Written and Directed by: Bobcat Goldthwait
Starring: Alexie Gilmore, Bryce Johnson, and Laura Montagna
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"There is a thing we call the Curse of Bigfoot..."
On the surface, the only thing separating Willow Creek from the seemingly endless horde of found footage films is the presence of writer/director Bobcat Goldthwait. To be fair, thatís a hell of an exception considering how Goldthwait has emerged as one of our most distinctive and acerbic filmmaking voices of the last decade or so. Therein lies the paradox of Willow Creek: to be the product of such a unique individual, it feels like an oddly anonymous update of The Blair Witch Project, albeit one thatís skillfully done and honors the minimalist approach that made that film so effective.
The setup is an overwhelmingly familiar repurposing of Blair Witchís urban legend mockumentary approach: Bigfoot enthusiast Jim (Bryce Johnson) drags his girlfriend Kelly (Alexie Gilmore) out to Humboldt County, California, site of the infamous Patterson-Gimlin film that purportedly captured the beast on camera in 1967. The Scully to his Mulder, Kelly amiably tags along and films their trip despite her extreme skepticism of Bigfootís existence. Together, the two interview locals and hit up the Sasquatch-themed dives before striking out to find the Patterson-Gimlin site for themselves.
Their trip into the wilderness yields so much more, of course, with almost all of it following the roadmap set forth by Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick fifteen years ago: after disregarding ominous warnings, the couple get lost in the woods and bicker (though they at least hold on to their cherished map) before encountering mysterious things bumping in the night. What Willow Creek obviously lacks in ingenuity, it makes up for by simply doing this same old shit very, very well. Itís the rare found footage movie where the expository moments are effective and not just because they couch the proceedings in a foreboding atmosphere; instead, itís actually remarkably sunny early on, with Jim and Kelly proving to be fine, refreshingly pleasant company for what is effectively a passable Bigfoot documentary. Thereís a real authenticity to both the couple and their surroundings; in fact, itís downright eerie how these rural parts of California almost exactly mirror the weird little tourist traps found in the mountains of North Carolina, right down to the chintzy restaurants and loveable yokels.
But itís the descent into the woods that obviously serves as the filmís central draw. Initially, Goldthwait is content to follow the blueprint here as well, as the tension gradually escalates: in addition to the weirdly ornery ranger, Jim and Kelly begin to notice strange phenomena in the woods that culminates with the couple being terrorized by some unseen force. Whatís interesting about Willow Creekís take on this climax is Goldthwaitís unique treatment: rather than have Jim and Kelly stupidly go out and investigate, the two remain frozen in fear during a grueling 15-minute long take where the camera remains fixed on the two actors, a decision that takes the found footage aesthetic to its logical extreme by leaving so much unseen and implied. By this point, the tone has completely shifted: gone is the light, jocular travelogue, here replaced by an icy, terrifying encounter with the unknown.
Following this scene, Goldthwait puts his foot on the accelerator, as things degenerate quickly: the two get lost and are forced to endure another night in the woods that ends even more horrifyingly. Given Goldthwaitís adherence to the formula, itís no surprise weíre left with a curt, mystifying ending; to its credit, however, Willow Creek features one of the most baffling final images in recent memory, one thatís apparently drawing from obscure Bigfoot lore and cleverly reflects Jim and Kellyís domestic squabbles. Their harrowing experience only brings forth some of their relationship issues, mostly as it relates to their decision to settle down and move in with each other, so itís a touch ironic when they happen upon something that makes them subtly confront the issue.
Admittedly, I could be reading a bit too much into that, but Iím almost compelled to find something of Goldthwaitís sardonic wit in here somewhere. As Jim and Kelly interview the locals, itís tempting to think these simple folk are targets of mockery, what with their bewildered answers and their folk songs. And yet, itís Jim who winds up looking like the real idiot here: after all, heís the one who charges headlong into a dangerous situation despite some stern warnings. If Goldthwait is one of our best critics of human folly, what better way to explore that than with a genre of film thatís often solely dedicated to stupid people doing stupid things and paying a hefty price for them.
For the most part, however, Willow Creek is quite a departure for its director: a minimalist, no-frills exercise in sheer terror, itís a film that certainly works under optimal conditions (I would recommend waiting until the sun goes downóitís the ultimate midnight movie), even despite its familiarity. Itís simply an intriguing story piggybacking off of great campfire lore thatís well-told: itís rare to praise found footage films for their technical accomplishments, but it features amiable characters who are dropped into an almost otherworldly atmosphere brimming with bizarre sights and sounds.
The latter is especially impressive and is well highlighted by Dark Skyís Blu-ray release, which features an impressive 5.1 DTS-MA soundtrack that thoroughly envelopes viewers in the impenetrably dark, woodsy landscape. For extras, the disc provides a commentary with Goldthwait and his two stars, a deleted scene, a 12-minute making-of documentary, and the filmís trailer. So many found footage films are at least predicated on a compelling idea, and Willow Creek is no exception in that regard; the big difference is that itís the rare effort that does right by its concept: itís suspenseful, creepy, sort of weird, and downright fun, which is exactly how anything centered around Bigfoot should be. Buy it!
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