Monday, October 10, 2016

Hubrisween 2016 :: E is for Exists (2014)

In an effort to get some new and wilder footage to bump up their views, extreme sports-stunt YouTube-channelers Brian and Matt (Osborn, Davis) head into the notorious Big Thicket of east Texas, with an uncle’s abandoned cabin nestled deep in the nigh impenetrable forested area their final destination. Why is it abandoned? We’ll get to that in a sec. For now, keep it under your hat as the two brothers, along with Matt’s girlfriend, Dora (Madison), and their friends Todd and Elizabeth (Edwards, Williamson) are enjoying their time on the road, documenting everything on multiple cameras, checking out the sights, guzzling beer, encountering a near perfect redneck gas station, and shooting bottle-rockets off from inside their moving SUV. But this joy and gaiety eventually wears off as the trip drags on and night falls and the two brothers struggle to remember the exact route to get where they need to go as road conditions get worse and worse the deeper they go into the Thicket.

Soon everyone except Matt and Dora are asleep. And instead of watching the road, Matt watches as Dora plays a practical joke on Brian, where she films her efforts to singe his beard off with a lighter. And while distracted, their vehicle strikes some poor animal crossing the road, giving everyone onboard a good jolt. Getting out to investigate, they find a busted headlight, a dented bumper, some blood, a few scraggly hairs, but no other evidence of what they hit. Their flashlights do show something big moving away in the woods, followed by an intense howl of pain, that sends everyone scrambling back into the vehicle to put as much distance between whatever it was and them as fast as humanly possible.

As they drive on and finally find the turnoff leading to the cabin, Brian checks the footage on his camera and comes across Dora’s prank, which also kinda sorta captures a brief glimpse of what they hit through the front windshield. And while none of them can identify exactly what it was due to the speed and lack of light, the trip comes to a sudden halt due to a fallen tree blocking the road, meaning they have to hoof it the rest of the way in. Upon arrival, their guests are a little nonplussed by the deplorable conditions of the cabin, which has apparently been abandoned for years -- and abandoned in a hurry judging by what all was left behind. And when it is discovered the cabin is also harboring some wildlife, the decision is quickly made to spend the inaugural night back in the SUV. 

But while everyone else sleeps, Brian keeps going over the footage of what they hit. And when he hears more monstrous howling in the woods, almost mournful, he notices Matt is wide awake and listening, too. When Brian tries to hushedly talk to him about what could be making that noise, his frightened younger brother doesn’t want to hear it, meaning they both know exactly what is making that noise and why their uncle abandoned the cabin and maybe, just maybe, they had some ulterior motives for coming out here with all those cameras.

Letting it got for now, the following morning the group is recharged a bit as they reclaim the cabin and spend the rest of the day using a ramp to launch themselves and their bikes into a nearby creek. Later, as the couples pair off and do what couples do, Brian withdraws and explores the nearby woods, where he finds several impossibly large footprints, eventually stumbling upon Todd and Elizabeth making out. But while the perverted practical joker trains the camera on them, he notices something else moving behind them -- a large black something booking it along the ridge. Letting out an expletive over this, the nearby Todd and Elizabeth are alerted and outraged, rightly thinking the creep was trying to film them having sex. Not interested in what he has to say or what he saw, Todd confiscates the camera’s memory card and pockets Brian’s proof. And once more, Matt stifles Brian’s conjecturing on what it really is out in the woods, even accusing him of hiring someone to come out here and scare them on film for YouTube ratings.

Undaunted, Brian sets-up several GoPro cameras at various points around the cabin and waits for whatever it was to come back. That night, while the others party inside, Brian waits outside, blazing a blunt, and beseeching the creature to show itself. And then suddenly, he hears something moving nearby and freezes; but he's then overwhelmed by a volley of paintballs as Matt and Todd appear and pummel him mercilessly; payback for his earlier attempt at making an unsolicited sex-tape. But then the night air is split by a monstrous roar and the three men quickly retreat to the cabin as the roaring continues, and continues to get closer. Inside, they reunite with the panicked girls as the roaring and howling continue. Outside, Brian’s cameras pick up something large and hairy and on two legs moving up the stairs and onto the porch. Inside, the terrified group listens as something extremely pissed off stalks around the cabin, banging on the walls, probing for a way in. When all this just as suddenly stops, Brian, camera in hand, creeps up to a window and looks outside, only to have his view quickly blocked by a monstrous inhuman face that screams at him before withdrawing, giving them all the proof they need that Bigfoot really does exist...

The Big Thicket is a patch of two to three million acres of rolling forests and marshlands in east Texas nestled between Nacogdoches to the north and Galveston to the south, with the eastern border provided by the Sabine River and the western boundary ending at the Brazos River. One of the most dense and bio-diverse and inhospitable areas in the country, it was no stranger as a source of tall tales and rural legends. 

In the 1940s, stories began to surface about ethereal mystery lights seen along the Saratoga Ghost Road, an old dirt trail near an abandoned railroad line, with explanations and theories ranging from long dead conquistadors looking for treasure, Civil War ghosts from both sides looking for payback, a decapitated railroad worker, and a lost hunter damned to an eternity of searching for a way out of the infernal thicket.

Usually associated with the Pacific northwest, but, Bigfoot sightings have actually been reported in nearly every State in the Union. Texas has always had a cryptid problem. The Sasquatch has long held a place in Native American folklore, with the first reported western sighting in the Lone Star state coming in 1837 with tales of the “Wild Woman of the Navidad”: mysterious barefoot tracks were frequently seen in the area, which were linked to the sightings of a creature covered in short brown hair that moved very fast and always eluded capture. Over the decades since the creature has held many names; the Caddo Creature, Old Mossy Back, the Lake Worth Monster, the Bear King of Marble Falls, and the Liberty County Monkey Man until the Patterson-Gimlin footage hit in 1968 and everyone settled on referring to the elusive creature as Bigfoot.

Speaking of the Patterson-Gimlin film, I’m hard-pressed to come up with a better or more appropriate subject-matter for a found footage movie than Bigfoot. Found footage movies existed long before The Blair Witch Project (1999), but Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick’s mini-movie that could, which also owes a huge debt to one of the most brilliant viral marketing strategies of ever, made the sub-genre a going concern and a relatively cheap cash-cow that’s still being flogged and exploited to this day.

As a child of the 1970s cryptid-mania, Sanchez had always wanted to make a Bigfoot movie, inspired by the Patterson film, the TV series In Search of…, a few legendary episodes of The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman, and especially Charles B. Pierce’s The Legend of Boggy Creek (1972). The Blair Witch of its day, Boggy Creek, with its pseudo-documentary style, which inspired dozens of imitators as well, did almost as much if not more to sensationalize and make Bigfoot a household name than any footprint or “real” footage ever found.  Ever since Blair Witch hit, Sanchez and screenwriter Jamie Nash kicked the idea around to make the definitive Bigfoot movie, where, unlike a lot of Sasquatch cinema, there would be no external plots or subplots getting in the way and keep the conflict between the players and Bigfoot, not each other. And most importantly of all, Bigfoot would be a creature of this Earth and not some spiritual manifestation, extraterrestrial or inter-dimensional being.

Strangely enough, as conceived, Exists (2014) wasn’t intended to be a found footage movie at first but, drawing inspiration from all those cryptid docs and YouTube sighting videos which proved sometimes less is more, Sanchez compromised, treating it like a feature that just happened to be shot by the people in it. And so, the camera is still rolling the following morning when our campers beat a hasty retreat only to find the creature spent the rest of the night demolishing their ride. Then, back in the cabin, Matt and Brian reveal they stole the keys to the cabin and no one knows where they are. With no cell reception and very few options, Matt volunteers to bike out alone for help.

Several miles later, in a clearing, a few intermittent bars pop up on his cellphone. He tries 911 first but the signal isn’t strong enough. But he does get a hold of his uncle and relays where they are before Bigfoot silently appears in one of the best executed jump scares of ever. And after a brief chase, the creature easily runs Matt down who screams as the camera cuts out. Meanwhile, back at the cabin, the rest of the crew has spent the day barricading the doors and windows, uncovering a cellar where Todd finds a shotgun and a dozen shells. Then all they can do is wait and hope and pray Matt makes it out OK. But they’re prayers are answered when the Bigfoot chucks what’s left of Matt’s bike onto the porch.

That night brings another attack, where Elizabeth is mortally wounded as they all take refuge in the cellar until Todd manages to finally drive the creature off with the gun. The next morning shows signs that Todd hit him, judging by all the blood; and emboldened by the notion that they’ve injured it, maybe even killed it, and knowing the cabin is no longer safe, the three survivors decide to hike out on foot. Listening to Brian, who says he knows a shortcut, they abandon the road and head into the woods, where they find Matt’s backpack and helmet covered in blood but no body. They also find an abandoned camper before hearing Matt screaming in the distance. They trace this to the creature’s den, a narrow series of tunnels, which Brian enters to retrieve Matt; and after several harrowing turns, manages not only pull his injured brother to safety but also manages to put another slug into the Bigfoot.

As dawn breaks, the survivors take refuge in the camper, where Brian’s cellphone rings. It's his uncle, who’s at the cabin, but the signal dies before they can relate where they are. And so, Todd bravely heads outside to shoot off the last of his fireworks as a signal, which he does manage to accomplish before the Bigfoot attacks and Louisville Sluggers him against a tree. The creature then lays siege on the camper, which proves no protection at all. In fact, it becomes a deathtrap as the enraged monster easily pushes it over a cliff into a deep ravine. 

Both Matt and Dora are killed on impact but a dazed Brian survives and flees, with the Bigfoot, after making one helluva jump in another outstanding shot and stunt, in hot pursuit until his prey falls into another ravine and knocks himself out. When Brian comes to, he is being dragged by the foot into a burnt out area of the forest and is brought to rest by the gathered bodies of his fallen friends. He panics, but the creature is seemingly gone. His attention is then drawn to a small shallow grave, whose content explains why the constantly reported docile creature was so enraged at them.

Putting it together, Brian realizes it was the creature's juvenile offspring they hit and killed that first night and all of this was grief-fueled payback. The adult Bigfoot returns and forces him closer and closer to the body as he hysterically apologies. Suddenly, a shot rings out and the creature flees. It’s the uncle, who grabs Brian and they quickly flee. They are in sight of his truck when the Bigfoot ambushes them, killing the uncle before turning on Brian, who takes up his uncle’s gun and begs his attacker to stop. Taking in the creature’s injuries, the pain in its eyes, and the grief they’ve caused it, Brian puts the gun down, turns around and drops to his knees, essentially giving himself up, ready to take his punishment. The creature takes all this in, but instead of attacking, it quietly stalks off into the woods, the blood vendetta done, leaving two survivors in the cleansing rain.

With Exists Sanchez solves the two fundamental problems folks had with The Blair Witch Project. (Three if you count the minimal use of shaky-cam.) One, we like these protagonists enough. And two, the threat they face is physical and something we can see and quantify. In fact, one of the best decisions Sanchez made was to redo the opening credit sequence. The original version is included on the DVD, which paints our protagonists as irredeemable douche-bros. But with a little bit of trimming, removing the majority of the dialogue, and adding a mellower soundtrack, they quickly switch from insufferable assholes to a group of people who admittedly aren’t all that interesting but at least you don’t want to see them get killed.

I’ve always felt found footage films had one less layer between the film and the audience, making them active participants. Here, Sanchez kinda breaks the rules he helped write on the sub-genre by hitting the ground running and showing us a full-frontal monster. There’s also a musical score and some impressive sound-design and editing. Again, inspired by the cryptid docs and films of his youth, Sanchez took the less is more JAWS approach with his monster, showing enough but then hiding it or obscuring it. The attack on the cabin is a thinly veiled homage to the siege of the Ford house during the climax of The Legend of Boggy Creek. However, the director then proceeds to put his own personal stamp on Bigfoot cinema with the attack on the trailer, perhaps drawing some inspiration from Bigfoot and Wildboy, which showed a Sasquatch can hop around like the Hulk.

Originally teaming up with WETA, who provided some initial concept sketches, it was Spectral Motion who designed and built the Bigfoot suit for Exists; it looks fantastic and Sanchez utilizes it beautifully as we get to see more and more of the creature as the film progresses. Brian Steel wore the suit and gives an outstanding performance. You can honestly feel the monster’s rage and grief as he goes on this rampage. The film was originally scheduled to be shot in the fall but had to hold off until spring due to some massive wildfires. The production decided to incorporate this into the film, setting the climax in the burnt-out, ashen moonscape. And if you look closely, there is another filled in grave next to the open one, leading to some easy conjecture that the creature lost it's mate in the fire, and has now lost its offspring, making his lashing out even more understandable and his redemption at the end a little more poignant.

Bigfoot cinema has been around almost as long as there have been sightings. There was the seminal Sasquatch vs. Biker flick Big Foot (1970). And then there was that time Bigfoot subbed in for Jason Vorhees in Night of the Demon (1981). There’s even been a mini-resurgence of Sasquatch Cinema lately with Corey Grant’s Bigfoot: The Lost Coast Tapes (2012) and Bobcat Goldthwait’s Willow Creek (2013), both of which also employed the found footage technique. But Exists shows the old master still has a few tricks up his sleeve, resulting in a pretty excellent flick, which easily pushes Exists to the top of my list for this kind of cryptid whackadoodlery. 

What is Hubrisween? This is Hubrisween. And now, Boils and Ghouls, be sure to follow this linkage to keep track of the whole conglomeration of reviews for Hubrisween right here. Or you can always follow we collective head of knuckle on Letterboxd. That's five down with 21 to go! And if you're itching for more Sasquatch Cinema, watch this space a couple letters down the road

Exists (2014) Court Five :: Haxan Films :: Miscellaneous Entertainment :: Lionsgate / EP: D. Todd Shepherd, George Waud, Reed Frerichs, Gregg Hale / P: Robin Cowie, Mike Elizalde, Jane Fleming, Andy Jenkins, Mark Ordesky / D: Eduardo Sánchez / W: Jamie Nash / C: John W. Rutland / E: Andrew Eckblad, Andy Jenkins / M: Nima Fakhrara / S: Samuel Davis, Dora Madison, Roger Edwards, Denise Williamson, Samuel Davis, Brian Steele

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