When I was eight or nine years old, my dad took me to a movie that freaked my shit out. It was a pseudo-documentary about Bigfoot and it made me pretty nervous about camping trips for years after. Unfortunately, my dad has no memory of this (he probably doesn’t remember turning the AM radio to a channel that flooded the room with bizarre noises, beeps, and staticy fuzz and then messing with my head by telling me it was picking up UFO signals, either — thanks Dad!), so I’m not sure if it was Ivan Marx’s The Legend of Bigfoot (which can be found here or a Special Edition is available to watch here) or Sasquatch: The Legend of Bigfoot (found here). I’ll probably be checking them both out later this week to see if any memories are sparked. It wasn’t until years later that I finally saw and fell in love with the low-budget idiosyncratic craziness of the cult classic TheLegend of Boggy Creek (available to watch here). In-between, there were years of In Search of… and pretty much any weird cryptozoological special or series that kept me, if not immersed in weird fringe stuff, familiar with strange monsters, aliens, and whatnot. Hell, I live just a couple of hour’s drive from both Mothman territory and Flatwoods Monster country, so this sort of stuff has always had a place in my heart; especially films or television shows that take the pseudo-documentary approach to telling their stories (which is why Ancient Aliens and Mountain Monsters are near and dear to my heart despite the inherent silliness — and mockery — that comes along with them). But the first monster to steal my heart was Bigfoot. And it looks like it’s the same with writer/director Bobcat Goldthwait. Full disclosure: I’ve been a Bobcat fan since I first saw his HBO standup special, Share the Warmth, back in 1987. He was smart, fearless, and so much more than just the screaming guy from Police Academy. But even in those films, he was a highlight. In fact, no matter what the project was, I was willing to go into it with an open mind, just because Bobcat was in it. Which means I saw some pretty bad movies, but I also saw hilarious ones like One Crazy Summer, Tapeheads, and Scrooged. And when he started directing in 1991, I was exposed to “the Citizen Kane of alcoholic clown movies,” Shakes the Clown and that was it. I knew right then and there that Goldthwait was a quadruple-threat — actor, comedian, writer, and director — and anything with his name on it in the writing and/or directing credits, was going to be in my wheelhouse. Like Don Coscarelli, Bobcat Goldthwait’s an American treasure, if you ask me. Every film he writes and directs is gold. Which brings us to his latest film, Willow Creek. According to interviews, the idea for this film grew out of a 1400 mile road trip that Goldthwait took last year, visiting Bigfoot hotspots throughout California. Along the way he met witnesses, saw landmarks, and heard stories that began to germinate into what was originally conceived of as a Christopher Guest-style “oddball characters hanging out at a Bigfoot convention” film. But after some thought, he decided that it would be too easy to slide into mockery of the Sasquatch Believer community. And as a person who welled up a bit upon visiting the site of the infamous 1967 Patterson-Gilmin film, that wasn’t what he wanted to do. So he hit upon the idea of the pseudo-documentary approach, utilizing the found footage device. I’ll just let that collective groan die down before moving on. Okay, done? Here’s the thing — and I’ve said this in other reviews, too (The Frankenstein Theory, [REC] 3: Genesis, V/H/S, Frankenstein’s Army and others) — the device isn’t the problem. Poor use of the device is the problem. With the right story, found footage isn’t just a way to do things on the cheap. It’s a way to craft an intimate story or a story that relies on the viewer really seeing things through the eyes of the central characters. When it’s done right, it’s extremely effective. And in Willow Creek, it’s done right. But what does that mean? At its simplest, it means giving us characters we can relate to, or at least can be interested in. With our lead characters Jim (Bryce Johnson) and Kelly (Alexie Gilmore), we have a couple at a turning point in their relationship. They’re both clever and smart, but not too clever or too smart. Johnson and Gilmore (both of whom are veterans of previous Goldthwait films) have a natural chemistry that from the opening moments makes you feel like they really could be these characters. That’s the first step. The second is giving them a motivating force that justifies the found footage approach. This is the part that really drew me into the film. It’s Jim’s birthday and despite being an attractive, almost surfer-type, he’s a Bigfoot nut. He’s a true believer. And for his birthday, his girlfriend Kelly (a non-believer) agrees to go along with him on a road-trip to the site of the Patterson-Gilmin footage, while he films his own “documentary” about the experience. The third step in doing it right, is making great use of the setting. The first 45 minutes of Willow Creek is all about letting us get to know the characters, exposing us to the cracks in their relationship, and letting them interact with real people who live in Willow Creek, California. This is where the film’s truest inspirations, The Legend of Boggy Creek and Grizzly Man, make themselves felt. We get honest reactions and stories that hearken back to Boggy Creek, and we get a sense that there’s something dangerous about Jim’s obsession that mirror’s the subject of Herzog’s documentary, Timothy Treadwell. A personal highlight about this section of the film was the surprise, uncredited appearance of character actor Peter Jason as ex-Ranger Troy Andrews. Having appeared in some of my favorite films, including Rio Lobo (1970), The Long Riders (1980), Streets of Fire (1984), Dreamscape (1984), Prince of Darkness (1987), They Live (1988), and In the Mouth of Madness (1994), as well as TV shows like Mike Hammer and Deadwood, Jason is always a welcome sight and can make just about anything better. Here, he takes what was already an interesting and engaging film and provides a cameo that was heartbreaking in its honesty. He took what could have been a throwaway moment and made it sublime and horrifying at the same time. The fourth step is technical. It’s crafting a film that works specifically within the limitations of what “found film” implies. In this case, all the cuts in and out of scenes are done in-camera by the characters. Since there’s a performance aspect to what Jim is doing on this road-trip, we get retakes and flubbed lines that are natural and believable. They build up the effect that what we’re seeing is a straight play-through of a recording discovered under mysterious circumstances. This conceit is only broken in the opening moments when we get a glimpse of the ending, before the film shifts to follow Jim and Kelly’s trip chronologically. Goldthwait has said that there are only 67 edits in the entire 80-minute run of the film and I believe him. There’s no fat on this thing. Everything we see contributes to the overall story, whether that be in foreshadowing things to come (pay attention to that missing person sign at the diner) or in simply creating a sense of unease and potential danger. Shooting the entire film in about a week on location also helped to reinforce the reality of what’s going on in-camera. There’s an immediacy and believability to everything that happens that doesn’t let up. While it was a little disappointing to have the film end as suddenly as it does, with a very disturbing callback to the father of found footage films, The Blair Witch Project, it’s necessary given the restrictions that Goldthwait set up for himself. As such, the ending is a natural outgrowth of everything that comes before. It’s abrupt, but so is life. I can hear some rumblings out there about whether or not the film is actually scary. Most of the film is not. Most of the film is designed to draw us into the emotional lives of these two people. Most of the film makes us feel for a woman whose boyfriend is an impetuous man-child and a man whose girlfriend is on the verge of leaving him behind. There’s a sense of desperation in Jim and Kelly that would be right at home in a film by Joe Swanberg or the Duplass brothers. Which helps make the 19-minute uncut stretch in the back half of the movie one of the most unnerving and realistic scares I’ve had watching a movie in ages. The six-minute single take in True Detective‘s fourth episode was an amazing feat of storytelling that moved in and out of scenes, across yards, and into the backseat of a car for a thrilling getaway. I’d put the one-take scene in the tent in Willow Creek up as being just as thrilling and engaging, despite not moving the camera at all. If you’ve ever been a frightened child out in the woods on a camping trip, this scene will get under your skin and make you want to turn on the lights. If you watch it with the windows open, like I did, the sounds of the world outside your home blend with the film to create an immersive extended moment of pure unease. I’m sure some viewers are going to complain about long moments where we’re just watching Jim and Kelly frozen in fear, listening for any noise outside of their tent, but god damn if it didn’t just grab me by the spleen and make me freeze up along with them. There’s no score or soundtrack here to help build tension. The strength and success of this scene is totally on the shoulders of the actors and their interplay with the crewmembers making sounds in the woods around them. This is a moment that could have, as the actors themselves said (according to interviews), been shot in a parking lot somewhere. Instead, it is shot on location in the woods, miles away from any civilization, very near the actual site of the Patterson-Gilmin film. I think it’s very possible that this helped to elevate the performances in this scene into a classic horror moment. Think the famous shot in Blair Witch where Heather Donahue cries into the camera, stretched to nearly twenty minutes of unrelenting anxiety. A lot of reviews are saying that Willow Creek brings nothing new to the table but tells its story really well regardless. That’s partially true, because it really is well done. While the plot points and final moments are admittedly very similar to Blair Witch, Willow Creek fixes its experience on an emotional center that brings something very new to the table. With stellar performances, nuanced use of real and scripted/improved dialogue, and a firm grounding in established traditional folklore (with a very disturbing Weekly World News-style twist), Willow Creek is a high-water mark for the genre, and further proof that Bobcat Goldthwait is a film maker who can do just about anything he sets his mind to. Willow Creek is now playing in select theaters and on VOD for the rest of us poor saps. Willow Creek (2014)4.5Overall ScoreShare this:TweetShare on TumblrLike this:Like Loading... Related One Response EZMM 2015 Day 6.1: The Battery (2012) - Psycho Drive-In September 26, 2017 […] with a risky final act that echoes what Bobcat Goldthwait did at the end of his recent Bigfoot film Willow Creek. 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