Generic script and cardboard characters hobble 'The Blair Witch Project' co-director Eduardo Sanchez's return to found-footage horror.
Fifteen years after “The Blair Witch Project,” co-director Eduardo Sanchez makes a lackluster return to found-footage horror with the Bigfoot thriller “Exists.” Eschewing the painfully slow-burning suspense and pseudo-realism that helped make “Blair Witch” a sleeper smash and genre touchstone, Sanchez’s thoroughly conventional approach here does little to elevate a dismally generic script from frequent collaborator Jamie Nash. Although “Exists” somehow managed to land an audience award at this year’s SXSW fest, the day-and-date VOD and limited theatrical release will look more at home as filler on basic-cable genre channels.
It would be a stretch to call any of the walking targets in “Exists” a proper character, but YouTube-obsessed Brian (Chris Osborn) nearly fits the bill. Never without a piece of recording equipment on hand or strapped to his body, the insufferable dudebro embarks on a trek into the East Texas woods with sibling Matt (Samuel Davis); Matt’s girlfriend, Dora (Dora Madison Burge); and another couple (Roger Edwards, Denise Williamson). Supposedly this personality-free crew is headed to a family cabin for dirt biking and fun in the sun, but Brian has an ulterior motive: to find proof of his uncle’s alleged Sasquatch sightings.
The confirmation arrives almost immediately when the gang’s ride sideswipes a mysterious creature in the woods. It disappears before anyone can get a good look, but playback on one of Brian’s cameras reveals a fleeting glimpse of an oversized hairy beast. The merry band of idiots assume it was only an animal and soldier on, before turning up their noses when they arrive at the rundown cabin. Lack of maid service quickly becomes the least of their problems when their vehicle is destroyed and they find themselves at the mercy of a bizarrely capricious hirsute foe. (This Bigfoot attacks and retreats with loopy abandon, tormenting instead of simply terminating his prey.)
Whatever one thinks of “Blair Witch,” it wasn’t just a trendsetter in the horror genre; it also functioned as a savvy experiment in the psychology of fear for its characters and the audience. “Exists” harbors no such ambitions, instead throwing out every hoary cliche in the rampaging-monster-movie playbook and practically daring viewers to find a reason to invest in its cardboard characters and borderline-indiscernible suspense sequences, alternately shrouded in darkness or rendered incomprehensible by nausea-inducing handheld camerawork.
While Sanchez has dabbled in p.o.v. filmmaking post-“Blair Witch” as co-director of the mockumentary web series “ParaAbnormal” (with Nash) and the bike-helmet-cam zombie segment in “S-VHS” (with Gregg Hale), this is the first full-length feature he’s made in that style since his breakthrough. But the director doesn’t even evince much regard for found-footage fundamentals, assuming auds won’t question why Brian keeps cameras rolling in enough locations (including bikes and helmets) to get multiple angles on every squabble, showdown and demise, or why his friends don’t tell him to quit filming when things get rough and help them try to survive.
The actors appear every bit as stranded as their characters. Former “Friday Night Lights” regular Burge attempts to emote a bit more than the others, but finds herself several galaxies removed from the smallscreen drama’s nuanced and naturalistic storytelling (although both projects filmed on location in Texas).
The manifestation of Bigfoot reps the film’s sole selling point. The beast is initially more heard more than seen, as supervising sound editor Kevin Hill and creature vocal designer Matt Davies craft an appropriately unsettling mix of groans, moans and bellowing growls emanating from the pitch-black woods, before the monster reveals itself in full. When it does, it’s surprisingly convincing (Brian Steele fills the detailed getup designed by Mike Elizalde, currently enjoying plaudits for creating Michael Keaton’s “Birdman” suit).
For a small segment of genre fans, that may be enough to justify the surrounding inanity. For anyone else, Sanchez’s film simply proves that just because a movie exists doesn’t mean it needs to be seen.