Friday, August 4, 2017

Big(foot) Trouble - EXISTS

This summer I have found myself going into the woods often, despite being specifically warned against it.  I love the woods, though, and camping is cheaper than hoteling, so I’m risking it.  I’m not worried about escaped lunatics, feral murderers, or deformed hillbillies, I’ve seen more than enough woods based slashers to know all their tricks.  Grizzlies are another matter (is it run or play dead, or climb a tree?), but since I’m on the East Coast, not much chance of seeing one.  Sasquatches, on the other hand, are more troubling.  They have never been proven NOT to be on the East Coast, so anything is possible.  According to the experts, Bigfoots (feet?) are only hostile when provoked, which is reassuring.  I still have my doubts, though, so for additional research I watched the 2014 nature documentary on the subject, Eduardo Sanchez’ EXISTS.

Two young, attractive couples, and their fifth wheel Brian, head deep into the woods with dreams of revelry and BMX stunts.  Distracted by some late-night car shenanigans, Matt (Samuel Davis) accidentally clips something big on the side of the road.  Finding no sign of the unlucky critter, the kids continue to Matt and brother Brian’s (Chris Osborn) family cabin.  Matt, his girl Dora (Dora Madison), alpha jock Todd (Roger Edwards), and snobby Liz (Denise Williamson) go about having sexy fun, while Brian sets up a lot of cameras.  Not to be pervy (though he does that, too), but to record proof of the bigfoot that his Uncle Bob (Jeff Schwan) swears lives around those parts.  Brian gets his wish in a big, hairy way when the legendary creature lays siege on their cabin.  Supposedly non-aggressive, this particular beastie has a serious bone to pick (or snap) with these irresponsible youngins, and nothing is going to stand its way.  

I must admit, I have not always had high regards for the found footage genre.  My first experience with the style goes all the way back to its birth, THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, which Sanchez co-directed.  I went in with high expectations, after devouring the brilliant “is it real?” marketing and hype, and I left utterly pissed.  My brain wouldn’t accept the narrative style.  It didn’t seem like a real movie to me.  None of the found footage movies that followed did anything to warm me to the style.  If anything, they lowered my opinion of it.  Then came CLOVERFIELD and it finally clicked.  Re-watching BLAIR WITCH ten years later was a completely different experience.  I connected with the rawness and immediacy of the performances.  I understood their fear and frustration.  This time it drew me in.  Found footage is still not my favorite style, but in the hands of a good director, it can be extremely effective.

With EXISTS, Sanchez utilized the best of both worlds.  It’s still found footage, but there are so many cameras running simultaneously that it allows for more breathing room and variety. There is enough coverage for reactions and establishing shots with multiple POVs.  The edit can be snappy and kinetic without constantly shaking the camera.  The real-time immediacy still comes through and it even makes sense story wise.  Brian is a total voyeur, more comfortable capturing life than living it.  Given his obsession with catching a bigfoot on video, it is reasonable that he would lug a bag full of Go-Pros and set them up everywhere, continuously recording.  There are cameras on bikes, helmets, dashboards.  The fixed cameras help alleviate my biggest issue with found footage: if something scary is coming after you, stop effing with the camera and run.  Now they can do just that and still get the shot.    

The story begins in classic TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE style with a carload of kids taking a road trip somewhere they shouldn´t be going.  You get a clue to the group dynamic right away, as Brian’s friends play a little prank on him as he sleeps by trying to set his beard on fire.  Now, it has been a while since I was in college, so I might be out of touch with the kind of innocent hazing the kids are into today, but WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK?   What kind of assholes set someone’s beard on fire for a joke?  “Ha ha, you should have seen the look on your face when I set it on fire!  Classic burn, bro!”  Obviously these knuckleheads have not seen THE BURNING.  Setting people on fire is never as funny as you expect it to be.  

Sure enough, the potentially scarring tomfoolery is the distraction which leads to the accident starting the whole mess.  The movie takes its time ramping up the action.  Aside from some mournful wailing in the woods, the beginning is just getting to know the cast.  This can be a bit painful, as it has already been established that these guys are assholes.  Also, they use the words “bro” and “pimp” entirely too much for comfort.  They´re just dumb college kids, nothing on the nerve-grating level of an Eli Roth cast, but I still wouldn’t want to hang out with them for long.

Brian is clearly the most sympathetic one.  He’s an outsider from the start, more comfortable talking to the camera than to the others.  They don’t go out of their way to make him feel welcome, either.  Even Matt sides with his friends over his brother.  Todd is the primary instigator of dickish behavior, making fun of Brian’s bigfoot obsession, but Matt goes along with it.  Dora comes off a little better.  She at least tries to make a connection and encourages Brian to join in the fun.  They have a sweet scene together where she comforts Brian, who is despondent over Matt's disappearance and presumed pummeling.

Of course, Brian isn’t exactly helping his case when he does stuff like record Todd and Liz having sex in the woods or wander around shouting bigfoot calls while totally baked in the middle of the night.  Plus, he is utterly useless when shit really goes down.  He gets one shining moment of bravery when trying to help his brother, but he’s still mostly a dweeb.

Bigfoot makes her (yes, a Lady Bigfoot) presence known gradually.  The kids hear ominous howling and something bumping against the cabin walls, discover their car has been murdered, and catch the glimpse of a face in the window.  I was afraid I was headed into PARANORMAL ACTIVITY territory, all build up and no payoff.  Thankfully, I was wrong.  EXISTS delivers Bigfoot in a big way.  The real carnage begins when Matt bikes out to get help and discovers exactly how fast a giant hairy beast can run (the answer is faster than a dude on a bike).  Then she heads back to the cabin and things really go crazy.

Previous cinematic depictions of bigfoots range from benevolent (HARRY AND THE HENDERSONS), to misunderstood (LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK), to malicious (NIGHT OF THE DEMON).  They are always big, hairy (with the weird exception of NIGHT OF THE DEMON), and strong.  No matter how much I love the movies, the hokey and hoaxy subject matter means I always see bigfoot as a guy in a suit.  The creature in EXISTS, however, is a straight up beast.  Her raw strength and ferocity came across in a way I’ve never experienced in this genre.  The physical performance of 6’7 actor Brian Steele, who specializes in playing enormous aliens, demons, and other nasty things is outstanding, but the aggressive sound design is also a major factor.  Frantic camerawork (purposefully) keeps us from getting a good long look at her early in the rampage, but just hearing her is actually more effective.  She has a savage, reverberating roar, and every blow she makes against the cabin walls sounds like a wrecking ball.  There is a great scene where Todd gets all pumped up and macho, blindly firing his shotgun into the trees.  The creature retaliates by hurling head sized rocks at them that sound like cannonballs whizzing by.  

The thing that really makes her feel so dangerous is her relentlessness.  Once she commits to taking these little bastards out, nothing is going to stop her.  The old wooden cabin offers as much protection as a paper bag.  Every time the kids think they have safely barricaded themselves, she comes at them from a different side.  Even hiding down in the concealed EVIL DEAD style cellar only buys them a slight reprieve before she finds them and starts tearing through the trap door.  A lucky shotgun blast sends her packing long enough for the survivors to get out of the ruined cabin, but as soon as they are forced to trek through the woods, she is stalking their every move.

These poor saps are not only outclassed physically, they are outsmarted as well.  This bigfoot is a clever girl.  She knows to destroy their means of escape, to pick off anyone trying to bring help, and to leave them in the dark by taking out the cabin generator.  When Todd’s shotgun makes direct attacks dangerous, she lures them into the confines of her den using the screams of a wounded friend.  Honestly, these guys would be out of their league confronting an angry raccoon.  Bigfoot might have felt a little embarrassed for them, when she wasn’t busy bashing them to death.

The climax unleashes another unrelenting wave of destruction, resulting in an astonishing physical stunt that blows me away every time I see it.  This is the optimal use of found footage, in my opinion.  The real time pacing and genuine reactions give it a certain verisimilitude that make it feel like the events are actually happening.  It helps that a lot of it really is happening, thanks to the low budget, "lets just do it and see what we get" nature of the movie.  Even with all the new technology, it's a nice callback to the old grindhouse days of practical--and slightly dangerous--filmmaking.  Suffice it to say, if you find yourself chased by a bigfoot, a cliff side camper is not the best place to take shelter.

Eventually we learn the reason for her rampage.  [Spoiler]  Brian, the last one left, finds out the thing they hit at the beginning was her baby bigfoot (barely a mediumfoot, really).  Mama Bigfoot pushes his head down into the fly covered corpse like she was disciplining a dog.  When he shows contrition and accepts what he has coming to him, she shows herself to be the bigger (sort of) person and lets him live.  

 Of course, I came up with an alternative theory that she felt bad about how douchey everyone was treating Brian, killed them all, and adopted him as her new son.  Now they live together happily in the woods, where she only occasionally smacks him around when he says “pimp” too much.  Basically, a happy ending either way.

All of which leads me to conclude I have nothing to fear from bigfoots in the wilderness, as long as I watch where I’m driving and don’t set anyone’s beard on fire.  I think I can manage that.

C Chaka

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