Director: Eduardo Sanchez
Writer: Jamie Nash
Producer: Robin Cowie, Jane Fleming, J. Andrew Jenkins, Mark Ordesky
Stars: Dora Madison Burge, Samuel Davis, Roger Edwards, Chris Osborn, Brian Steele, Denise Williamson, Samuel Davis, J.P. Schwan
A secluded cabin getaway turns into a terrifying weekend when five friends discover that they are being hunted by Bigfoot.
George Lucas proved how difficult it is for a filmmaker to go home again, and it had little to do with Jake Lloyd or with Jar Jar Binks. "The Phantom Menace" was in part doomed because in the 16 years that had passed since "Return of the Jedi," the Star Wars franchise had outgrown the confines of its creator's imagination.
Novels, comic books, video games, and action figures had extended the universe so far beyond the original concept that trying to put the milk back into the bottle from which it first poured was like taming a wild horse. It didn't matter that Lucas was the pioneer. The playground he built had become too big to go back to his individual vision.
Eduardo Sanchez faces a similar situation with "Exists." As co-director of "The Blair Witch Project" (review here), Sanchez is largely responsible for the 21st century emergence of "found footage" as the go-to format for fledgling filmmakers looking for an easy pathway into the horror movie business.
15 years later, almost the same amount of time between Jedi and Menace, Sanchez returns to the well he dug with a "found footage" Bigfoot thriller in the hopes of catching lightning in a second bottle. Like Lucas, what Sanchez discovers is that the format has long since evolved past tricks of the trade that were hip in 1999, but are overplayed and pedestrian in 2014.
The producers describe "Exists" as shot in first-person, rather than as "found footage." In recent years, the sub-genre has already done away with the conceit of being "actual" recovered footage or police evidence, but "Exists" goes one step further by not even engaging in the pretense of being an authentically narrated first-person movie.
Characters have Go-Pros, dashboard cams, and handhelds that they use for recording, but occasionally the footage is clearly not being shot by anyone in the scene at all. A music score is added, time-lapse photography separates scenes, and "Exists" is perfectly content with not having an in-world motivation to its artificially added enhancements.
The intent is for the film to retain a more realistic feeling with shaky first-person footage, even if the fiction does not fit the recording. The problem with that idea is Sanchez misses the subconscious element on which "found footage" works.
First-person is a style that operates best when the viewer's unconscious mind engages with the visuals to make the action appear like a relatable home video. Disbelief is then subliminally suspended based on the concept. Without it, shooting "Exists" absent a fictional frame to accompany its formatting is merely a sloppy technique for telling the story.
Five friends head to a loony uncle's remote cabin in the woods, and as is always the case in these situations, party plans go up in smoke when they run afoul of a Sasquatch and the weekend turns into a test of survival. It is a simple story and a simple way to tell it, which means that "Exists" has to have perfect delivery in order to hoist itself over the hump of a familiar tale and an economical production design. And it doesn't.
Sanchez wants the movie to be about Bigfoot, not about survival in the woods. But this interpretation of the legendary cryptid is portrayed with so many human characteristics that Bigfoot comes across as a masked maniac slasher instead of as a freak of nature animal hybrid.
This Bigfoot has a level of sophisticated intelligence that removes so much of the fearsome beast that she (this Bigfoot is female) is put into the same category as Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees. Bigfoot knows what a car is, why humans would need it, and how to sabotage the vehicle discreetly in order to strand its prey. The same goes for a generator at the cabin. Bigfoot has the wherewithal to understand its use, and somehow knows that destroying it will leave the friends trapped in darkness.
Not only does Bigfoot seemingly understand English, but when one friend goes biking for help, Bigfoot knows that carrying the bike back to the cabin and throwing it onto the porch will be a psychological threat, suggesting a sociopathic-level of deviousness that makes no sense for a forest-dwelling missing link. Never mind her impeccable sense of timing for knowing exactly when to jump out of a shadow for a premeditated jolt.
Sanchez is unafraid to put Bigfoot center stage at least. Whether in broad daylight or in full frame, "Exists" features Bigfoot onscreen as much as any other character. On one hand, it is an interesting choice that audience patience is not overly tested with getting a generous glimpse of the goods. On another, Sanchez misses the mark on the unseen shadows aspect that made his "Blair Witch Project" connect with audiences on a cerebral level. This Bigfoot is so overly accessible, yet so underwhelming in its depiction, that it looks like a guy in a gorilla suit running at the lens, and that is more laughable than frightening.
Some shock scares are well timed, but they only work if you can buy into the portrayal of the creature and see it as something other than a stuntman covered in carpet. Otherwise, the only material left in the picture is a lot of well-trod territory, and the jittery first-person style makes it more messy than scary.
Emotional breakdown scenes lose resonance when characters are only partially framed and dramatic tension is reduced without a traditional shooting style. The decision to go a first-person route severely limits what the movie can accomplish on an intangible level.
With all of the grumbling done about "found footage,¡± Eduardo Sanchez comes back to it at a time when his bag of tricks is moth-eaten and hole-ridden. Even if "The Blair Witch Project" got to you, or gave you a boarding ticket for the "found footage" format before subsequently falling off, "Exists" is not the movie that is going to reignite that flame. "Exists" is so threadbare in script and in style that what could have been a hit 15 years ago is only derivative today.
Review Score: 45