Exists (2014)

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A found-footage entry from director Eduardo Sanchez, the guy who first cashed in on the genre with The Blair Witch Project. I thoroughly understand the financial motivation for using GoPro cameras as the primary source of footage; it’s a helluva lot cheaper than film. And let’s face it, handheld and body mounted cameras give the action a heightened sense of urgency, particularly during the inevitable flight through the forest sequence.

Unfortunately, it’s also distracting and all but challenges the viewer to account for every shot. Sorry, but there are instances in Exists when it becomes nearly impossible to convince yourself that Brian the stoner (Chris Osborn) somehow has access to more cameras than NBC. There. I said it.

The plot is pure boilerplate, as five young adults (one of whom is Dora Madison Burge from Friday Night Lights and Chicago Fire) decide to party at Brian and Matt’s (Samuel Davis) family hunting cabin in the untamed wilds of Texas. That would be the same cabin that their uncle used to live in, until something frightened him away. So yes, by all means, let’s go see if we can figure out exactly what that might be.

The answer is Bigfoot/Sasquatch, who’s enjoying a bit of a resurgence as a movie monster, apparently fully recovered from family friendly piffle like Harry and the Hendersons, that reduced him to kiddy comic relief. In Exists, he’s a vengeful critter, looking to put a hurt on the punks that ran over Little Squatch.

Sanchez opts for a more traditional (and confrontational) approach than is used by Bobcat Goldthwaite in his meditative Willow Creek, another recent Bigfoot-gone-bad film. That means there’s an actual body count here, and that we are treated to several good looks at the beast, whose makeup is well above average.

As we watch another clutch of adolescent interlopers hide and flee, there are sufficient scenes that generate an actual fright response, so I’m giving Exists a modest recommendation that should not be mistaken for overwhelming enthusiasm.

Afterthought: Does Bigfoot eat people? I think he probably should. It’s scarier that way. Who’s gonna run away from a furry herbivore?

The Houses October Built (2014)

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Call me a cockeyed optimist, but I’m the kind of meatball what thinks that life (aka, all the loud shit going on during the waking hours) is an endless learning opportunity. Simply by not having our heads snagged in our own b-holes, we can hopefully evolve into something that isn’t eaten by bobcats or swindled by kids selling magazine subscriptions. If you’re a reasonably intelligent ordinary citizen, you should be able to keep up with your personal narrative to the extent that you can see when your own shitty decision-making is making things unbearable. That is my belief.

Why is this such a struggle for the cast of horror movies and The Houses October Built specifically? Because it’s written that way. It’s our cross to bear so that we can see the trap springing merrily shut.

Armed with digital cameras, four dudes and a woman named Brandy hit the open road in a recreational vehicle looking to document America’s scariest Halloween haunts. They head south, following hideously costumed hillbillies from one trauma-inducing spook house to the next, until they end up in New Orleans. Strange and disturbing occurrences are routine along the way, including confrontations with hostile carny folk and vehicular infiltration by creeping intruders. Anyone with the common sense of a deer smelling a fire in the wind would have hightailed it to the nearest blue state, but the four dudes and Brandy push onward. Sad, really. I wonder who found the footage?

The cast is also billed as the crew. Not quite sure what’s up with that, but I would like to congratulate director Bobby Roe, because The Houses October Built is one scary-ass movie. Way more effective than The Blair Witch Project. Witches aren’t scary. People are scary. Especially in those parts of the world where it gets dark super fast and the scarecrows come to life.

Mr. Jones (2013)

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The consensus opinion on writer-director Karl Mueller’s feature-length debut is that it has all the makings of a first-class frightener—but falls apart at the end, like a child’s first soufflé. I think the finale boils down to two possibilities, neither of which ruined the experience, in my opinion. In Mr. Jones, Mueller has created a vivid, found-footage nightmare that runs its course effectively, before running smack-dab into an ambiguous conclusion. Ambiguous, in this instance, does not mean half-assed or inexplicable.

Nutshell: An attractive couple severs its ties with civilization and sets up housekeeping in a remote mountainous locale (The Sierra Nevada range, if I had to guess). Scott (Jon Foster) is intent on making a nature documentary, that fizzles out before it starts. Girlfriend Penny (Sarah Jones) is worried about her partner, who’s gone off his medication and lost interest in the film project that would undoubtedly make them both rich and famous. (Add sarcasm font to the preceding statement.)

They soon become aware of a mysterious neighbor who gambols around in a hooded cloak, and Penny deduces that it is none other than Mr. Jones, a reclusive artist famous for creating unsettling life-sized scarecrows that got shipped out to seemingly random recipients around the world. And now their documentary has a new subject!

As the couple investigates Mr. Jones further, it becomes apparent that the artist is some sort of sorcerer or shaman who’s guarding the borders where various dimensions overlap. Penny’s convinced he’s benign, but Scott isn’t so sure. During a massive storm, all hell breaks loose and the fledgling filmmakers lose each other in the chaos. Queue up an ending that leaves us with more questions than answers, and roll credits.

I thoroughly enjoyed Mr. Jones. It successfully keeps us off balance, unsure of anything that’s taking place before our eyes. As for the ending that got stuck in everyone’s craw, there are two possible explanations. The first is that Scott, upon abandoning his meds (for what condition, we’re not told) has a reality break from which there is no return. The footage they’ve shot suggests that Mr. Jones is Scott himself, but this is hard to verify since there seem to be good and evil versions of both characters running around.

The other theory is that Scott did something to screw up the wards that Jones had put in place to protect our world against impending evil, resulting in the latter’s death. Now it’s up to Scott take his place as the new dimensional guardian. Which is only fair, if you ask me.

Willow Creek (2013)

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Comedian-turned-director Bobcat Goldthwaite has proven himself to be a thoughtfully provocative filmmaker; first with the Robin Williams tragi-com World’s Greatest Dad, followed by the let’s-shoot-all-the-douchebags black comedy God Bless America. So what does Bobcat bring to the table with Willow Creek, his found-footage fright flick about a yuppie couple in search of Bigfoot? A legitimately scary movie with a harsh message for dilettante daytrippers, and that also happens to mirror the narrative structure of The Blair Witch Project.

Jim (Bryce Johnson, a poor man’s Matthew Modine) is a Sasquatch enthusiast who’s keen on visiting the Willow Creek wilderness where the famous Bigfoot footage was shot by Roger Patterson in 1967. Jim’s girlfriend Kelly (Alexie Gilmore) is along to keep him company. After interviewing some folks about the legendary creature, the curious couple is strongly advised to abandon the project by two different locals. As it turns out, this was excellent advice that should have been taken to heart.

The whole trip is treated as quite a merry lark until the 42-minute mark when Jim and Kelly find that their campsite has been ransacked. It is at that point that Kelly sensibly says, “I want to go home.” This is followed by a long and harrowing night sequence with the frightened couple trapped in their tent as something roars and stomps around right outside.

The protagonists in Willow Creek, while basically decent and likable, are in no way up to the task at hand, namely, confronting the unknown. Most of the blame goes to Jim, an irresponsible man-child who carelessly follows his whims without a second thought. Kelly, while more of a pragmatist, is too self-absorbed to recognize what a dangerous situation they’ve stumbled into. They’re nice enough, but they reek of frivolous bourgeois entitlement.

Ultimately, their flimsy relationship falls apart in the face of a challenge that they were stunningly unprepared for. To be fair, though, being menaced by a howling legend in the Forest Primeval would test the mettle of even the most devoted couple.

Frankenstein’s Army (2013)

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OK, this bad boy rocks. If you haven’t seen anything worth inviting into your Netflix queue lately, Frankenstein’s Army is a brilliant remedy; a disturbing Weird War tale with steampunk accoutrements fitted into a “found-footage” frame, brandishing an aesthetic that’s shockingly bold and nightmarishly distinctive.

In the waning days of World War II, Russian troops are streaming into Germany, wreaking havoc along the way. One such unit is accompanied by Captain Dimitri (Alexander Mercury), a cameraman making a documentary about these “heroic” soldiers. While holed up in a bombed-out village, the group discovers a church converted into a mad scientist’s lab and are soon set upon by the most outré pack of Nazi zombie-robot-monsters I’ve ever seen. Frankenstein’s Army is a Czech/US/Netherlands co-production filmed in the Czech Republic, which perhaps goes a long way toward explaining its unique appeal.

Director and story man Richard Raaphorst hits a horror home run his first time at bat. Sure, the lengths needed to preserve the found-footage premise become increasingly (and purposely, I think) absurd as a 70-year-old Soviet movie camera is able to capture pristine audio while getting tossed around like a Samsung at a frat party. But Raaphorst is a filmmaker with vision: his nimble mind invents extraordinary beings, and like Dr. Frankenstein (Karl Roden), he has the ability to bring them to life. He’s not just another fawning acolyte of Sam Raimi or Tim Burton—if anything, his work reminds me of England’s reigning madman, Ken Russell. Take it from me, Frankenstein’s Army is some very fresh hell, indeed. Highly recommended.

Mountain Monsters (2012)

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It’s not a movie, but if you’re lucky enough to have Channel 201, Destination America, you must watch this incredible show. Apparently the hills of West Virginia are teeming with all manner of cryptozoological fauna, including the Moth Man, the Grass Man, wolf men, dog men, devil dogs, wampus beasts, and every distant relative of Bigfoot known to mankind. So who you gonna call? John “Trapper” Tice and his AIMS (Appalachian Investigators of Mysterious Sightings) team, that’s who!

Trapper and his boys like nothing more than an excuse to go crashing through the woods at night in search of legendary beasts spotted by their hillbilly brethren. Besides Trapper, there’s Jeff, who’s in charge of research. In other words, he has a laptop and knows how to use it. Willy and Wild Bill build all sorts of outlandish traps, pits, and snares, in hopes of capturing a heretofore unknown specimen. They’ve never succeeded, but by god, it ain’t for lack of trying! Huckleberry (Woooot! Team Huckleberry!) is a hunter and tracker with a ready supply of guns, ammo, and thermal-imaging gear. (“Wait! There’s something there! *pause* Now it’s gone!”)

And then there’s Buck, the fat-guy comic relief, who once locked eyes with the Moth Man himself—and fell over hypnotized! On camera! At least once per episode, Buck will gaze in wonder at sketchy video evidence of their mythical quarry (usually a misshapen shadow or tree branch that moved) and exclaim, “That thing’s huge!”

Needless to say, AIMS has never brought home any appreciable evidence of wolf men, aliens, blue devils, or thunderbirds. But I sleep safely at night knowing that these fearless investigators… are really, really far away across the country and unlikely to mistake me for the Beast of Bray Road or the bloodsucking Devil Dog of Logan County and fill my hide with buckshot. Mountain Monsters is a hoot and it’s must-see TV. It’s also been renewed for a second season!

And whatever you do, don’t lump these beardos in with the Duck Dynasty dopes. Not all gun-toting hicks are bad people.

Devil’s Pass (2013)

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With a found-footage narrative similar to The Frankenstein Theory—film crew blunders into a frozen hell searching for answers to an unsolved mystery—Devil’s Pass provides sufficient diversions for an afternoon of chilly thrills. Plus, it’s directed by former A-list filmmaker Renny Harlin (Cliffhanger, Die Hard 2, The Long Kiss Goodnight) who seems to have fallen off the map as of late.

A five-person film crew from the University of Oregon (Woooot! Ducks represent!) retraces the steps of the Dyatlov Expedition, a Russian ski team that perished under mysterious circumstances in the Ural Mountains in 1959. Why anyone would want to follow the path of a doomed expedition defies comprehension, but as team leader Holly King (Holly Goss) notes gleefully on camera, “We got a grant!” Once they land in the former Soviet Union, the crew is bedeviled by a failing GPS navigator, huge footprints in the snow that randomly appear and disappear, and some scary sounds in the night. All this leads to the discovery of a huge door in the mountainside and hints that the Russian military was messing around with alien technology.

The finale of Devil’s Pass makes a passable attempt at explaining all the questions that have emerged during the movie’s running time, but it’s still kind of a train wreck. So instead of yeti we get teleporting ghouls that maybe used to be human? Sure, ok, whatever. The bottom line is that it’s a grueling and unpredictable trip that’s worth taking—just watch out for a few plot holes along the way.

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