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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JUG FACE and some other odds & ends

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Chad Crawford Kinkle’s debut feature Jug Face is not the kind of film we get to see often. That’s a good thing.

Probably best billed as Winter’s Bone meets The Children of the Corn, Jug Face has a bit more going for it than that. Although it is neither, the film locates the sweetspot between charming indie-feature stocked with enjoyable character actors and splatter-filled Southsploitation sicky.

Slick photography and fine performances belie the fact that this film probably cost very little to produce, making the movie a testament to the “talent and ideas over money” philosophy.

Although the protagonist Ada (Lauren Ashley Carter) and her family belong to a strange religious sect, what I like about Jug Face is that very early on in the film it dispenses with the ambiguity as to whether the pit that the characters worship has supernatural power. Although some of the trappings are there, this is not a film akin to Martha Marcy May Marlene or The Wicker Man where humans are the only monsters, here we’ve got a powerful entity that holds sway over the character’s lives and watch as they react to it.

This is a rural horror story the likes of which we never really get to see: one that treats its characters with dignity. The codifiers are all here: moonshine, a mistrust of the outside world, a dash of incest, creepy old-world religion, but the Kinkle never belittles his characters or treats them like hillbilly rubes. This not only makes his characters feel less like caricatures but it also makes the horror hit home a bit harder.

Nowhere is this dignity more in evidence then with Sean Bridgers’s character Dawai, the simple but kindly soothsayer of the group. Dawai is a character torn by responsibility to the girl he loves and both the supernatural and mental burdens he’s been handed. Bridgers was great in The Woman, but this character skews much closer to the affable lackey he played on Deadwood and it’s nice to see him back as a good guy. Carter is great as well, selling the disastrous decisions that Ada makes as not selfish but human. The cast is rounded out by Larry Fesseden and Sean Young (playing one of the creepier mother characters in recent memory).

Through a rural horror lens, Jug Face deals with the unchanging nature of fate and the difficulties of youth in a surprisingly deft way for a film with such a scant runtime and this much blood.

That said, this brings me to the lone issue I had with the film: the lackluster final few minutes. The ending of the film does not feel out of place either thematically or in the plot, but without giving anything away, it just feels like the movie holds on a scene and a half longer than it should. Despite my personal hangups with the ending, the film still offers a lot to love and I look forward to whatever Kinkle does next.

Jack Ketchum fans will recognize the film’s two leads from Lucky McKee’s The Woman, but that’s not the only crossover as the film was made by the Andrew van den Houten’s production house, Modernciné. Along with sharing producers, it boasts a score by Sean Spillane and ends up feeling like an easy recommendation to make if you enjoyed The Woman.

I purchased the film through Vudu, but it’s also available on itunes. I would imagine that other VOD options are forthcoming. You want thought-provoking original horror, check it out.

Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that January 7th, Samhain will release of my second full-length novel: The Summer Job. If you like to be way ahead of the game, the books available to pre-order now through amazon, B&N, etc. Check out the cover:

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If you’re looking for more info about that, I discuss The Summer Job and more over at this interview. Thanks to Jason for the questions.