Paper Dolls (2007)
Directed by Adam Pitman & David Blair
If no one believed in monsters would they cease to exist? These days there appears to be a scientific or logical explanation for everything. When was the last time the world had a shocking scientific discovery? When was the last time a legend proved to be more than just scary folk tales? Where have all the Jersey Devils gone? The Kraken, the ancient scourge of the mariner, has been given a scientific name and photographed. The Loch Ness monster has fallen in the bathtub, and we have gone 40 years since the last time Bigfoot made a film appearance that was worth talking about.
I think this is trying to tell us something: we have to grow up at some point, right? There comes a time when we have to give in to overwhelming reason. As the pragmatic flashlight called life keeps blazing away all of the shadows, the boogeymen are disappearing. Even the film world is changing to suit these tastes. Fantastic monsters are not in vogue. Instead we get torture-killers and endless men in masks parading their pander for mass market approval.
Then why should we even care about a film like Paper Dolls? This film is the story of two friends who take an ill advised shortcut. Death collects one of them, leaving the survivor on a path of escape, rescue, and retribution. This is the menace at the center of all of this that would prove to be the biggest question in this post-monster, no-mystery age. For the terror that lurks within Paper Dolls would be none other than the greatest American legend there is: Sasquatch.
The North American Great Ape is one of the great tantalizing mysteries of the world. Alas, for the longest time, all of the films that have centered on this myth have had at least one giant hairy foot planted in schlock. There is a persistent odor to Bigfoot movies. Not a pungent skunk ape musk, instead a ribald limburger stench.
Knowing the subject matter within Paper Dolls may lead us to believe that it is just another romp in the woods with the modern day descendants of Giganthropithecus. Yet I am here to warn you, this is not the same trail we have followed before when stalking this cryptozoological prey. No, dear reader; this time we have encountered the dread terror at the heart of the beast itself.
Paper Dolls, written by David Blair, Adam Stilwell, and Adam Pitman, is very careful to avoid all of the missteps that pockmark almost every other entry into the subgenre. Instead of setting us up for a monster movie, they introduce a voyeuristic slasher film. Too often we are just thrown into a creature feature, and the mystery fades all too fast. Paper Dolls wisely keeps its tension by making us ask ourselves, repeatedly, just what the heck is going on. The twists and turns within Paper Dolls are far more dangerous than the back roads within it.
Being a monster movie at heart, Paper Dolls takes a page from some of the most successful monster films of all time. Ridley Scott knew to not show too much of his alien. Spielberg kept most of the shark underwater, and Neil Marshall kept the werewolves fast moving and hard hitting. The latter here is the most apt comparison when looking at Paper Dolls. Yet, where Marshall’s werewolves were ferocious to a horrifying degree, Paper Doll’s creatures are terror incarnate.
There are moments in film where the air is just sucked out of you. Horrible moments where you just cannot bear to watch and it's these moments that lay dormant within your head for days and days after. The introduction of the creatures in Paper Dolls is one such moment. I have never seen a more effective attack sequence in any other Sasquatch film. I had to watch it twice just to be sure I saw it all.
Paper Dolls takes full advantage of its sylvan Montana setting. Directors Pitman and Blair are able to take the trees, fog, and meandering roadways and weave them into an unrelenting secondary menace. Very much akin to Blair Witch, the woods in Paper Dolls seem impossibly huge, endlessly dark, and composed of living, breathing shadows. Restraint is something that is incredibly difficult to practice, but is impressively beautiful to watch.
Pitman completes the filmmaker triumvirate by taking on the role of the lead character. It's a strange, unsettling performance. Part of the challenge of Paper Dolls is the way it skews the story it tells, and the driving force behind this is Pitman himself. It's a layered performance that really makes more sense when you look back on it once Paper Dolls has told its full story. It all makes sense, but it did not set right with me. Pitman’s first 20 minutes on screen just bother me, but not for the right reasons. Fortunately, the chameleon within takes hold and the last two-thirds of the film are reclaimed by the stunning range of performances Pitman slams out.
Paper Dolls takes a devilish delight in disrupting our understanding of the events it presents to us. We are forced to wonder if madness, rather than with monsters, was the dark heart of it all. Gill Gayle’s performance as local officer is just convincing enough to make us question ourselves. Channeling a disconcerting Robert Englund vibe, Kent Harper’s eerie performance as an old gas station hermit allows us to be hooked on every unhinged word that slops out of his mouth. The creepy crackpot spins a yarn that takes the Sasquatch myth and re-envisions it in the vein of the scariest campfire tale ever told.
The power of stories like Paper Dolls lies not in the myths behind them, but how the stories are told. The creepiest, most believable stories were always the ones told by the best storytellers. Those individuals who treated the tale with respect, and made it feel like it was real. Pitman, Blair, and Stilwell believe in the impossible, and they effortlessly convey this belief to us. Paper Dolls takes us out of the cold scientific age and makes us think for a moment that maybe the monsters are real.
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4 out of 5
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