I’m having a hard time figuring out exactly why mainstream critics were so hard on last year’s found footage Sasquatch movie Exists. The movie’s been called everything from “dismally generic” to “aggressively unimaginative” to “fucking stupid”. I’m not saying those claims aren’t at least partly true (especially that last one; the movie is stupid), but dumping this much vitriol on a low budget horror film about Bigfoot feels a lot like punching down. Exists is a straightforward horror cheapie that makes few to no attempts to stray from genre clichés, but does it really deserve to be trashed more than last year’s equally pedestrian (but far more expensive) I, Frankenstein, Annabelle, or Dracula Untold? All three of those films didn’t exactly run up great scores on Metacritic either, but they were mostly brushed off as boring, not spat on as “fucking stupid”.
The best explanation for this vicious critical beating I can come up with is that Exists’ director Eduardo Sánchez was one of the two minds behind the surprise cultural hit The Blair Witch Project. By punishing Sánchez for making a generic, post-Blair Witch found footage horror flick, critics are by extension punishing him for all the other generic found footage horrors we’ve suffered through since Blair Witch’s success over a decade ago. It’s an almost cut & dried case of Schadenfreude. I’m not saying Exists’ straightforward approach to the genre is criticism-proof; I’m just saying that if it weren’t for Blair Witch the film wouldn’t have been deemed worth the time of a lot of these one-to-zero star reviews.
The most common complaint about Exists is what I believe to be its biggest strength: the fact that it plays its material straight. The campy appeal of a found footage Sasquatch movie is silly enough in concept that it would’ve been a huge mistake to adopt a winking, ironic tone to back it up. Exists is fully committed to its genre, for better or for worse. Its opening title cards read “Since 1967, there have been over 3,000 Bigfoot encounters in the U.S. alone. Experts agree that the creatures are only violent when provoked.” While some may find this kind of self-serious nonsense to be a huge warning sign, it speaks to me as a fan of schlocky horror. It says to me, “This movie will be silly. Bring liquor.” When the film’s narrator/camera-operator/resident goofball first becomes aware of the Bigfoot that ruins his vacation in the woods, he drops his sad stabs at comic relief and adopts a serious tone similar to the one in the title cards. He says, “Years ago my uncle saw something out here. Something that freaked him the fuck out. Bad enough that he never came back to this beloved hunting cabin.” The film knows when to be dour & when to be playful. That line is so goofily ludicrous it had to be said with a straight face to work.
Unfortunately, Camera Dude (which I will henceforth call him, since he punctuates nearly every sentence with “dude”) isn’t always as charming as he is there. Mostly, he’s a device. The film’s five protagonists include two cute couples & one hairy hipster bro in a Daniel Johnston t-shirt, our beloved Camera Dude. As a 5th wheel, Camera Dude is free to document the goings on of the cabin trip & subsequent Sasquatch attacks, filming his buddies as they crack wise, swim, sleep (weird), fuck (super weird) and get torn apart by a Sasquatch (thank God). Why exactly is Camera Dude filming every mundane second of his vacation in the woods on his ungodly stockpile of GoPro cameras? To make “The Best YouTube Video Ever”, of course. If this sounds obnoxious, it’s because it is. Camera Dude’s best moments are when he drops the loveable goofball act and tries to convince his buddies that they’re under attack by a Bigfoot. He tells the audience, “I’ve got some GoPros set up all over the forest,” setting up a laughably implausible excuse for the film’s multiple camera angles. Camera Dude eats up a lot of the film’s run time but when he switches from Best YouTube Video Ever mode to Bigfoot Believer mode he becomes a fairly amusing one-dimensional plot device. I also enjoyed that the moment you can tell his spirit is broken is when he’s too sad about his dead friends to smoke weed.
Despite Camera Dude’s attempts to steal the show, Exists’ true comic relief comes from another character: Deer Bro. As the title cards revealed, Sasquatches will not attack unless provoked, so the film needs to set up the five victims’ reason for being hunted by the hairy beast. Borrowing a page from I Know What You Did Last Summer, they strike a Bigfoot with their car early in the film. A few characters are convinced that they clipped a dear, but no, not Deer Bro. He warns them all, “That wasn’t no deer, bro.” As far as terrible characters in horror movies go, Deer Bro is a gem. When he isn’t tossing out an indiscriminate amount of “bro”s with every awkward sentence, he’s claiming he should be in charge of the group’s sole rifle because he plays paintball or he’s accidentally sitting down on his best bro’s broken legs. Classic Deer Bro. If Exists is to be understood as The Adventures of Camera Dude & Deer Bro, Deer Bro is the clear winner as an audience favorite. Every idiotic moment he’s on screen is a gift to schlock lovers everywhere.
Enjoying Exists, much like surviving an encounter with a Sasquatch, requires approaching it the right way. Critics looking for Eduardo Sánchez to justify his fluke success with Blair Witch were wrong to expect anything but a silly trifle out of a found footage Sasquatch movie. At this point, it’s nearly impossible to make a Sasquatch costume 100% menacing. Audiences will always see a little Harry & The Hendersons or Geico Commercial Cavemen in Bigfoot, whether or not he’s crushing skulls & hurling bicycles. As a straightforward B-movie about a Sasquatch attack, Exists is a pleasant enough picture. Its clichéd plot devices about strategically placed GoPro cameras & lack of cellphone reception are excusable as modern horror tropes and the quiet calm of its pacing is much preferable to the shrill panic of other found footage cheapies. It’s far from the most inventive horror film I’ve ever seen, but it’s also far from the worst. As a schlocky genre diversion it’s a fun, inconsequential film. Especially if you focus on the goofy charms of Deer Bro.