Directed by Bobcat Goldthwait
In 1967, Roger Patterson and Robert Gimlin captured footage of what they claimed to be the cryptid Bigfoot in the dense forests of Willow Creek, California. Despite its presumed fabrication, the video has gone on to be the definitive “proof” that Bigfoot exists, or once existed, in the forests of the Pacific Northwest, and ultimately helped inspire the Bigfoot phenomenon and cement Willow Creek as the number one destination for all Bigfoot fanatics. This folkloric stalwart serves as the backdrop for Bobcat Goldthwait’s found footage thriller Willow Creek, wherein a true believer named Jim drags his skeptical girlfriend Kelly along for a trip deep into Bigfoot territory to try and catch evidence of the elusive creature for the purposes of a documentary.
So much could have easily gone wrong with this film, but Goldthwait shows reverence for a genre that has been unfairly maligned as overdone or unoriginal by taking the cliches that plague it so and subverting them. Clocking in at a tight 77 minutes, Goldthwait spends much of the first half focusing exclusively on the development of the characters, something most found footage thrillers tend to lack. Jim and Kelly are incredibly likable, engaging in witty banter and teasing each other as they make through Willow Creek, conducting interviews and taking in all the Bigfoot lore the town has to offer. Kelly remains skeptical, even as a handful of locals warn them not to go into the woods; she’s more afraid for what the woods have to offer without the added benefit of Bigfoot stalking them as they camp. Meanwhile, Jim remains undaunted, using these fleeting moments as evidence that Bigfoot lurks deep within the woods. This results in much needed depth to their characters. While Jim is shown to be stubborn and arrogant, he’s presented in a sympathetic light that keeps you rooting for him when trouble finally hits. When all is said and done, you actually like them and want them to survive.
Even though the first half is more light-hearted and humorous than the second, Goldthwait keeps the tension subtle yet pervasive before transitioning into full-blown fear. It keeps things interesting, blending horror and comedy to set the stage as Jim and Kelly eventually make their way into the woods. Their relationship woes come full circle as they find themselves isolated in the woods, but as things begin to get tense, it doesn’t overshadow the bigger picture. After a particular awkward relationship moment, Goldthwait pulls out all the stops for a 20-minute single take scene that relies entirely on sound and the fear of the unknown to drive home the fear.
And that’s why Willow Creek works. At no point does Goldthwait try to emulate the Patterson-Gimlin tape with out of focus glimpses of the elusive creature, nor does he try to shock the viewer by placing it front and center, roaring and baring its teeth at screaming expendables. Instead, he messes with your senses, and as Jim and Kelly slowly start to hear what might be outside their tent, you begin to hear things, too. Or at least you think you do. It’s fear at its most primal; the abject is more horrific than the object, and Goldthwait realizes this. It’s never cheesy, and never panders. It’s just downright scary.
Comparisons to The Blair Witch Project are not without merit, though this isn’t a bad thing. If you’re going to emulate a found footage film, you really couldn’t pick a better one. But Willow Creek breaks the mold, with sensible characters you can relate to, fantastic performances by Bryce Johnson and Alexie Gilmore, and some of the most effective uses of sound in horror in recent memory. Despite a rather slow start (even with all the humor) and a conventional found footage climax, there’s enough in Willow Creek to please even the most jaded found footage fan.
4 1/2 out of 5