The Screaming Minis: Exists

the blair sasquatch project

the blair sasquatch project

Exists
Director: Eduardo Sánchez
Released:
2014
Starring: Samuel Davis, Dora Madison Burge, Roger Edwards
Running time: 86 minutes
Genre: Horror

I got a chance this past weekend to see a sneak pre-release showing of the new found footage Bigfoot flick by Eduardo ‘The Blair Witch Project‘ Sánchez. It was another one of those mystery showings, like last year, when I caught The Bay as part of a local event, but oh my god, was it so much more satisfying. Sánchez has a pretty good handle on this found footage stuff, unsurprisingly, him being a big part of why the sub-genre(?!–if that’s even what you’d call it) is as big as it is now. He uses a lot of GoPro footage in Exists, very similar to the way he used GoPros in the “A Ride in the Park” segment of V/H/S2 and while that’s probably my least favorite part of V/H/S2 that has more to do with it being a rehash of a zombie-outbreak type story, and zombie stories, as much as I love ’em, are currently in a state of heavy over-saturation. But Sasquatch … ! That’s a whole ‘nother story. And I love ‘squatches! That isn’t in my About Me, but it really should be. I’ve been a crypto-fiend since I was a tyke watching In Search Of… way back when. And I’ve already talked on here about being a big fan of found footage, so  I was all in with this flick.

Simple set-up: a group of five adventure seekers head out into the woods to visit the old cabin their uncle owns and has mysteriously decided he never wants to use again. On the way up there, driving late at night on a road in the middle of nowhere, they hit something with their car. They didn’t get a good look at what it was, but assumed it was some animal based on a little fur stuck on the car and went on their way. Spoiler: it was not a deer or a raccoon they hit and now something in the woods is feeling really, really pissy.

Now,  to get out of the way my one–well, not complaint, but I guess the one thing I can’t praise the film for–the protagonists in this movie, while not entirely unbelievable (except for a few really stupid decisions) or unlikeable, are mostly meh. They’re a couple of mostly generic pretty girls with little to do other than be pretty and be afraid, a pair of extreme dudes that wouldn’t be out of place in a Mountain Dew commercial, and one stoner than insists on filming everything for Youtube views. You may not passionately hate these people, but I doubt anyone is going to love them either.

That antagonist though! Look, in a Bigfoot flick, the character that really matters most is the critter himself and that’s where Exists really delivers.

I once saw a gorilla at the zoo get angry at and jealous of another gorilla being given Kool-Aid sips on the other side of the habitat. He launched himself from his sitting spot so fast that he kicked up a giant cloud of dirt behind him Roadrunner-style, traveled the whole length of the enclosure–maybe 60 to100 feet or more (I’m terrible at judging distances)–in a split second, and two-hand fist-smashed the other gorilla on the back so hard that you could feel the vibrations from the impact in the ground. That hit rocked the whole area. The Bigfoot in Exists reminds me of that gorilla. This is not the Bigfoot of Harry and the Hendersons. Boggy Creek, this ain’t. It isn’t even Night of the Demon. This thing is terrifying. It is not a slow, lumbering, idiot beast. It is fast, powerful, smart, and scary enough to make Jane Goodall pull a Cartman. “Screw you guys, I’m going home.” This monster makes you think of early man interacting with other apes and wonder how he ever managed to survive long enough for there to be an us now. Exists is like Orca in the woods with a Bigfoot (now that would be a bitchin’ game of Clue,) because killer whales are useless in forests. Even if you hate the kids in the movie, you will still feel for them when this angry creature comes running out of the woods at them, whooping and hollering, because you can’t see that thing charging toward the camera and not be aware of how you would just involuntarily flood the Earth with poo if it was coming after you.

Exists, as I’m posting this, has just been made available On Demand and in select theaters. You should be able to find info about screenings and where to find it On Demand over on the Exists Facebook page. If you’re only going to watch one Bigfoot movie this Halloween, this is the one that will make you plotz. Also, you’re a slacker. Really? Just one Bigfoot movie? I am scorning you so hard right now.

Oh, and there’s a very objectionable scene with a Burning of the Beard. It is not even cool. Not. Even. Cool. I’d have killed everyone before the ‘squatch ever could. Beard-o-philes, you will cringe. They need a trigger warning on the poster.

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The Screaming Minis: The Bay

crustacean nation

crustacean nation

The Bay
Director: Barry Levinson
Released:
2012
Starring: Kristen Connolly, Jane McNeill, and Christopher Denham
Running time: 84 minutes
Genre: Horror

I saw The Bay as a mystery, pre-release screening at an all night horror movie marathon this past October. The circumstances of that viewing were unusual and not ideal for enjoying the movie. I didn’t know what I was watching until the end credits, so I didn’t know what to expect, and I’d just finished watching Slither,  so I was full up on parasites  for the evening. I didn’t want to be unfair, so I skipped reviewing the movie until its release on disc. After another viewing, sadly, my opinion hasn’t changed.

News coverage of thousands of dead fish floaters and bird corpses, stories that were reported on, precede a close up of one girl, Donna Thompson, who intros herself and speaks forebodingly about the story that wasn’t covered, that was covered up. On an unusually warm Independence Day in the small, bay-side town of Claridge, Maryland, cub reporter Donna was there to cover the crab races, the Crab Eating Spectacular, all the usual festivities, and interview little kids and local celebs. She ends up covering much more. That footage, originally suppressed by the government and now leaked by the whistle-blowing govleaks.org, along with recovered cellphone, security cam, skype calls, etc., make up the bulk of the film. What the government didn’t want you to see, what Donna has to expose, is that, on that July 4th, there was something in the town of Claridge, in the water of the bay, inside the fish, in the water from Claridge’s desalination plant, the water they drank and played in. It was inside the people of Claridge. And that something … was chicken shit.

I love eco horror. I also love Found Footage. You’d think an eco horror mockumentary by an acclaimed filmmaker would be a slam dunk for me, but The Bay is less than the sum of its parts. Levinson is an Oscar-nominated writer, Oscar-winning director, but this does not feel like a movie from an A-list Hollywood director. The performances largely don’t work. The movie’s believability hinges on Kether Donohue’s portrayal of Donna, but she’s just not news reporter material. We’re talking Mark Wahlberg-as-science-teacher level of unbelievability. And the writing is just bad, leading to events that feel contrived. Cops walk alone into dark houses, rush into danger with no back up, flip out and go murderous, shooting healthy people for no reason. A couple strolls through a town full of corpses with their baby, instead of getting back on their boat and keeping the baby safe. I can forgive slips like these in a movie that doesn’t strive to look like reality, but this is supposed to be a documentary.

The “chicken shit” thing damages the credibility, too. Claridge is being eaten alive by mutated isopods (parasites that eat fish tongues–I’m sure you’ve seen the picture). It was chicken shit that caused the mutation, mountains of chicken shit full of steroids from a chicken factory that runs off into the bay. It’s so heavy-handed with the chicken shit eco message that the only thing I can liken the chicken shit to is the Tromaville Nuclear Power Plant looming in the background of every Troma movie. And that is exactly what The Bay calls it … chicken shit. A lot. I don’t know how many times it says “chicken shit,” but it’s enough to make a drinking game. (Drink twice the one time someone calls it chicken excrement!) It also reuses bits of previously shown footage. I guess it’s meant to drive points home, but it’s just repetitive. It feels like unnecessary padding. I don’t need to see the clip of the mayor drinking a glass of water, saying how good that water is three separate times. Once was enough. All this adds to the Troma vibe. My first viewing, as far as a half an hour in, I was still waiting for it to turn into a comedy about hybrid chicken-sharks–that would’ve been great! I can forgive repetitive, silly language in a schlocky film, but The Bay is played straight.

It’s also infested with the already cliche crap that pulls you right out of so many other Found Footage flicks: too much camera glitch, forced curse words injected into the dialog to make it sound real, arguments that don’t seem believable, fights about why someone is continuing to film,  characters explaining to the camera why they’re filming (posterity/show the world!), etc. I forgive these problems when I’m watching a movie made by a few noobs with a handicam and $10,000, but an experienced, acclaimed director/screenwriter with a healthy budget doesn’t get the same leeway.

It’s like Levinson was making a serious movie that he didn’t take seriously, like he was just pumping out product that he didn’t feel was worth a real effort. He was slumming and was fine with tossing out a movie with the same old imperfections we’re used to. That sucks, because The Bay had potential. It can be really gruesome and tense. There’s a few super effective scares and skin-crawly moments, including one scene involving a fish and a hidden isopod that rivals Exorcist III’s gliding-nun-with-shears and Signs alien-walking-past-the-hedges scenes. The rashes and blisters on the infected people are pretty sick. Unfortunately, none of the actors sell the appliances. You never get a sense of it being anything other than make up. I can forgive just about any problem if the gore is crazy enough and some of the gore in The Bay is truly gnarly, but not enough to save it.

It isn’t a terrible movie, but it is a disappointment. Too goofy to be serious, too serious to be fun, it fails as schlock, as a serious message film, and as a mockmumentary. It vacillates between trying to be Piranha and trying to be Outbreak and fails at being either. It’s a mixed up, b-grade, mediocre mess and from an A-List artist, that’s something I can’t forgive.

Screaming Mini: Compliance

not flight of the navigator

not flight of the navigator

Compliance
Director: Craig Zobel
Released: 2012
Starring: Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker, Pat Healy,
Running time: 90 minutes
Genre: thriller, crime drama

We’re at a ChickWich in Anywheresville, Ohio. There’s been a freezer accident that left thousands of dollars worth of stock ruined. There’s also the likelihood of a secret shopper visit and an employee who’s called in sick for Sandra to deal with. It’s going to be a busy day, and manager Sandra (Ann Dowd) needs everyone to be on their game.

Cashier Becky (Dreama Walker) jokes with assistant manager Marti about guys texting her, flirts a little with cook Kevin (Phillip Ettinger). Business as usual. Then Sandra takes a call from a man identifying himself as a police officer (Pat Healy). He’s spoken to her regional manager already and they need help from Sandra. One of the employees has stolen money from a customer’s purse. It couldn’t be Becky, Sandra tells him, aghast. The officer asks Sandra to fetch Becky.

Shocked, Becky denies the theft, but Sandra insists that they co-operate with the police, and the officer requests that Sandra detain Becky until another unit can come in. But then the officer asks for little more help, until the other officers arrive. He needs Becky strip searched. He needs her clothes and effects confiscated. He needs them to keep her locked in the back room. And he needs a man to guard her. Just until the other officers arrive, you see. And the situation escalates far past what most of us could imagine.

Compliance is a very rough film to watch but only because of the subject matter. Technically, it’s superb, even flawless. It’s stunning to look at even in its recreation of a fast food joint, down to the fluorescent lighting look. The styling and direction add to the claustrophobia and tension as everything just gets shittier and shittier. And the performances are pitch perfect; Dowd, Walker, and Healy in particular are absolutely convincing. Zobel handles the material so earnestly that it never comes off as exploitative. My only real complaints about it are that Healy is shown too soon–his reveal could have been more effective, while still maintaining the marvelously casual approach he takes, which is all the more chilling–and the epilogue, which turns the last few minutes into a police procedural that really adds nothing to the film.

Compliance was inspired by true events,which Wikipedia unwieldily refers to as “the strip search prank call scam.” I first read about it not too long after the events depicted here, and was totally astounded. Shocked. Sickened. Outraged. All pretty typical responses to the film, which had viewers walking out at screenings. Because after all, it’s unbelievable. Except that it happened. By some estimates, approximately seventy times.

Think about that. SEVENTY TIMES. Some of the cases were very nearly as bad as what happens in Compliance–which is terrible indeed. (This article has more details on other incidents.) Now think about that again. You can break down the Compliance audience into two very basic types: those who find themselves so shocked and appalled that they shout “I CAN’T FUCKING BELIEVE THIS” and “THIS IS STUPID” while watching, and then those who are similarly appalled, but use their imaginations to think about how and why it’s happening as they watch. (No judgement–for the record, my husband fell into the former camp, and I in the latter.) To be fair, I knew what was going on, and what had happened IRL, and perhaps that enhanced my experience. But it’s not wholly responsible;  Zobel must be given credit for the way he subtly sets up his characters–so subtly, in fact, that it might not even consciously register.

From the opening scenes with Sandra, we know that she considers herself a nice person, too nice even, who has to work at not being undermined. Despite a perfunctory protest, she lets a delivery dude berate her, and though she’s trying to handle the situation, she not only fears but expects the same from her boss. It’s entirely reasonable for her both to give in to the police officer’s authority, but also that she’d take a small measure of authority he in turn lends to her throughout the proceedings. Later, we see the way she in turn reproaches Van, making him feel emasculated so that when offered authority, he will grasp it as well. Becky we see rolling her eyes at Sandra’s attempts to relate–but only behind her back. Though she’s naughty enough to take the first parking spot, she still shuts up and does what she’s told when working, and it’s that tendency that comes into play throughout her gradual degradation. Kevin seems like a typically douchey kid, until the moment he’s confronted with the opportunity to exploit Becky, and we watch the workings of his conscience play out over his face; what would most guys do when ordered by a police officer to strip search the naked girl they’ve got the hots for? What would you do if you were Becky? Sandra? Kevin? Van? How far would you go? Compliance is a very good film, and people should see it. But it’s not a movie you like.

The Screaming Minis: V/H/S

The Screaming Minis is an experiment in short (well, shorter) individual reviews, as way for us to talk a little more about the other movies of note we’re watching but without the involved, in-depth discussion delivered as a duo. The name comes from The Screaming Mimi, the 1949 pulp novel by Frederic Brown that inspired Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage.

do not adjust the tracking

V/H/S
Directors: Adam Wingard, David Bruckner, Ti West, Glenn McQuaid, Joe Swanberg, and Radio Silence (Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett, Chad Villella & Justin Martinez)
Released:
2012
Starring: Lane Hughes, Adam Wingard, Hannah Fierman, Joe Swanberg, Kate Lyn Sheil, Jason Yachanin, John Walcutt, Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett, Chad Villella
Running time: 116 minutes
Genre: Horror

As a fan of found footage, anthologies, and Ti West (The House of the Devil, The Innkeepers) and Glenn McQuaid (I Sell the Dead) I’d been looking forward to this movie. With its recent release to VOD and a few other outlets, I had to check it out.

A group of hipster thugs that spend most of their time doing crimes, being dicks, and making a buck with sharking videos are hired to steal a VHS tape. They burgle their way into the home of the man in possession of the tape, only to find him dead in front of a mass of screens and a mountain of cassettes. As they split up to search the rest of the house, one member of the group begins reviewing the tapes. In the first, some brosephs try to pick up some drunk girls and secretly record their own personal porn. They’re moderately successful, but probably wish they hadn’t been. The second tape is a travelogue of a young couple second-honeymooning in the American Southwest who picked precisely the wrong motel to stay in. In the third segment, a girl takes a group of new friends on a camping trip. Always a bad idea. Tape number four contains the webcam conversations of a man and his troubled friend who believes her house is haunted. And the final tape shows a group of guys heading out to a Halloween party. They may’ve gotten the address wrong.

I wasn’t sure whether I liked V/H/S or not after first watching it. I knew there were scenes I enjoyed and I liked the overall concept, but I wasn’t sure how I felt about its execution as a whole. It’s flawed: Some of the tapes work better than others. The third segment, “Tuesday the 17th,”  isn’t quite as good as the rest, though it does have its moments. Some of the characters (especially the dudes in the framing sequence and the first tape, “Succubus”) are EXTREMELY annoying. I think “10/31/98” went a little too crazy toward the end. It features a haunted house and with hauntings, subtle is usually better. Think The Haunting (1963) versus The Haunting (1999).  And the second and fourth tapes don’t provide much of explanation and can be a little disorienting.

The day after seeing it, I tried to describe the movie to, shockingly, someone who wasn’t Fisty. (I still feel guilty.) I found that there was a lot that I wanted to mention. There are plenty of freaky little details as well as big payoffs from each segment. That’s when I started to feel that there was more about the movie that affected me than I was immediately aware. Just hearing about the stories from the movie secondhand had that someone interested. She wasn’t just listening to the scenes I was describing, she was reacting.

Fulci said his film The Beyond was “[An] absolute film, with all the horrors of our world. It’s a plotless film: a house, people, and dead men coming from The Beyond. There’s no logic to it, just a succession of images.” I think V/H/S works in the same way. (Not as well as The Beyond. Don’t think I’m praising it THAT highly.) It’s a collection of nightmare clips not designed to flesh out every detail, make perfect sense, or just go from story point A to story point B, but rather to tap into our fears and freakouts. It’s a handful of video equivalencies of the urban legend about the mad man under the bed, pretending to be the family dog, licking the little girl’s hand. This is why just hearing my spoken account of the movie could affect someone. That’s the level V/H/S works on, that Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark level. It does it well and that’s why I’m still thinking about the movie days after watching it. It affected me. It was freaky. It was scary. Bravo.

Also, there was A LOT of nudity … male and female!

V/H/S, while not being great, is still a good found footage anthology whose successes outnumber my nitpicks. Shockingly violent, disturbing, scary, and bizarre, it revels in its own freakiness and the disreputable nature of the genre.