Missing Link (2019)

Laika has already earned a lifetime pass with their spooky stop-motion gems Coraline, ParaNorman, and Kubo and the Two Strings, but it’s not going to be much of a lifetime if the animation studio doesn’t start pulling in more money. As beloved as those titles are among movie nerds and very specific budding-horror-fan children, none have really broken through to genuine box office success. The studio has essentially depended on the money its CEO Travis Knight has inherited from his Nike co-founder father Phil Knight, who is technically Laika’s owner. That sneaker money won’t keep them afloat forever, and Laika is desperate for a hit to become a self-sustaining enterprise. That might explain why they stepped slightly outside their usual spooky, Halloween-flavored children’s media realm to produce a cutesy comedy about a goofball yeti. The gamble did not work in a financial sense, but the resulting movie was still about as solid as you’d expect from the studio – who are maybe too high-brow & visually polished for their own good.

I’m not sure what movie greenlighting algorithm has prompted animation studios to believe that yetis are what children are salivating to see on the big screen at the moment, but it was a decision that paid off nicely for DreamWorks & Universal – who recently had sizeable hits with the CG-animated shrugs Smallfoot & Abominable, respectively. Laika, of course, was the only studio of the trio to outright flop in this endeavor, doubling their usual production budget on what appeared to be a surefire hit and only earning 1/5th of it back at the box office. Their mistake was being the one studio who actually gave a shit about animation as an artform – pushing their usual combination of tactile stop-motion wizardry & CGI-smoothed touchups to create a one-of-a-kind globetrotting adventure. Casting overgrown man-child Zach Galifianakis as a buffoonish sasquatch who takes figures of speech as literally as Amelia Bedelia was their only attempt to bridge the gap to what most modern animation studios do in their globally-exported box office hits – a real “Zendaya is Meechee” kind of decision. It wasn’t enough.

Thematically, Missing Link makes for a lighthearted companion piece to the recent stop-motion arthouse bummer This Magnificent Cake!. Both films use traditional slapstick humor to satirize the absurdity of historical colonialism, although Missing Link’s approach to the material is much sillier than it is traumatizing. Hugh Jackman voices a self-proclaimed “famous” monster hunter (the one nod to the studio’s typical horror bent) who attempts to earn the respect of legitimate big-game hunters by capturing creatures like The Loch Ness Monster and, yes, Bigfoot. Galifianakis voices that living Bigfoot specimen, a sweetly non-confrontational beast who longs to find more creatures of his own kind so he can stop living as an ostracized misfit. The pair team up to help each other’s causes. The yeti is a crude New World goofball searching for purpose & a sense of Home in his Old World ancestry, while the monster hunter learns just how harmful his self-serving, globetrotting colonialism is to everyone he touches. The mistake the movie made was in having themes or a point of view at all. It probably would have made much more money if they had just animated Galifianakis singing Meghan Trainor karaoke or some other such horseshit.

Missing Link is very cute in its slapstick humor, and often stunning in its visual artistry. It’s about on par with The Boxtrolls all told, which is to say it’s mediocre by Laika standards but still on a level far above most modern children’s cinema. It sucks to have to focus so much on the film’s financial failure in appraising its worth as art, but that failure is very much a part of its story. This is Laika reaching out as far as possible from their niche spooky-stop-motion corner of children’s media to welcome in a wide audience, and the most they got for the effort was a token Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature (which I fear will just automatically defer to whatever microwaved Disney or Pixar sequel it’s up against this Sunday). It’s not their strongest work, but it manages to be their most accessible while still maintaining a unique, technically marvelous visual style and an admirably pointed worldview. I wish it had been enough of a smash success to fund more weirdo, spooky outliers like Coraline or Kubo, but instead I’m left worrying that their sneaker money is going to dry up any day now.

-Brandon Ledet

The Legend of Boggy Creek (1972)

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threehalfstar

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When I was a kid, I looked forward every week to the articles on TV Guide’s website from the Televisionary and FlickChick (better known as critic Maitland McDonagh). These proto-blogs were where perplexed readers who had reached the outer limits of their personal research could ask what this film or that TV show was that featured that thing–you know that thing–and finally get an answer after years of trying to recall. “What was that movie with the kid living in the walls?” Bad Ronald. “What was that series with the girl whose dad was an alien and she talked to him through a crystal?” Out of this World. “What was that movie that was like Blair Witch Project but, like, from the 70s?” The Legend of Boggy Creek.

I was lucky enough to take in a viewing of this 1972 oddity at the Alamo Drafthouse last night, projected from the last known extant 35mm copy, loaned to the theatre by its owner, a certain director you may have heard of named Quentin Tarantino. Boggy Creek is a curious entry into the canon of 1970s horror flicks. Like Blair Witch, which was made nearly 30 years later, the film is shot largely as a documentary, featuring interviews with individuals who encountered what became known as the Fouke Monster, a three-toed, vaguely sasquatchian cryptozoological beast that supposedly roamed (or perhaps still roams) Fouke, Arkansas and the surrounding waterways. The film was made by a relatively amateur director, Charles B. Pierce, who had made a series of commercials for Texarkana-based trucking firm Ledwell & Son Enterprises before borrowing $160,000 from the company to produce Boggy Creek. Surprisingly, the film became the 11th highest grossing film of 1972, netting $20 million(!) dollars. More people saw Boggy Creek in theatres than Hitchcock’s penultimate outing Frenzy, or Peter O’Toole’s Man of La Mancha, or the film adaptation of Slaughterhouse Five. In fact, were it not for the surprise mainstream popularity of Behind the Green Door–a movie that is literally pornography–Boggy Creek would have cracked the top ten, not a bad legacy for an independently produced flick about one town’s personal Bigfoot.

Boggy Creek is not an excellent movie, but it is obviously a labor of love and was made by someone with an untrained but doubtlessly cinematic eye. There are lovingly framed shots of a child fleeing across a field from the howling in the night, accompanied by voice-over from the film’s narrator: “I was seven years old the first time I heard him scream; it scared me then, and it scares me now.” The omnipresent narration of the film, some of it framed as the recollections of an adult who lived in Fouke as a child and some of it having a more documentarian distance, is one of the odder elements, but it contributes to the feeling that this is not a work of fiction–and many of the people interviewed in the film would argue that it is not, recalling individual interactions and inexplicable events. Some of these interactions are recreated on screen, and although the Fouke Monster, a furry creature with hair hanging down in its face, looks silly to the modern eye, it nonetheless is effectively discomfiting, and by the end of the film feels like a real creature that you might see dart across a dark highway while driving at night, or be caught washing its feet in a stream by a wandering hunter.

The last third of the film is taken up with an extended reenactment of the monster’s two-night assault on a multi-family household. This is the most captivating section, and it feels like it was spliced in from a very different film, although it would likely not work as well as it does without the backstory provided by the more Direct Cinema elements of the first two-thirds. There are certain parts of this segment that are somewhat repetitive, but there are some legitimate scares and shocks in it, so it works. There are other sections of the film that can charitably be described as “padding,” but these also yield something memorable. Pierce wrote and performed two songs for the film; one, which is either titled (or should be titled) “The Ballad of Travis Crabtree,” plays over a montage of said teenager (who was also the film’s key grip) checking traps and engaging in standard rural lifestyle activities. The second is a lovingly crafted ballad about what it must be like to be the only monster in the world, and whether that life would be terrible lonely or not. It’s an undeniably silly excursion that’s treated with complete sincerity, which is the best way to describe the film overall. It’s a slow burn, but it finds its fun in both camp and otherwise, and is a great testament to how one person can create a career out of finding one narrative and following it through to its end.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

How to Play the Exists (2014) Drinking Game

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Yesterday I reviewed the found footage Sasquatch movie Exists, directed by former Blair Witch luminary Eduardo Sánchez. The film is fun, but somewhat campier in premise than in execution, as it takes the threat of the Bigfoot very seriously and plays the material straight. I honestly believe that playing it straight was the right choice and the movie is all the goofier for it (even if Sánchez was aiming to make a serious work). Yesterday I wrote, “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.’” And since I recommended that you bring liquor, I guess I should provide you the rules for the Exists drinking game.

As I explained in my review, characters in Exists have a tendency to punctuate each & every sentence with either the word “dude” or “bro”. I even suggested that an alternate title for the film could be The Adventures of Camera Dude & Deer Bro in the honor of the film’s most entertaining characters’ personal preferences for the two words. Camera Dude & Deer Bro are not only the heart of the film; they’re the heart of the drinking game as well.

For a multiplayer experience
Assign each player either to drink every time a character says “dude” or every time a character says “bro”. I did not count how many times each word was uttered, but if I had to guess I’d say whoever gets assigned to “bro” would probably do most of the heavy lifting.

For a single-player experience
Just drink every time you hear the word “bro”. Deer Bro is the most likeable of the two characters so you might as well commemorate every goofy moment you get to spend with him by celebrating his favorite word.

Bonus points
Hell, drink every time you hear “dude” or “bro”. Just because I picked Deer Bro as my favorite doesn’t mean you have to take my word for it, bro. Maybe you’re more of a Camera Dude, dude. Dude, just make sure you remember to hydrate, dude & don’t plan on driving anywhere after the game is done, bro. And dude, watch out for Sasquatches, dude.

As always, play safe, bro!

-Brandon Ledet

Exists (2014)

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three star

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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.

-Brandon Ledet