbie’s mind, his cracking psyche, as this destruction unfolds. At a certain point, Banfitch may have you begging for an objective shot. As in anxiety dreams, Robbie is stuck in a loop, watching himself, watching his friends, maybe killing his friends, chasing his own tail in an acid dream from hell. The camera becomes its own sentient entity, as Banfitch decisively detonates all the limitations of the found-footage horror movie to stage a free-associative plunge that wouldn’t be out of place in “Inland Empire” or the classic silent horror film, “A Page of Madness.”


For a little while, Dan Berk and Robert Olsen’s “Significant Other” is reassuringly square. We’re back onshore after the roiling chaos of “The Outwaters,” back to the realm of unambiguous third-person compositions. These films, coincidentally, have vaguely similar plots, as both are concerned with people going into the wild and having their perceptions of themselves altered.

“Significant Other” follows a couple, Ruth (Maika Monroe) and Harry (Jake Lacy), as they go backpacking somewhere in the woods of Pacific Northwest. Berk and Olsen give them typical yuppies-stuck-in-a-horror-movie problems, namely that Harry wants to get married, though Ruth is troubled by a vague backstory that’s a red herring anyway.

The film’s very first scene, telling us that an alien creature has landed in the woods, is a mistake. Yes, such a prologue worked in, say, “Predator,” as it allowed us to imagine just how gnarly the brush-up between Arnold Schwarzenegger and the big bad alien was going to be. That was an action film though. “Significant Other” is a supernatural relationship allegory with very little going for its first half, and so it can use every little bit of mystery that it can muster.

As Ruth and Harry bicker—passive-aggressively, banally—we wait for them to stumble upon the creature. Given the woodsy setting, and given just how many emotions director David Lynch evoked with trees throughout his various versions of “Twin Peaks,” one imagines that he’d have a field day with this setting and scenario. But Berk and Olsen have little stylistic imagination. The woods here are just a backdrop for Ruth and Harry’s issues. This all feels very “TV movie.”

There’s a fun and legitimately unexpected switcheroo involving which of the two lovers may or may not have been taken over by the alien, but that’s all there is here.

The relationship has no stakes because the characters have no stature or sense of a shared past. If they break up, really, so what? Lacy’s killer comic timing, his nearly unrivaled ability to get on the wavelength of an entitled schmuck, was skillfully corralled by Mike White in the first season of “The White Lotus,” but it works against this movie, trivializing the relationship. Monroe, a master of being dreamily detached and forlorn, just seems bored here, and you can’t blame her.

Banfitch can do more with a subliminal shot than Berk and Olsen can with pages and pages of dialogue. Namely, show you how a personality can be distorted by the uncanny.

“The Outwaters” and “Significant Other” are both available on VOD. “Significant Other” can also be watched for free by members of Paramount +.