After making a series of subversive dark comedies, writer/director Bobcat Goldthwait pulls an apparent 180 to turn his hand to horror, and found footage horror at that, not at all a predictable move. As someone who was a big fan of his previous two films, I was keen to see whatever he did next but also couldn’t help feeling a bit put-off as I’m so tired of found footage horror by now, and never even liked it much to begin with. However, considering the manner in which he twisted expectations in World’s Greatest Dad (which looked like it could have been a cheesy, sentimental family bonding comedy on the poster), it seemed Goldthwait could well be the man to shake up found footage horror, either by mocking the sub-genre’s trappings or just finding something new to do with it. He doesn’t really do either in Willow Creek, so I have to admit I found the film to be a mild disappointment in that regard, but as found footage horror films go, it’s most certainly one of the better examples.
The film that popularised (though did not originate) modern found footage horror is of course, The Blair Witch Project, and both the structure and story of Willow Creek bare a significant resemblance to it, replacing the Blair Witch with Bigfoot/Sasquatch. Willow Creek’s central couple Kelly and Jim (Alexie Gilmore and Bryce Johnson) have come out to the woods of Northern California to make a documentary on Bigfoot, they interview various locals before planning to venture into the woods where the infamous 1967 footage of bigfoot was supposedly shot.
While the Blair Witch comparison is unavoidable, Willow Creek doesn’t really possess any of that film’s weaknesses. The leads are well defined characters, they never become irritating or act in completely idiotic ways to forward the film. Their relationship is often important, Jim’s no conspiracy theorist nut-job or anything; bit he seems to really like the idea of cryptids and wants to believe there’s some truth behind the Bigfoot sightings. On the other hand, Kelly doesn’t buy a word of it, but is there to have a good time with her boyfriend, rather than specifically being out to prove him wrong.
Goldthwait is aware of the potential comicality in attempting to present Bigfoot as a looming threat, and the film’s first half plays that up. It’s much more of an observational comedy, following the pair as they delve into the area’s Bigfoot lore by checking out all the tourist gimmicks like ‘Bigfoot Burger’. They’re always amusing enough to hang out with, and feel believable both as characters and a couple (their relationship comes into play more later as well), which is a good thing as Willow Creek’s happy to have you spend a good deal of time doing just that.
The horror doesn’t kick in until later, and it’s nothing especially new, they venture off to spend a night in the woods, ignoring an unfriendly local who tells them to back off, then creepy things start happening. While it might not sound like any kind of original idea, its presentation is. Willow Creek’s central set piece plays out as a single 15 minute plus unbroken static take within the tent. It’s an audacious move that could have backfired, but rather than becoming more and more dull, it actually serves to make the scene increasingly scary and uncomfortable, conveying a feeling of being trapped and unable to escape that the character’s must share. It continues to pack more effective frights into in latter half too.
Willow Creek might sound like a bad idea on paper, ‘a found footage movie about Bigfoot’, but in the hands of Bobcat Goldthwait, it outdoes its limited potential. The early character work is far stronger than most films of its ilk. It never resorts to typical found footage methods for gaining jump scares, doesn’t just rely on it being dark all the time, avoids excessive shaky running camera, and has it turn off at realistic moments. In the end, it is just another found footage horror, but one of the rare ones that’s worth watching.