With the parade of found-footage films that have come and gone in the past decade, Bobcat Goldthwait’s “Willow Creek” proves to be about as rare as a Bigfoot sighting, so it’s no surprise that Sasquatch is the main subject, nor should the fact that it works as well as it does despite the fact it’s the first of Goldthwait’s films to make an audience recoil in horror for reasons other than to wring out laughs.
Still, there are many to be had as the film follows a couple into Trinity National Forest in California who plan to set up camp at the same site where in 1967, Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin captured footage of what they and other Bigfoot believers have long held as the most compelling evidence that the beast exists. While “Willow Creek” doesn’t begrudge anyone of what they believe, it does take great pleasure in what it knows to be real, letting Kelly (Alexie Gilmore) and Jim (Bryce Johnson) first roam around in the small community that’s formed around the forest to take advantage of its notoriety. These aren’t sets the two are visiting as they visit The Bigfoot Museum or eat at a restaurant where they serve Bigfoot Burgers (where the buns are shaped like feet) and the people they interact with – Tom Yamerone, a singer/songwriter of Bigfoot tunes and Bigfoot Books proprietor Steve Streufert, among others – are clearly not actors, making for a charmingly authentic experience.
Kelly and Jim are also quite amiable to be around, far from the insipid, one-dimensional characters who usually populate such films. Whereas Jim is the impulsive adventurer for whom a Bigfoot spotting would confirm his general open-mindedness, Kelly clearly admires those qualities because she doesn’t come by them as easily and sees this excursion as an excuse to spend time with her boyfriend. As in all of Goldthwait’s films from “Sleeping Dogs Lie” on, the amount of attention and care that has gone into these characters, as well as the natural performances from longtime collaborators Gilmore and Johnson, make it all the more compelling once the inevitable shock the writer/director has in store for them may leave the audience shaken while the situation and the resulting emotional turmoil still ring true.
While “Willow Creek” doesn’t go as far in that respect as Goldthwait’s straight-up comedies, the film does take its central conceit in some interesting directions, culminating in an anxiety-inducing 19-minute static shot set inside a tent that’s likely to become the film’s trademark. (After the screening of the film I caught at Meltdown Comics in L.A., Goldthwait said during the Q & A, it was accomplished after three takes where he used the third because the actors were no longer freaked out for real.) The film also doesn’t wear out its aesthetic, employing just 67 cuts, according to Goldthwait, and avoiding the herky-jerky style of other found footage films to appear as if it were a real vacation video that someone planning to watch it years later would actually shoot.
The commitment to realism has some minor drawbacks. By incorporating the real citizenry of Willow Creek into the film, the occasional townsperson who warns Kelly and Jim not to go into the woods is a necessary but non-too-subtle reminder that you’re watching a movie and once the stakeout begins, the film can’t avoid some of the tedium that’s a risk of building suspense in these types of films. However, these are minor complaints for what is otherwise a cleverly executed thriller, as intriguing for where it will go as it is to wonder what Goldthwait will do next.