American cinema went through a bit of a Bigfoot moment in the early 2010s, on the back of the rediscovery of the shooting site of the 1967 Patterson-Gimlin film. This quickly turned into a meditation on found footage horror, and on the Patterson-Gimlin film as the original found footage object. It makes sense, then, that one of the most prominent Bigfoot films from this era, Exists, was helmed by Eduardo Sánchez, one half of the directorial duo that introduced found footage to the American public with The Blair Witch Project. Sánchez seems to be returning to his roots here, since Exists is his most modest budget since Blair Witch, and restores the obscurity of found footage for an era in which we’re largely acclimatized to its textures. It also updates Blair Witch for the GoPro era, refraining from the cleaner images of smart phones in favour of jerkier, grainier and more embodied footage. All in all, it’s the closest that I’ve come to the original experience of seeing Blair Witch over two decades ago.
Exists also feels attuned to the broader horror milieu that surrounded Blair Witch. When Blair Witch came out, it was as a sharp counterpoint to the self-referential slasher films of the late 90s. Sánchez’s film revists that moment by reimagining Bigfoot as a slasher. Like Jason Voorhees, Bigfoot here emerges from the woods, flushes his victims back into the woods, and then picks them off one by one. He’s also sensitive to a bratty promiscuity that’s very in keeping with the slasher register, and makes his first daylight appearance when two of the characters are making out. More generally, the entire setup of Exists is that of a slasher film – a group of teenagers retreat to a cabin in the woods, where their callousness and carelessness calls the slasher into existence. In this case, their reckless driving causes them to hit and kill a baby Bigfoot, catapulting its parents to revenge themselves for this infanticide.
The common ground between slasher and found footage modes is Sánchez’s proclivity for very limited vantage points and very poor image quality. Early on, the action is almost entirely bounded by the teenagers’ car, where they spend the night after realizing that the cabin has been taken over by wild animals. While they do eventually colonise the cabin, Sánchez responds by retreating to very narrow, constrained compositions. These culminate with Bigfoot laying siege to the house, at which point our perspective condenses to a stationary outdoor camera, and the small slivers of the outside world that can be glimpsed between curtains. Finally, the surviving teenagers barricade themselves in the basement, with no perspective other than the chinks between floorboards, but even these prove to be wide enough to accommodate Bigfoot, who puts an eye to the gap to show that he is still watching.
These claustrophobic scenes are also juxtaposed with agoraphobic shots of the forest, but if anything these feel even more contained and constrained. With a classical slasher’s taste for foliage, Sánchez revels in long shots of the woods that are difficult to parse – not just for Bigfoot, but for other landmarks, as when two of the final teenagers try to take a short cut, an overgrown path, to safety. For the paradox, and eeriness of Exists, is that the woods are more obscure during the day, partly because there are more textures, ripples and shadows, which are magnified by the glitchy digital footage, and partly because Bigfoot is camouflaged to the forest during the day, meaning his presence is more mercurial and emergent. While the night scenes are suspenseful, they’re also more generic, since it’s in the middle of the day, in the languorous lull of the noontide heat, that Bigfoot is truly inextricable from the woods.
Like other films to tackle sasquatches, Sánchez’s Bigfoot is a dramatic auditory presence, from his trademark “vocalisations” to his taste for sonic havoc, whether it involves banging on doors, vandalizing objects, or destroying structures. Yet unlike Bobcat Goldthwait’s Willow Creek, which beautifully condensed Bigfoot to pure auditory disruption, Exists is still invested in capturing Bigfoot as a visual trace. Almost the first image of the film is of the baby Bigfoot careening off the windscreen from the teenagers’ car, and from there we see the adult Bigfoots regularly, but always on the very threshold of visibility. Bigfoot here is thus visible but not legible, and curiously incorporeal, like a glitch in the woods, a mote in the film’s eye.
As the film reaches its climax, Sánchez does show Bigfoot more directly, and yet this only intensifies his opacity. First, we have the longest shot of Bigfoot, which depicts a female Bigfoot in the darkness of her lair. So mercurially does she emerge from this darkness that her face seems to take on several completely different configurations, and never quite constellates into more than an embodiment or manifestation of the digital murk behind her. Second, we have a series of scenes in which the male Bigfoot appears outside, and inhabits the entire frame, but with such force and speed that he amplifies each jump scare, shocking the audience too dramatically for us to be able to process him properly. Finally, the last survivor turns his back to Bigfoot, in a gesture of defeat, and waits to be killed, but even this concluding encounter ends with Bigfoot slinking back to the forest, on the margin of the shot.
In other words, Bigfoot starts off being too distant or rapid for the camera, and quickly becomes too close and sudden for the camera. He’s both too small and too large for the camera – in both cases, incommensurate with the camera – and thereby becomes a figure for the blind spots that sustained found footage in the first place. For in Sánchez’s vision, Bigfoot was always the true subject of found footage, much as the Patterson-Gimlin film was the found footage ur-text, the DNA of Blair Witch. It’s a different approach from Willow Creek, but in its own way just as eerie, and certainly feels much closer to a found object than Willow Creek – very low quality, to be sure, but even more of an emphatic object for that, a residue of the last wave of straight-to-DVD releases or mainly-DVD releases that lined rental shelves.