Bobcat Goldthwait did a pretty remarkable thing. He went from being one of the most “out there” and unpredictable stand-up comedians of the 1980s to being a critically acclaimed and respected filmmaker. With films like SLEEPING DOGS LIE and GOD BLESS AMERICA, Goldthwait proves himself a filmmaker who can present over-the-top material while at the same time showing restraint in the right places. But I think most impressive is that Goldthwait has something to say in his films (GOD BLESS AMERICA was an acerbic critique of modern American culture and Goldthwait was spot on in that film). So when I read last year that he was making his first foray into the horror genre I was pretty damn excited.
Then I read his horror film was going to be about Bigfoot. Even more stoked.
Then I read his Bigfoot horror film was going to be a found footage flick. Not so stoked.
But I put aside my personal feelings about found footage flicks as I started WILLOW CREEK. The premise is simple. Jim (Bryce Johnson) drags his girlfriend Kelly (Alexie Gilmore) out to the famed location of where the Holy Grail of Bigfoot evidence was taken back in 1967. Jim wants to make a documentary on the famed Patterson-Gimlin footage. You know the footage … the fake, Chewbacca-looking ‘Bigfoot’ calmly walking in front of a camera as it looks around:
That’s it. To many, that’s the definitive proof that Bigfoot exists. Jim is one such person who whole-heartedly believes this footage to be true/authentic. Kelly tells Jim that she doesn’t believe in Bigfoot and is there to support and spend more time with him. I like the way Goldthwait plays around with gender roles. In most films we have the female characters who are the “believers” and the males who are the ‘rational, pragmatic’ individuals. As Goldthwait further explores their relationship we see more of this ‘reversal’ of gender roles. We also get a reasonable explanation as to why the camera is always rolling. Jim wants everything documented as they travel into Willow Creek, which is, Jim tells us, the “Mecca of the Bigfoot community.”
Goldthwait then does something that we see missing from a lot of genre films. He actually takes some time to set up the characters and let us, the viewer, get to know them better (something Greg Mclean does brilliantly in WOLF CREEK and then completely screws up in WOLF CREEK 2). Jim and Kelly, it turns out, are very likable characters who have great on-screen chemistry together. Their relationship isn’t perfect but you find yourself rooting for them as the film goes on.
As Jim and Kelly arrive in Willow Creek they find a Bigfoot merchandizing nightmare. Everything from Bigfoot specialty bookstores to tacky gift shops to Bigfoot-themed food can be found everywhere in the small town (the Bigfoot burger was particularly funny. A burger with all the trimmings in the shape of Bigfoot’s footprint). Jim also takes the time to interview some of the locals. Some are just local shop owners while others claim to have had Bigfoot encounters that changed their lives forever. Jim interviews Bigfoot bookstore owner Steven Streufert (not an actor) who tells them to be really careful when camping out by the Patterson-Gimlin site where the footage was taken. He warns them that it’s untamed territory deep in the woods and many people aren’t prepared for the conditions out there. There’s no camp site, no port-a-potty, no water source, etc. Once they get out there they’ll be on their own. Steven’s point is driven home by the missing woman poster they see around town … a poster that might be more important than the young couple thinks.
After interviewing a few more people around town they start to head out to the site of the Patterson-Gimlin footage. The reality of the dense woods immediately becomes apparent as they make their way to the site. The hiking was slow-going due to the denseness of the woods and they decide to camp overnight and finish the hike the next day. This is where my review becomes vague. Telling you anymore would take away from the experience. Brace yourself for the second half of this film. No it’s not gory; no it’s not filled with monsters. What Goldthwait does is build up an incredible amount of atmosphere and tension and suspense that even other seasoned horror filmmakers could take a cue from. There’s also an incredible 19-20 minute uninterrupted, continuous shot of Jim and Kelly in the tent that will have you glued to the screen and have your fingers digging into the couch. It’s one of the most effectively suspenseful scenes I’ve seen in a long time. This scene alone is worth the price of admission!! I’ll leave it at this: The second the two enter the woods the atmosphere and tone of the film changes, as well as the fate of those characters.
As I mentioned above, the acting of the two leads was great. It really felt like I was watching home movies of these two on vacation. Their screen chemistry is perfect. The found footage angle here is also utilized well. It’s not a gimmick but is integral to the plot. Out of the 657,978 found footage films made since 1999, WILLOW CREEK is the only one worthy of being called the true successor to THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT. There were times that I forgot I was watching a found footage film. I’m a confirmed non-fan of the found footage gimmick so this is pretty high praise coming from me. Goldthwait also knows how not to overextend his stay with WILLOW CREEK. Coming in at a tight 80 minutes, WILLOW CREEK flows nicely and never drags. This isn’t a perfect film, though. The ending, for example, could’ve been a little more clear but that’s about the only negative thing I can write about this film (after a second viewing the ending proved to be more effective).
Filmmakers often use the horror genre as a springboard for their careers. They cut their teeth in the genre thinking horror fans don’t notice shitty cinematography, lazy writing, and generic scares. Goldthwait is not using the genre to try and make an easy buck. He has something to say here. But most impressive is how his first foray into the horror genre manages to create more suspense and tension than most seasoned horror directors can conjure up as well as breathing new life into the found footage film. I know a lot of my readers are gore hounds (I definitely am), but don’t let the lack of gore keep you from seeing a fantastic film. WILLOW CREEK is not to be missed.
Director: Bobcat Goldthwait (& writer)
Plot: 4.5 out of 5 stars
Gore: 0 out of 10 skulls
Zombie Mayhem: 0 out of 5 brains
Reviewed by Scott Shoyer