If you know Bobcat Goldthwait at all, chances are it’s from his role as the twitchy Zed from the Police Academy movies or from his stand up comedy specials punctuated by that voice. Yet since the early 90’s he’s shifted his focus to work behind the camera, focusing on black humor. While Goldthwait hasn’t made a full on horror film, he’s specialized in uncomfortable humor that peels away the world’s niceties and exposes dark, damaged souls. His work has been pretty brilliant so far. Not many people could find the funny in shotgunning off a baby’s face or turning a son that died from auto erotic asphyxiation into a celebrity, yet Goldthwait turns these moments into gold. His films take never play it safe, whether it be the choice to take away the mountains of cocaine that keep Robin Williams upright in order to see if he can turn in stellar work (he can) or if a town inhabited by alcoholic clowns can be funny (it most certainly can).
Goldthwait is back and making the plunge into horror, using the found footage subgenre for his story about a young vacationing couple searching for Bigfoot. The story has roots in his own past as Goldthwait admits to an obsession with cryptology since boyhood.
Perhaps it’s the reverence for the subject matter that the most striking aspect of Willow Creek is just how straight forward the film is. Willow Creek cribs its structure and look from Blair Witch Project, simply replacing the mythology of Elly Kedward with that of Sasquatch. One thing the film does improve on is the means of scenes transitioning from one to the next. As Bobcat put it in the post screening Q&A “Who are these ghouls that find these tapes of people being murdered and put the material together in such a nice way?” It’s a subtle technique but if you pick up on it you’ll appreciate what he does.
Willow Creek follows Jim (Bryce Johnson) and Kelly (Alexie Gilmore) as they embark on a trip to retrace the steps of Patterson and Gimlin, the pair that claim to have recorded the best known footage of Bigfoot in 1967. Kelly is the Scully of the two, gently debunking Jim’s obsession at every turn. The charm of Jim’s boyish enthusiasm wears thin as he digs in his heels and refuses to pause and consider the risks they’re taking as they press on. By the time he throws his third mini tantrum you realize they name streets after guys like him, they just all happen to be named “One Way”.
The first half of the film sets up the second, with Jim interviewing locals (real locals, not paid actors. This sets up some hilarious exchanges, such as the twenty year curator of the Bigfoot museum being a non believer. This is akin to going to a church where the priest is an atheist), hitting the local tourist traps and trying to avoid the watchful gaze of pissed off locals that want the pair to get the hell out of dodge. It’s the classic “Found Footage 101” setup yet the film injects enough humor from its leads playful chemistry and the weirdness of the surroundings that it holds your interest.
Just as Willow Creek starts to feel a bit long in the tooth Goldthwait puts together an incredible sequence, one that sucks the viewer right back into the film. Essentially, it takes Heather’s confession scene from Blair Witch and blows it out to an almost twenty minute, single take sequence. Yes, we’ve seen scenes where characters are woken up in the middle of the night but a strange noise in the distance. Goldthwait allows the crucial elements to simmer over an extended stretch of time. You see Jim wilt at the thought of realizing his lifelong dream, realizing what a folly the whole excursion has been. The terror the characters express as the clacking noises and howls come closer and closer feels genuine and exhausting. By the midpoint you’re going to feel this almost imperceptible clutching in your stomach that’s going to be outright unbearable by the time it’s over.
While much of Willow Creek feels like the best found footage film you watched circa 2007, the scene above and Goldthwait’s undeniable strength at mining humor from awful circumstances boost the film. There’s been a run on Sasquatch movies lately (including the found footage Lost Island Tapes) and the common denominator among them is their uniform awfulness. Willow Creek proves that something with an old school feel to it can seem fresh with the right tweaks, and a commitment to character.