The Outwaters (2022)
Directed & Written by Robbie Banfitch
Starring Robbie Banfitch, Angela Basolis, Scott Schamell, & Michelle May.
Horror / Sci-Fi / Thriller
The following essay
You’ve been warned.
★★★★1/2 (out of ★★★★★)
The Outwaters is at times a frustrating found footage ride because it offers very little in the way of exposition, so the viewer, occasionally, has to sit through nauseating visuals—not because of the horror, but rather because of how many scenes are shot—that feel like they’re totally disjointed and not doing anything more than trying hard to disorient anybody daring to watch. It’s also an extraordinary horror film. Once the ride is over the viewer can revel in the insanity and think back over all the imagery to come up with their own theory about what’s actually happened before their eyes.
The film follows Robbie Zagorac (Robbie Banfitch) and his brother Scott (Scott Schamell), along with their friends Michelle August (Michelle May) and Angela Bocuzzi (Angela Basolis), as they embark on a camping trip in a remote part of the Mojave Desert where they intend to have fun and shoot a music video. The desert trip starts off normally with the friends enjoying themselves, trekking through the desert, and looking for fun places to film. The trip descends into nightmarish territory after the group hear strange noises in the night and their lives get turned upside down.
The Outwaters is not just cosmic horror, it’s a gruesome existential journey that catapults Robbie and his friends through the ugly historical fabric of America encompassed in the Mojave Desert. What unfolds is a literal walk into Hell and back out, and we witness how deeply the experience traumatises Robbie in particular, touching on everything from the extensive history of the Mojave, to Dante Alighieri and Walt Whitman, and more.
Strap yourself in tight for this one. It’s about to get over-intellectualised, for better or worse.
As the group travel into the Mojave, Michelle happens to mention “singers from the 1800s” and says they’d “just transcend you back to that time.” She inadvertently sets the stage for all the space/time madness that comes to pass later in the film. While we see moments of all four travellers experiencing pure Hell on Earth, we’re stuck entirely in Robbie’s perspective because he’s the one filming everything. And so, The Outwaters becomes Robbie’s personal rollercoaster through the underworld, during which the viewer has to hang on for dear life. It’s easy enough to put a generic ‘hell’ on Robbie’s experience, but there are pieces of the film that point to a capital ‘H’ in a variety of ways. What appear to be screaming tentacles are early indicators of a time loop occurring, a gruesome premonition of what’s to come that we understand by the end when Robbie starts mutilating himself. The tentacles are actually Robbie’s intestines, looping back through Hell to torment him before he eventually slices into his guts. More than that, we might consider these ‘the bowels’ or ‘the belly of Hell’ mentioned in the Bible (Sirach 51:7).
The idea of the bowels or belly of Hell connected with the screaming intestines wriggling through the desert provides a link to Dante Alighieri, writer of Inferno. Dante envisioned Hell as a literal pit within the bowels of the earth, a physical place; this makes sense for The Outwaters because the Hell that Robbie and the others experience is a physical one, not a psychological one, given that we see everything through the camera’s eye via found footage. More than that, the turning upside down moments—such as when Robbie runs into a blood-covered Michelle, who runs away from him while the screen’s inverted—are not just instances of the camera turning upside down, rather they’re symbolic of the journey into Hell; another Dante reference, as the author pictured Hell like an inverted cone. In one sequence, Robbie’s cast into what looks like a river of blood, a direct reference to Hell as depicted by Dante: the river Phlegethon, one of five rivers in the underworld, is depicted in Dante’s Inferno as part of the Seventh Circle of Hell, a river of blood that boils souls. And finally, the inclusion of Dante brings us back to religion in the Middle Ages, further connecting to Robbie’s recitation of “Anima Christi,” a prayer originating from medieval Catholicism.
A compact dose of negative American history is found within the Mojave and The Outwaters calls up a lot of that national memory effortlessly through a few choice images. First, we see an old Gold Rush-era axe sunk into a hill, which conjures the name Death Valley and all its Gothic implications, not to mention the violent colonial history of America. Secondly, and more importantly for the Gold Rush-era symbolism, there are the donkeys featured prominently in a couple scenes. On the surface, they’re just donkeys. They provide an almost darkly humorous moment later in the film when Robbie, after experiencing all manner of blood-soaked terrors, stumbles onto them (again) and it’s as if they couldn’t be bothered, fleeing from him slowly. The American donkey is forever connected to the Gold Rush, when they were used as beasts of burden to drive early American capitalism; pack animals made to carry equipment and gold and anything else required in the hills where prospectors obsessively searched for riches, then discarded into the desert after serving their purposes.
The film moves from American capitalism in the Sierra Nevadas to the militarised history of America and its effects on the Mojave Desert. In one scene, Robbie’s spit up from Hell into the desert once more, where he comes upon an old gas mask buried just under the dirt’s surface and a sign indicating a restricted area. Once nuclear testing in Nevada during the 1950s and early 1960s was done, the Mojave’s landscape was irreparably altered by hot spots of radiation that drifted and settled afterwards; an ugly after-effect to an ugly, destructive creation. We might even consider the “currents” mentioned running beneath the ground, combined with the loud and thunderous bangs in the sky (without any accompanying rain or inclement weather), as a recognition that the Mojave was forever scarred by the nearby nuclear tests t in Nevada decades prio.
There are two scenes that effectively pull Robbie out of his awful American history lesson by-way-of-Hell. The first is when he recites some of the poem “As If a Phantom Caress’d Me” by Walt Whitman. Although Whitman is a significant part of literary history in America, he’s also regarded as an important queer figure in American history, so this breaks away from the traditional U.S.—juxtaposed with Robbie singing a piece of “All the Pretty Horses,” a traditional U.S. lullaby that has potential connections to the enslavement of African Americans—and earlier references to Christianity. Most important is when Robbie discovers a shark tooth, one of many fossils you can find in the Mojave. He uses it to cut his own penis off; an ancient piece of history that quite literally severs Robbie from American history, but also, unfortunately, from life, as he then disembowels himself before walking off into the desert.
“It is weird out here.”
Any interpretation of The Outwaters is ultimately sort of redundant because the film is purposefully and intricately constructed to be a disorienting, chaotic, and maddening experience. There are moments that are genuinely frustrating for the viewer, as Banfitch occasionally only uses a flashlight’s small circular beam to light up the frame of Robbie’s camera. Everything between the start and finish of the story in front of the viewer is largely a means to an end. Not to say it isn’t important or worthwhile to dig into everything, otherwise this essay’s analysis of the film’s scenes and symbols wouldn’t exist. What’s most important, though, is that Banfitch is trying to do what we expect from a really good horror film: he’s working hard to scare the shit out of us.
The Outwaters does so much undercover historical work within its cosmic horror frame that you could easily just watch the film and never pay much attention to the signs and symbols, or really notice them at all. Still, there’s no denying that most of the film’s symbolism points towards American history, as Banfitch depicts said history like a trip through Hell and back. Living in the United States of America and trying to grapple with its long historical project of bodily horrors and psychological terrors is an existential, cosmically terrifying feat in itself. The Outwaters grapples with it all by telling this haunting, tragic tale of four people succumbing to the horrors of the nation’s history out in the shadows of the desert.
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