A Reason to Believe in WILLOW CREEK

The theatrical poster is great...

The theatrical poster is great…

I try to go into movies knowing as little as I can about them.

When I’m making a recommendation or looking to go to the theater with people, it’s strange how much the question “What’s that one about?” sets me on edge, irks me.

It probably shouldn’t, it’s a reasonable question, but most times I don’t know and don’t care what a film is about. Either I heard the movie was good, or I like the director’s previous work, or I glanced at the Metacritic score: there could be any number of reasons, but whatever, I just want to see it, man.

Even without watching a single trailer or reading a single review, the minimal amount I knew about Willow Creek upfront was almost too much.

All I knew was that this was writer/director Bobcat Goldthwait’s found footage movie. And that the tone was played straight. And that it was about Bigfoot.

This info was not only enough to make me want to see the film, but enough to make me feel kind of crazy while watching it.

See, I’m both a Goldthwait fan (especially World’s Greatest Dad, a serious contender for best comedy of the last decade) and (clearly) a horror fan. But the melding of the two, I have to admit, made me a little leery.

For the first few minutes of the film, I couldn’t stop thinking, couldn’t stop the deluge of questions: why make this movie? Where is this headed, tonally? Is this some kind of fakeout? It’s SO different than his other movies, is this something Goldthwait did for a paycheck?

Yes, all that thinking was keeping me from focusing on the film itself, but once I got into it? The answer to all these questions? The film’s greatest trick?

Well, it’s that Willow Creek is no joke, no cash-in. It’s not only a “for real” FUBU (even without listening to the commentary where Goldthwait admits to as much, it’s plain to see in the film he’s a student/fan of the genre) horror flick, it’s one of the best found footage films ever. Period.

As a birthday gift for her boyfriend, Jim (Bryce Johnson), Kelly (Alexis Gilmore) agrees to accompany him to Northern California where the duo will film a documentary retracing the steps of Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin, who shot the famous 1967 footage of Sasquatch. It’s clear from the first scene that, even though Kelly and Jim are fond of each other, there are still stressors on their relationship (issues with their careers, locations, and their ideology when it comes to Bigfoot). The two leads are so strong (asked to improvise large portions of the film, it turns out, as there was only a 25 page outline of a script) that even if there was never any Bigfoot action, Willow Creek would still be an accurate portrayal of the little pains everyone goes through in a relationship.

The couple spends the first half of the movie interviewing experts, traveling, and exploring the cottage industry that the Patterson-Gimlin footage has inspired. This kind of film is never everyone’s cup of tea, so if you’re someone that bemoans found footage as a genre, Willow Creek is not going to do anything to cure you of that. But jeez does it work for me. I consider myself pretty jaded when it comes to scares and I thought the ending was straight-up terrifying.

...but this alternate one by Alex Pardee is superior.

…but this alternate one by Alex Pardee is superior.

As harrowing as the final 20 minutes is, Willow Creek is probably Goldthwait’s gentlest film.

It lacks the comic nihilism/misanthropy that started in Shakes the Clown, was perfected in World’s Greatest Dad, and (in my opinion) turned God Bless America into an overlong, one-note, kind of deal. For many other directors, a voyage into the darkest genre would be an opportunity to cut loose, but for Goldthwait (again collaborating with stars Gilmore and Johnson) this is a chance for the plot to carry the bulk of the darkness, allowing for more relatable, likeable characters. Although Willow Creek was first conceived as a mockumentary comedy (Goldthwait himself an enthusiast into Sasquatch lore), that tone was jettisoned early and even the oddest of the film’s supporting characters is treated with a tenderness and understanding that few other films would afford them. In its way, Willow Creek is quite sweet.

Part of what’s so awesome about Willow Creek is that it functions similar to the way the Patterson-Gimlin footage itself works on viewers. It’s a layered mystery and once you view it you end up, like Jim, needing to know more. Not only are there narrative threads left hanging, stuff to pick at and think over, but the film’s use of non-actors and real Northern California “Bigfoot industry” locations makes you puzzle over how much of the film is real and how much is scripted.

I picked up the Blu-ray at HorrorHound Indy, and I’m unsure how the movie will play with audiences stumbling onto it on Netflix streaming, unable to get that immediate context. Unlike a magic trick where the illusion is ruined by learning how it was achieved, Willow Creek is a film that all but demands you check out the supplemental features to peek behind the curtain.

The director clearly has a strong grip on the horror genre, but, as he notes on the commentary, Goldthwait is not a found footage fan. While he does praise The Blair Witch Project (as he should, Willow Creek sticks pretty close to BWP’s successful structure), he points out that many of its progeny are lazily put together, ending up far too processed and edited to be viewed as convincing found footage “documents” by their audiences. To combat this, Goldthwait claims that the first cut of Willow Creek included only 67 edits, and although that number is much higher in the finished film, that level of restraint (and his insistence on ending most sequences on a “in-narrative” cut) is a good indicator that the man knows what he’s doing.

The director semi-seriously jokes that this would be the kind of movie best made “If I were in my early 20s” (I’m paraphrasing) but I don’t think that’s true at all. Even with the improvisational feel, Willow Creek is a polished production, one whose themes of belief vs. skepticism and nuanced view of relationships couldn’t have come from a first time director.

So I had my doubts, but Goldthwait made me a believer. I hope this won’t be his only foray into horror.

Postscript update: while looking for an amazon link to throw on this review (it’s $13 bucks on blu right now, which is a bargain), I peeked at some of the customer reviews it has on there and *woof!* To say I strongly disagree with most of these people would be an understatement.

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