In the fifteen years since the release of The Blair Witch Project, it can be argued that Eduardo Sánchez never fully returned to the found footage sub-genre he helped catapult with co-director Daniel Myrick. What he retained from the experience, however, is the ability to deliver primal scares by lifting some of the same techniques responsible for that film’s massive success. His subsequent body of work, notably Lovely Molly and Seventh Moon, exhibit stylistic choices recognizable as shaky cam horror, yet those films are never represented as recovered footage. Sanchez continues to reinvent himself, mindful of the minimalist design that makes it all work; each artistic endeavor shows the director building upon that foundation, yet straying far enough to avoid repetition.
Sánchez’s returns to the spooky forest with his latest Bigfoot-themed film Exists (in select theaters and On Demand Friday, October 24). Again, we find Sánchez experimenting with found footage form without actually laying claim to “discovered” footage. Still, it’s the closest he’s come to the Blair Witch if you overlook A Ride in the Park, his playful helmet-cam zombie entry in V/H/S 2. Sánchez capitalizes on the urgency of first person point-of-view, constructed here as a conventional narrative with a clear beginning, middle, and end. The action in Exists, indeed, takes place through the lens of a shaky camera, but trimmed of the usual trappings: there is no designated character operating the camera who must explain why he/she continues to shoot; gone is the sporadic editing of spliced “amateur” footage and interviews in favor of concrete plot structure. In addition, Sánchez employs a music score (by Nima Fakhrara) that further dampens the element of realism. All of these components, or lack thereof, work to benefit the experience resulting in a movie that unfolds in a natural story arc.
The story concerns a group of friends, led by brothers Matt (Samuel Davis) and Brian (Chris Osborn), heading out to a cabin in the East Texas woods for a weekend of drunken shenanigans. The cabin’s owner, Uncle Bob, had a frightening encounter with something large and hairy in the woods eight years prior and Brian has decided to capture whatever it was on video. He brings along an arsenal of Go-Pro cameras to aid in his mission, planning to position them in a variety of places around the woods. When Matt accidentally hits something on the drive up, it sets the group against a monstrous force of nature whose savage bloodlust is rivaled in size only by its massive footprint.
Exists exhibits a few problems in the early going, mostly due to screenwriter Jamie Nash’s by-the-numbers script. The viewer is (again) introduced to a carload of bickering twenty-somethings who have no business being out in the woods; hanging with them for the first thirty minutes or so is the film’s biggest hurdle. One wonders how this collection of young men and women became friends in the first place or why we should care if they live or die. Screenwriters who hold onto a belief that horror fans would rather root for the deaths of unlikable protagonists fail to realize the full potential of horror when we do care about their fates. Luckily, Sánchez is able to rescue the film and overcome our initial prejudices toward the ensemble when they’re finally faced with peril.
Surprisingly, Exists becomes the opposite of the sort of Sasquatch film one expects from the co-creator of the Blair Witch. Sánchez drops the mystery angles in favor of an action-oriented tale of savage revenge; this particular cinematic excursion is all the better for it. Exists becomes so thrilling at times that one forgets how frustratingly cardboard the protagonists are while cowering alongside them in claustrophobic settings. Sánchez takes them (and the viewer) from the close confines of a dilapidated cabin under siege, to the cramped quarters of the Sasquatch’s lair; we’re as close to shaking in their boots as he can get us.
What Sánchez gets absolutely right is the amount he chooses to show. Exists starts how you’d expect, with fleeting Bigfoot sightings taking place in the obscurity of trees and shadows. Sánchez’s brilliant use of sound elevates these earlier scenes, especially the grunts and howls of the beast wonderfully realized by vocal designer Matt Davies. As the film progresses, Sánchez reveals more of the hulking beast with shots of its crazed eyes, huge hairy claws, and, of course, the humongous legendary feet.
Sánchez and director-of-photography John Rutland make excellent choices in how they present the action, particularly during scenes where the Sasquatch demonstrates phenomenal rage and power; those sequences of destruction are delivered with an infectious exuberance that has a lot in common with Sanchez’s amusing V/H/S 2 segment. Those disappointed that The Blair Witch Project never actually showed a witch will be delighted to learn that the Sasquatch here is shown in all its hairy glory. The vengeful Bigfoot relentlessly smashes, crashes, and bashes, and we bear witness to most of it as it builds toward the climax.
It’s a shame Exists isn’t opening wider; it’s the sort of horror treat that really deserves to be experienced on the big screen. Even if you’re a movie-goer who’s grown weary of the format, Exists may change your mind with moments that run the gamut from claustrophobic dread to adrenaline-pumping action. Exists falters at the end with a predictable denouement, but it doesn’t matter —Sánchez delivers on exactly what’s promised. Exists wasn’t intended as a sensitive exploration of myth and metaphor; it’s a loud and raucous monster movie that wants to entertain the hell out of you.