Bigfoot has been a frequent focal point among anthropologists and conspiracy theorists for over 50 years, appearing in a handful of grainy and out-of-focused photos that have neither convinced nor deterred masses to the myth. Since its awareness into the pop lexicon back in 1967, Bigfoot has yet to be identified, and by 2019 it would seem that capturing the beast on celluloid has proven to be equally difficult. Unfortunately, that doesn’t change with HOAX, the latest entry into the surprisingly vast Bigfoot sub-genre that finds a group of relative strangers embarking into the wilderness to uncover the truth behind the legend after a group of teens go missing.
Opening with a group of teenagers around a campfire, HOAX begins with its tongue firmly planted in its cheek as it gleefully plays off the absurdity of the teen slasher, heavy PDA included. After a quick history lesson on Bigfoot in the form of a scary story, everyone disperses to their tents to forget the warning they just received, eager to discover their own animalistic tendencies. Soon they find themselves falling prey to a creature resembling Bigfoot, which sets into motion a sleazy reality television show – masquerading as a search party – that sets out into the woods in order to track who or what did this.
Orchestrating the party is Rick Paxton (Ben Browder), a merciless sensationalist of the late night cable variety whose eagerness to jump-start his career places the missing teenage victims behind his own agenda. Dragged along due to financial restraints – this is, after all, a rag tag group of down and outers – is veterinarian Dr. Ellen Freese (Cheryl Texiera), a primate specialist whose own salary goes towards medication she can’t exactly afford. Capturing everything is investigative journalist Bridgette Powers (Shoshana Bush), though any one of those titles could be slipped in between quotations as she disingenuously seeks to make it to the big leagues. To make matters worse, Cooper Barnes (Max Decker), the father of one of the missing teens, reluctantly tags along in hopes of finding answers, or at the very least, a body. Rounding out the remaining roles of potential victims to the slaughter are an anthropologist of the sorts and a wingman to Paxton, though none of them really matter when 80’s character actor Brian Thompson is present, who reprises the role of grade-A ribeye as if it never went off the menu.
Thompson plays John Singer, an ex-Marine who carries around a clear and present disdain for hippies, which is made abundantly evident through a multitude of half-hearted dope jokes. Despite having portrayed chewed leather as Night Slasher in George Cosmatos’ Cobra and meat puppet mercenary Frank Ryan in Hired to Kill, Thompson isn’t really given much to do. In fact, nobody is given all that much to do for most of HOAX‘s 95 minute run-time. Which isn’t to say that nothing happens, because 30 minutes in and our archaeologist has already been smoked like Jack Links and a cave, adorned in the intestines and battered bones of Bigfoot’s victims, is discovered.
It’s a scene that demonstrates first time writer and director Matt Allen working best within tight spaces, evoking confined terror in the vein of The Descent. He draws on dimly lit spaces set against unfamiliar terrain that’s as dangerous as the creatures it cloaks. It manages for a brief moment to roughly etch atmosphere into a film that doesn’t quite know how to evoke the unsettling wonderment of its surroundings, despite Scott Park’s lens capturing Colorado’s wide vistas of endless trees that establish a sense of geography.
This is primarily due to the fact that none of Allen’s characters feel written or fleshed out, running off the fumes of archetypes as old as the Bigfoot legend. Dr. Ellen is a specialist on primates whose financial woes have forced her hand into accepting Paxton’s invitation, all the while Cooper is a father who is struggling with the recent loss of his daughter. John is an ex-vet whose tour of duty hasn’t distanced himself from society, he’s just kind of an asshole. All three are tethered to this idea of responsibility, to their patients, their daughter or their country. We’re given why they would join such a slapped together charade yet who they are is hardly investigated. Paxton, who constantly wears his brow on the ridge of his nose, is the only character who feels real, despite his meager capacity for empathy. Everyone else feels like hollow shells of characters, written without any sense of individuality that our own engagement with them seems to fade away and blur like an old Bigfoot photo.
It’s a shame, since the inflated tone and humor that the first half of HOAX establishes works ten-fold, creating a Macy’s Day parade of Christopher Guest level characters. At one point our advantageous television producer, direct from the city, bumps into a couple from the boonies at a convenience store, knocking their comical prop bread over before brandishing disgust at the mere sight of their misfortunes. It’s an absurd scene that’s so course around the edges that it feels purposefully championed, rather than limited by budget or imagination.
Which HOAX tends to feel more often than not. That is until it reaches its final 10 minutes, in which it drastically shifts its tone to something less gleeful and more grim. Don’t worry, I won’t give anything away, as it’s where Allen’s film finally commits to a level of air that feels truly horrifying, as deep greens of the Colorado wilderness is substituted for the cracked browns of an unsavory place. One that ushers in a final act that feels like it’s mining the wealth of a certain Chain Saw Massacre. Except I can’t help but wonder if it’s too little too late, as HOAX – contributing to a less than enthusiastic sub-genre – regrettably falls prey to both a lack of direction and characters, all who feel as artificial as Bigfoot itself.