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While it was certainly odd to see six or seven doppelgänger films released in 2014, I actually found the mini-trend towards Bigfoot films to be even weirder. After all, I can understand the current fascination with thinking that there’s a cooler, more successful version of yourself running around the world: it’s only natural that we’d begin to reap the fruits that we planted in the Social Media Age. What’s behind the boom in Bigfoot/Sasquatch films, though? Current facial hair trends? Our desire to return to the wilderness and live simpler lives? The notion that as the world continues to shrink (that darn social media thing, again), we’re gradually running out of isolated pockets of the unknown to poke and prod, leading us to go over old ground with a finer tooth comb?

Here’s where it gets even stranger, however: of the three Bigfoot films that were released in 2014 (Willow Creek, Skookum: The Hunt for Bigfoot and Exists), two of them actually share a connection, however tenuous. You see, Bobcat Goldthwait’s Willow Creek plays like a Sasquatch-oriented re-do of The Blair Witch Project (1999), albeit one that seems to have the goal of fixing Blair Witch’s many problems (unlikable characters, lack of action, iffy script). Exists, by contrast, is the newest film by Eduardo Sanchez, one of the two filmmakers responsible for The Blair Witch Project and our current obsession with found-footage films. Exists is also a found-footage film (for the most part), which means that we got two, separate found-footage Bigfoot films that both appeared to (obliquely) reference Blair Witch…holy alternate universe, Batman!

Despite the surface similarities, however, there are actually quite a few differences between Willow Creek and Exists (I never screened Skookum, so that may very well slot in here, as well). Of the two films, Willow Creek is much closer to the original Blair Witch Project in tone and intent, whereas Sanchez’s Bigfoot opus is more of an action-horror/siege film: in many ways, Exists is another in the long, storied tradition of “something chasing our heroes through the woods” films, rather than a “traditional” found-footage horror film. Both films have their merits, although I’ll admit to leaning a little heavier on Willow Creek than Exists, which often seems too reminiscent of other films (including Blair Witch). Nonetheless, Exists has plenty to offer fans of Bigfoot-themed horror flicks and manages to whip up a pretty decent sense of atmosphere and tension.

The film begins with us firmly in found-footage cliché land, as we get hand-held footage of our intrepid heroes goofing around on the picturesque drive to their backwoods cabin location. We have brothers Matt (Samuel Davis) and Brian (Chris Osborn), couple Todd (Roger Edwards) and Liz (Denise Williamson) and fifth-wheel Dora (Dora Madison Burge), all out for a nice, fun weekend at the cabin owned (and mysteriously abandoned) by Matt and Brian’s Uncle Bob (Jeff Schwan). The group has snuck out to the cabin, without Uncle Bob’s knowledge, so no one has any idea where they are. If you just said “Sounds like a bad idea,” go ahead and give yourself that gold star, buckaroo.

While driving at night, the group appear to hit something with their SUV: after the most cursory of cursory looks, they take off, convinced that they’ve just “wounded” some friendly, little woodland creature. Turns out this was another bad idea, since something large, angry and extremely violent is now after their group. When the friends hole up in Bob’s abandoned cabin, they quickly find themselves under siege from what appears to be an angry mob of…well, of some kind of furry, bipedal creatures that are, essentially, the exact opposite of the Henderson’s ol’ buddy, Harry. When the group are forced to split up in order to get help, they only end up making themselves easier targets. As Uncle Bob races to the cabin for a desperate rescue mission, the others will learn the terrible price of their thoughtless actions. Can they find forgiveness and salvation in the deep, dark woods or will they end up as just more mysterious footnotes in the murky history of the creature known as Bigfoot?

For my money, Eduardo Sanchez was always the most talented of the Sanchez/Myrick combo. In the time since The Blair Witch Project revolutionized the indie horror film, Sanchez has been responsible for a small handful of really exceptional films: Altered (2006), Seventh Moon (2008), Lovely Molly (2011) and a segment in V/H/S 2 (2013). Lovely Molly, in particular, is an amazing gut-punch of a film and easily one of the best of the past decade. Myrick, by contrast, released the disappointing Believers (2007), Solstice (2008) and The Objective (2008) in the same time-period, none of which approached the quality of Sanchez’s output.

In this case, then, we have the more gifted of the two Blair Witch filmmakers returning to the found-footage sub-genre that he helped popularize: my anticipation for this was pretty high, especially considering how much I respect Lovely Molly. If nothing about Exists manages to hit the heady heights of Lovely Molly, however, it probably has something to do with this being a slightly less personal project: Sanchez directs from a script by Jaime Nash rather than writing the film himself, as he’s done in the past. The characters are much flimsier than his previous films, for one thing, nearly reduced to the level of stock characters (Todd and Brian, in particular, are more stereotypes than actual real people). Again, this only really becomes an issue when compared to Sanchez’s previous full-length, the astounding Lovely Molly: the drop in quality might not be as notable were it not for this rather unfortunate progression.

One of Exists greatest strengths, in the long run, ends up being its more action-oriented take on found-footage films. The usual complaint with these type of films (a complaint that goes right back to Blair Witch) is that nothing actually happens until the final five minutes: everything else is just atmospheric build-up to that brief pay-off. One can’t make that complaint here, since things start happening almost immediately and the film is chock-full of memorable setpieces: the assault on the cabin, the incredible attack on the stranded RV, the Go-Pro-filmed forest bike chase that directly recalls the “A Ride in the Park” segment of V/H/S 2, the effective (if slightly hokey) ending. Exists is able to build and release tension at regular intervals, making it much closer to a “traditional” horror film than the usual “delayed gratification” of found-footage.

Atmosphere-wise, Exists is a complete success: at times, the film is layered with so much tension and dread that it’s almost unbearable. Cinematographer John Rutland (who also shot Lovely Molly) perfectly captures the eerie, isolated woodland location and turns the abandoned cabin into one of the creepiest places of the year. The night scenes are also exceptionally well-shot, with plenty of good image definition, along with lots of that aforementioned tension. From a craft standpoint, Exists biggest failings can actually be traced directly back to its found-footage roots: at times, the film almost seems to replicate specific shots from Blair Witch (the night-vision scenes, in particular), which, ironically, gives it a more slavish air than Willow Creek: Sanchez seems to be ripping himself off, which is a decidedly odd move. There are also several points in the film where the 1st-person perspective is abandoned in favor of a more omniscient viewpoint, which gets kind of confusing: just who, exactly, is supposed to be filming those angles? A Bigfoot? It’s not a deal-breaker but it’s definitely noticeable and anything that takes the audience out of a film like this runs the very real risk of not getting them back.

All in all, I definitely liked Exists: the film was fast-paced, well-made and quite tense, even if it was never particularly unique. That being said, I also found this to be the weakest of Sanchez’s post-Blair Witch output, by a long shot: I would have figured this to be the direct follow-up to his debut, not his fifth full-length. There’s a lot to like here (the repeated images of uprooted trees are frankly awesome and that RV assault is one of the record books) although I can’t help but wish the characters were more fully realized and sympathetic (or, at the very least, interesting). Of the two Bigfoot films I saw in 2014, I was definitely more impressed by Goldthwait’s, even though it seemed to be the less “hard-charging” of the two, on paper. Perhaps it was Willow Creek’s great characters, its handful of genuinely hilarious scenes or that impressive final 30 minutes but it just ended up grabbing me harder than Exists. Despite that fact, however, I’m confident that there’s enough room in the woods for both of these shaggy beasts to happily co-exist: if you’re looking to scratch that Bigfoot itch, you could do a whole lot worse than Exists.

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