The leaves are changing and it’s getting colder, and with Halloween just around the corner so it’s time to celebrate with on-screen depictions of gore and mayhem. The Spooky Movie, an international horror film festival, begins today at the AFI Silver theater. Our BYT film team has a special preview of what screams are ahead:
EXISTS – Friday, October 10th, 7:10pm
Let’s talk about some data. Cobbling together a few numbers from The Outdoor Industry Foundation’s lovely 2012 American Camper Report, we can guesstimate that, if some basic assumptions hold true enough, that of the roughly 65 million Americans currently aged 18-34, probably 11 million go camping every year, and roughly 100,000 of them spent about that many weeks in cabins, with friends. When you reduce that to ‘went on a weekend cabin trip with some friends’ let’s say it’s three-quarters and call it 75,000, and assuming they’re all three-day weekends, that’s 225,000 nights. Let’s stick with nice round numbers and assume that if you select a ‘camper-night’ at random, roughly one in every 2500 fit the bill.
You with me? No? Stick with it, here’s where it gets fun. The CDC has some truly awesome data about how everyone dies. It’s pretty granular – so granular, in fact, that I can tell you that every year, roughly six Americans aged 15-29 die from being “bitten or struck by other mammals” – which are not a dog, cat, rodent, horse, cow, pig, racoon, or other “hoof stock.” Let’s assume that all six of those Americans, every year, were camping – grinding our square peg into our round hole with no regard for scientific rigor, that means that if you select a ‘young camper-night’ at random, the odds that that night would see our poor camper die in an encounter with a strange mammal are 6 in 100 million.
Basic probability suggests that, assuming those two probabilities are independent, that the odds that our camper is both a youth on a hedonistic weekend jaunt with friends and that they are about to meet a terrible fate at the hands of a furry menace is roughly one in 40 billion – which is actually pretty close to the odds that you’ll be struck by lightning while reading this review. It’s better odds than trying to guess your way through the SATs, but I wouldn’t put any money on it, is what I’m saying. Statistically speaking, the odds of a group of young, rambunctious stereotypes being massacred in the woods by a giant, mean forest gorilla is basically zero.
This was basically a 500 word digression leading into the first of three major problems with Eduardo Sánchez’ Exists, which is that that it is stupid. It doesn’t tap into any of the kind of meaningful psychosocial anxieties that give horror movies real weight, thorniness, and sticking power. In a good horror movie, the monster is always a metaphor; the creature, the phenomenon, the locus of horror, whatever it is, is a stand-in for something we’re actually scared of in real life. Nobody is scared of zombies; but people are scared of pandemics, of being the victim of a state crackdown, of being the victim of state helplessness, of being subsumed into a collective consciousness, of living death, of all kinds of terrible and palpable threats that zombies embody.
This is all to say that you don’t have to believe in vampires or aliens or ghosts, or think that actually being attacked by them is very likely, to be good and properly frightened of a movie that features them, but it works because they in some way reflect, magnify, or embody a real, widely-held, deeply-felt terror. Horror movies take place in the woods so often because isolation is scary and the cruel indifference of nature is scary and being lost is scary – but look, a giant forest gorilla just isn’t very scary, especially if it doesn’t feel like it represents anything more than a giant forest gorilla. Giant forest gorillas don’t have anything going for them – they’re not alien, they’re not innately scary unless they’re mean, they seem pretty mortal to me, they don’t have weird powers, they don’t turn unsuspecting victims into giant forest gorillas, they don’t have any supernatural edge to them. When horror movie villains don’t have that bigger meaning fueling them, they’re only as scary as what they literally. Statistically speaking, as far as horror movie villains go, they suck.
The second major problem with Exists is that it is bad. Really, really bad. Stacked to the gills with bad writing, bad directing, bad editing, and bad decision making. It’s so bad that I can summarize the whole movie in less than one sentence – zero-dimensional youth who like sex, pot, and bikes go to cabin in the woods, where they don’t have cell phone service and stoke the ire of Sasquatch, who, like, totally ruins their weekend – and you actually didn’t miss anything. Well, that’s not true – you missed the fact that one dude is black and says things like “black people don’t do this kind of shit” when he has to hike. Through the woods. On a camping trip. Statistically speaking, that is terrible.
Nothing is very scary in Exists, mostly because everything is really predictable, but also because it’s boring and derivative. This is one of those “found footage” faux-docu-horror things where lots of shaking and night vision help to obscure our spooky monster who is just a giant forest gorilla anyway and not at all worth obscuring.
This leads us to the third major problem with Exists: that it’s kind of embarrassing. In fact, writing the next part of this review is almost embarrassing to me as a critic, because it’s tired, fifteen years later, to have to compare crap like this to The Blair Witch Project – except Eduardo Sánchez, who made this movie, also made The Blair Witch Project.
That movie was not just amazing but epochal for so many reasons; it’s fair to say it catalyzed a revolution in style and approach in popular cinema, while simultaneously exemplifying the best its genre has to offer. Simultaneously distilling the form to its essential archetypes while breathing fresh air into them, The Blair Witch Project was exciting – and terrifying – because it renewed our grand feeling of helplessness in the face of nature and the unknown, of how easy it is for carefree arrogance to be trampled into agony and dust. The central irony of The Blair Witch Project was that none of our new technological wonders could save them, and by extension they can’t save us – they can just better document our inevitable bitter end. Leaving the nature and purpose of the creepy-as-hell force torturing our helpless protagonists was key to its success, allowing our imaginations to run wild while allowing for maximum metaphorical proxying; no literal interpretation of “the thing in the woods” could stand between us and our real fears. Exists, on the other hand, is like 80 minutes of overhearing a new song by some mediocre band that’s ripping off a great old band, only to realize it’s actually that old band.
Exists has not one thing to recommend it. It’s as dumb, bad, and embarrassing as its giant forest gorilla whose only MO is “smash, smash, and smash some more.” It’s boring. Boring enough that, statistically speaking, the only way to even stay awake while watching it was to do math instead.