December 6, 2019

Missed Opportunities in Horror: The Bigfoot Film

Pikes Peak Bigfoot
Alexander Migl [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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As a horror fan, it irks me to see how many missed opportunities there have been to make excellent films from subject matter that seems well-suited to the task. In this post, I want to address one I've always found puzzling: the lack of a genuinely scary Bigfoot film. As some of you may recall, I've long been fascinated with the subject of Bigfoot. While there have been several Bigfoot films to come out of the horror genre, few have been worthwhile. In fact, most have been so bad that making it to the end is often a challenge. It can't be that hard to make a good one but doing so seems to be almost as elusive as the Bigfoot creature itself. For this post, I thought it would be fun to consider how one might pull off an effective Bigfoot horror film.

A good place to start would be to recognize that many of the reasons we've had so many Bigfoot movies are the same reasons we've had so many bad Bigfoot movies. If you are a first-time director who wants to make a horror film, it is hard to imagine many less expensive options than gathering a few of your friends, persuading one of them to wear a Bigfoot costume, and heading into the local woods to film it. This has to be why we have ended up with so many bad Bigfoot films. We have first-time directors, a cast that has never acted, and a ridiculously fake-looking costume. Is it any wonder that so few of these films deliver?

What might we do if we wanted to make a better Bigfoot film, one that was truly scary? Ideally, we'd start with enough of a budget to hire real actors, an experienced director, and people who knew how to operate cameras and sound equipment. In casting our film, it would not be necessary to use known actors; however, we would need actors capable of playing characters with whom our audience would identify. Many horror films use unlikable characters so the audience focuses more on the kills, but I do not think this approach would work here. We'd want sympathetic characters the audience would care about because the kind of fear we're aiming for depends on it. I'm thinking that characters like those from The Descent would do well here. We learn just enough about them that we like them and do not want to see them harmed. We'd also want to make sure the acting was solid enough that it did not detract from the film, as this is a problem afflicting nearly all the Bigfoot films I've seen.

For a film like this, the locations chosen for filming are almost as important as the cast. Filming in the woods makes sense here and would be what I would recommend. This would lend itself to things like our characters getting lost, disoriented, finding signs suggesting an unexplained creature, and using these elements to slowly ratchet up the dread long before there are any Bigfoot sightings. I'd skip the "cabin in the woods" cliche and have our characters use tents at night like what we saw in The Blair Witch Project (1999). There are at least a couple of Bigfoot movies that got this part right.

We're also going to need an effective backstory. Who are these characters, and why are they deep in the woods? Although there are many options here, my suggestion would be that we do not make them Bigfoot hunters. I'd find another reason to put them in the woods. Perhaps they are a group of friends getting together a few years after college to go backpacking together. We can drop some subtle hints to the audience about local legends, sightings of some strange creature, and so on, but I don't think we want to put our characters in the woods for the explicit purpose of finding Bigfoot. Too many bad Bigfoot films have gone that route, and it rarely helps.

Unfortunately, many Bigfoot films fall apart the moment the creature appears on screen. I think this presents us with an opportunity to learn something from Jaws and The Blair Witch Project. Jaws was as effective as it was because we didn't see much of the shark. And while I know it has many detractors, I thought the original Blair Witch was fantastic, in part because we never saw the witch. I have seen a couple Bigfoot films where the creature wasn't bad (e.g., Exists); however, it is never as scary as what it looks like in my imagination. That means I am inevitably let down when it appears. The solution is to give it as little screen time as possible. Make it blurry, fast-moving, nocturnal, etc. In any case, the fatal flaw of most Bigfoot films that must be avoided is that the creature cannot elicit laughter from the audience when they see it for the first time.

As for the tone and emotion we are aiming for here, I'd recommend going for the slow-burn and building dread approach. We can use the characters getting lost in the woods to pull in the audience and present them with some hardships that having nothing to do with Bigfoot. Maybe they are hopelessly lost, starting to run low on water, and one of them is injured. Perhaps one of them can step on a bear trap at some point. I thought The Descent was scary as hell long before the creatures appeared, and creating that sort of atmosphere would be what I would go for. The lost-in-the-woods scenario could be combined with the growing recognition that there was something out there watching them, messing with them, etc. I found this to be one of the most effective aspects of The Blair Witch Project and Willow Creek. I'd use it here.

When the Bigfoot creature finally reveals itself to the characters (if not the audience), I'd make it very large, strong, fast, and brutal (though not in a Primal Rage way). Instead of thinking of Bigfoot as an intelligent ape-like creature, I'd think of the worst bear attacks I could imagine and amp things up from there. The creature would come in fast and take one character at a time, leaving the others scrambling in terror to figure out how to escape its next attack. It would kill its victims quickly and not try to interact with them. Fighting it would not be a realistic option. Some might briefly try, but this would prove futile. There would be no heroes here, and I'd be unlikely to let anyone survive at the end of the film.

Creating a scary Bigfoot film cannot be an easy task or we'd probably have several good ones by now. Still, I think it is possible. Exists was one of the better ones I've seen, and there have been a couple others that weren't terrible. I vaguely recall one I think I might have liked even better than Exists, but I can't remember its name. Both were flawed in some important ways, but they came close enough that I found myself thinking that this is a missed opportunity in horror.