Friday, October 2, 2015

Willow Creek

When I say Willow Creek (2013) resembles a home movie, I mean that as a compliment. Unlike so many other entries in the found footage genre, in which the characters record the events of the film with a camera, it doesn't cheat or come off as phony. It actually looks like video footage shot by the people we are watching and not just an attempt by professional filmmakers to pass it off as such. The result is a movie almost unbearably tense and creepy in its final act once the terror elements come to the forefront.

Willow Creek is written and directed by Bobcat Goldthwait, best known for his crackpot acting roles in movies like the Police Academy series and Scrooged. In recent years, he's established himself as a director with God Bless America and World's Greatest Dad starring Robin Williams, and his work has been in the dark comedy vein. When I say Bobcat Goldthwait made a movie about Bigfoot, you can probably envision a silly comedy made at the intersection of Harry and the Hendersons and Heathers.

Yet, Willow Creek is a serious thriller and a plausibly constructed one at that. It follows two people - Jim (Bryce Johnson) and Kelly (Alexie Gilmore) - as they journey to the actual Willow Creek, home of the Bigfoot legend, and videotape their experience recreating the famed Patterson-Gimlin film. Jim is a believer, but Kelly, an actress, is really more along to please Jim. As they make their way, they encounter some of the people and businesses that have sprung around the legend, interview some locals, have an encounter with a burly woodsman who tells them to leave, and get lost before having their own encounter with what may or may not a Sasquatch.

As I said above, the first half of the movie resembles a genuine home movie. Essentially, Jim and Kelly play the part of tourists as they drive to Willow Creek, stop at a restaurant that serves "Bigfoot Burgers," and visit the local spots before beginning their trek in the wilderness. We see multiple takes of the same intro bits Jim is preparing, they listen to a folk song about Bigfoot, and interview a couple of people, including the owner of a Bigfoot museum and a member of the local tourism board who doubts the existence of Bigfoot.

Goldthwait gives the movie authenticity by filming at the actual Willow Creek, which in real life is the Bigfoot Capital of the World and home to an annual festival dedicated to the legend, and the people Jim and Kelly encounter are real people playing themselves (with the exception of a ranger played by Peter Jason who lost his dog to Bigfoot). These folks are bit kooky, but the movie doesn't come off as exploitive in regards to them and doesn't turn into a freak show. It's all fairly charming, although it does go on for a while, and some viewers might lose patience watching an ostensible home movie. Dramatically speaking, not much happens.

The terror begins when Kelly and Jim camp out for the night, setting up a tent in the wilderness. In a single, static shot of the two of them sitting up in the tent, a shot lasting around twenty minutes, the couple discovers they're in over the heads as they hear noises outside the tent, noises that sound like someone or something walking around outside. This is scene that will divide viewers; either you'll find the suggested, un-glimpsed terror so unsettling, you'll hardly notice so many minutes have ticked away, or you'll be bored out of your mind, begging for something to happen. Me, I fell in the former category; the limited camera view creates a trapped feeling, and the noises are creepy to say the least.

It's tempting to call Willow Creek a clone of The Blair Witch Project. The scenarios are similar: people go looking in the woods for a local legend and become lost. Like in Blair Witch, we never actually see Bigfoot, which again, is something that will probably disappoint people. Unlike Blair Witch, there is a grounded sense of a humor at play, at least in the first half as Jim and Kelly meet the odd people and encounter the sites of Willow Creek, and at the end, we get definitive proof that something is indeed stalking them in the wilderness.

This isn't a movie for everyone. Some will dismiss it as a Blair Witch rip-off with long, tedious passages before it gets to the horror material that really doesn't show much. Others will embrace it for its authenticity and the genuine sense of terror its generates.

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