Bobcat Goldthwait, the irreverent writer/director whose cult films include such divisive titles as Shakes the Clown, Sleeping Dogs Lie, World’s Greatest Dad (starring his close friend, Robin Williams) and God Bless America, has made his most mainstream film yet, Willow Creek. It is one of the scariest thrillers I’ve seen since The Conjuring. Taking a cue from The Blair Witch Project (the original found footage movie) and using the well-known legend of Bigfoot, Goldthwait and his cast of two take us on a journey into the middle of northern California wilderness and create a feeling of dread that builds from the opening frames until the terrorizing ending.
Bryce Johnson and Alexie Gilmore star as Jim and Kelly, a young couple driving up to Bluff Creek, CA to visit and camp at the site of the famous Patterson-Gimlin film, i.e. the film footage of Bigfoot walking along a creek bed that we’ve all seen hundreds of time. Jim is a hardcore Bigfoot enthusiast and he’s decided to record this “romantic” getaway with Kelly on video for a possible documentary about their trip. Kelly is a non-believer. She thinks that Bigfoot is as likely to exist as leprechauns, a point she brings up several times. However, she loves Jim and wants to spend time with him. If this is what he wants to do, then she’ll humor him for a weekend.
Moving at a brisk pace, the film quickly places them in Willow Creek, the gateway to Bigfoot country. In this small town devoted to Bigfoot tourism, Jim and Kelly meet locals who share stories of their own run-ins with the ape-like creature, as well as providing some vital backstory to the Bigfoot legend. As I learned from the Blu-ray commentary track with Goldthwait, Johnson and Gilmore, many of the people interviewed were not actors, but actual citizens of Willow Creek who believed that an actual documentary was being shot.
One of the most ominous moments in the film takes place when the lovers stop to film national forest where Bluff Creek resides: two million acres of uncharted wilderness. Even if they don’t find Bigfoot, the fear of getting lost in the woods and never returning is a possibility.
Jim and Kelly make their way into the woods and, surprise surprise, strange things begin to happen. An imposing man threatens them, telling them to turn back (they don’t). Later, after a frigid dip in a stream, they return to their campsite to find it ransacked. Any normal person would turn back and leave. With nightfall is upon them, going home will have to wait.
This all leads to the greatest moment in Willow Creek. Jim wakes up in the middle of the night, after hearing knocking on a tree. Being a student of Bigfoot lore, he knows that this is a way that the creatures communicate. Switching on the camera, he wakes up Kelly and asks her to listen. With the camera locked in one position, we watch the characters react to noises occurring outside their two-man tent in a single 17-minute take.
If you’ve ever been camping, you know that these tents barely have room enough for two people to sit up and that the walls are a thin piece of material. For those 17-minutes, we anticipate and grow more scared with the characters as a variety of disturbing noises occur off screen. The pacing is perfect. You sit and wait and wait and just when you think nothing is going to happen, something walks by the tent or presses a hand against the walls. It’s brilliant, because whatever is happening outside of the tent is left to our imagination. Is it a Bigfoot? Hostile locals? Something worse?
As the film moves toward its finale, Goldthwait intensifies the fear to the point where you may be sitting with your knees pressed against your chest and peeking through your hands. Not that I was doing that. Never. Not me.
Willow Creek does everything a found footage film is supposed to do and does it right. Not only does the film place you in the moment with the characters, but it justifies why the camera would even be turned on during crucial scenes of the film, when no sane person would be shooting video. By the end, the camera isn’t being used by the characters to record their actions, it’s being used a s a light source and protection. If you’ve grown tired of the found footage genre, you should still give Willow Creek a chance. It’s smart, scary and will make you think twice about going into the woods.
Willow Creek is available through Dark Sky Films and MPI Media Group. The Blu-ray includes feature length commentary and deleted scenes.