An Elaborate Hoax? by Craig Schroeder
In just four feature films, Bobcat Goldthwait has addressed clown murder, bestiality, auto-erotic asphyxiation and spree killers. Comedically, of course. I don’t mean to be hyperbolic when I say this, but Bobcat Goldthwait may be the most dangerous writer-director working. Each of his films have a sense of cultural urgency, couched in a premise that is as uncomfortable to discuss amongst friends as it is to watch on the big screen with strangers. Given his prior films, it seems bizarre that Goldthwait would make a relatively straight-forward, found-footage horror movie about Bigfoot. But that’s just what he’s done with Willow Creek; and (somehow) it fits perfectly into Goldthwait’s oeuvre of charming, yet horrifying, films.
Willow Creek is a found-footage film in the most pure sense. Unlike, recent bastardizations of the sub-genre–wherein the “found” footage is expertly stitched together, begging the question: who edited this?–Willow Creek plays out precisely like a piece of discovered amateur film. The subjects are Jim (Bryce Johnson) and Kelly (Alexie Gilmore), a young couple headed to the Pacific Northwest to fulfill Jim’s dream: retrace the steps taken by Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin, famed Sasquatch enthusiasts, when they captured their infamous 1967 Bigfoot footage. Jim believes in the creature, Kelly doesn’t. But together they head into the woods in search of the mythical beast.
Willow Creek, first and foremost, is wonderfully frightening. Granted, it borrows several story beats from 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, but manages to subvert any audience expectations created by the seminal found-footage film. Just like Heather and Mike in The Blair Witch Project, Jim and Kelly are awoken in their tent by cracking sticks and faint moans. But what Goldthwait does with this trope, seems to defy how horror movies can operate; what follows is a nineteen minute, uninterrupted, static shot of Jim and Kelly, simply listening in terror as unseen mayhem unfolds outside of their tent. It shouldn’t be scary, but it’s horrifying. What seems like an eye-rolling gimmick is actually one of the most terrifying cinematic moments of the last few years.
If Goldthwait’s films have a defining characteristic, it’s a general love for humanity (even if that means he has to bend us over his knee and beat the shit out us with a switch from the backyard). Willow Creek lacks some of the cultural criticism and insight of Goldthwait’s past films, but his love for mankind perseveres. Jim and Kelly, despite each of their eccentricities and flaws, are never judged by Goldthwait or the film. Kelly thinks Jim and the other Bigfoot enthusiasts profiled in the film are a bit misguided, but she allows them their beliefs. Jim is bothered by Kelly’s skepticism, but loves her all the same. I would imagine Goldthwait falls somewhere in between, but the care he’s given to these two characters, regardless if he agrees with them, is what gives the film weight.
Despite establishing a firm foothold in the horror genre, Willow Creek isn’t without Goldthwait’s humor, often saving it from cliche-riddled narrative trappings. Before Jim and Kelly venture out into the woods, they interview the townsfolk about Bigfoot, including a skeptical innkeeper, a very odd gas station attendant and the “Bob Dylan of Bigfoot,” a chubby man in tube socks who sings folk-songs about Sasquatch. This is another familiar device, but Willow Creek does it with a sense of joy and glee, whereas those same scenes in The Blair Witch Project are fairly joyless, usually existing as a means to download the audience with information. Willow Creek injects humor and fun into scenes where a writer without Goldthwait’s sense of humor could not, making the build up to the eventual scares more than just the obligatory exposition dump.
I very clearly remember the first time I ever saw that infamous Patterson-Gimlin Bigfoot footage. I was at my grandparents house, and they were watching an “Unsolved Mysteries” type program and there it was. I was a small boy, but I remembered how it made me feel; my core temperature changed as I watched a video of something that couldn’t possibly be. Since, I’ve grown into a more discerning adult, one who doesn’t believe in Bigfoot and sees that same footage as laughably fake. I don’t believe in bigfoots, but a horror film done right can make me fear just about anything. Bobcat Goldthwait’s Willow Creek is the first film in quite some time to give me those foundation shaking, temperature-changing scares.