The legend of Bigfoot is one that has mystified and challenged followers for decades. Many believe that the mostly unseen creatures live in forests across the nation, avoiding human contact at all cost. Many have gone on expeditions searching for the elusive creature. Most have come back empty-handed. However, the characters in writer-director Bobcat Goldthwait’s new film “Willow Creek” are determined to find the truth. When Jim (Bryce Johnson) and his girlfriend Kelly (Alexie Gilmore) drive out to Willow Creek in search of some answers regarding the existence of Bigfoot, they discover a lot more than they expected. Jim is a lifelong believer and the trip is a dream come true. Kelly, on the other hand, refuses to acknowledge even the possibility of Bigfoot and has absolutely no desire to go camping in the deep woods.
Through interviews with town locals, Jim and Kelly are able to discover the exact spot where a group of locals spotted and filmed Bigfoot. The incident has gone down as one of the only recorded Bigfoot sightings in history, and Jim is desperate to see if he can recreate the scenario that he’s heard so much about. Despite warnings from town locals telling the couple to turn around, Jim is determined to stand in the very spot that Bigfoot once stood with the hopes that he can catch a glimpse of his furry friend.
Before we approach “Willow Creek” critically, I think it’s important to endure a quick reiteration of what horror, and more specifically found footage, is supposed to accomplish. When “The Blair Witch Project” first hit theaters in 1999, it completely revolutionized the way we watch horror movies. There were plenty of people who went to see the film thinking it was real, and it was a legend that carried through to the next generation, one that even convinced me when I first watched the film in 2007. “The Blair Witch Project” is considered a classic today not because of how realistic it is, or how convincing it is as a piece of “true” found footage. Instead, a film like “The Blair Witch Project” can be considered a classic because of everything that happened next.
The film was an unexpected hit, grossing hundreds of millions of dollars worldwide, and spawning an infinite number of knock-offs that are still being produced 15 years later. But what exactly made it so popular? Watching the film now, it’s not exactly a conventional horror film in the sense that nothing in it is particularly terrifying. Instead, the film is immersed in a feeling of dread that cannot be shaken for its excruciatingly tense 83 minute running time. Brilliantly, the film sets up that the three film students who were making a documentary on The Blair Witch have all been reported missing and that the footage was the only thing found.
Already, this sets up two implications. One, whoever kidnapped or killed these kids wanted the footage to be found. Anyone smart enough to murder three people without barely lifting a finger also probably knows how to dispose of a camera and, judging by the film’s final moments, easily could have. The simple fact that he didn’t makes everything leading up to the final scene that much more terrifying; you can practically feel his eyes watching them from afar. The second is that no matter how hopeful or close to salvation these characters get, they are doomed to die by the time the movie wraps up. In a sense, the filmmakers are almost mocking their attempts at survival, and it creates this sadistic relationship between the screen and the audience where neither is able to communicate with each other to such an extreme point that the audience almost wants to see the characters meet their unfortunate demise, if only to have them put out of their misery. Today, all of these ingenuities have turned into tropes that are lazily inserted into every found footage film known to man for reasons that really don’t even make sense anymore. What was once innovative is now, like almost every other trope in cinema, tired and recycled garbage.
But what separates found footage films from the deluge of other horror sub-genres is that it not only relies on an element of surprise, but an element of chaos. It’s the most intimate shooting style there is because, even though characters aren’t necessarily breaking the fourth wall, they are often seen speaking directly to the camera, commenting on the camera, and fiddling with the camera in irritatingly shaky ways. In other words, there’s a voyeuristic aspect to found footage that is not found in most other horror films, one that contributes to that sadistic relationship mentioned above. Instead of watching a constructed scene with intention and direction, the viewer feels as if he’s unearthed a box of creepy tapes in his cousin’s basement. What happens next is always a mystery. What happens next cannot be controlled by you, me, or the characters. We are at the mercy of the direction of the lens, and there’s absolutely nothing we can do to save them – complete and utter chaos.
The characters, on the other hand, are often ones that enter a situation expecting one thing, but leave the situation having experienced another. Actually, let me rephrase that, they die having experienced another. The unassuming nature of almost every character in every found footage film establishes the notion that “this could be you.” When done correctly, it’s what takes a found footage film from being scary to utterly traumatizing. When done incorrectly, it threatens to eat away at the fabric of what makes the film frightening in the first place. This idea of the element of chaos applies to both the chaotic nature of the situation, as well as the chaotic nature of the selection process. Instead of setting up characters to be part of some very powerful, very specific prophecy or plan or list or order, the characters in found footage films are often normal people who, as I said, enter a situation with an expectation that is never reflected accurately. This is the issue with most horror sequels. They try so hard to work within the rules established in the original films, and in doing so find themselves rationalizing and explaining the supposed “randomness” of the original, thereby deflating all the tension and vacuuming out what ever thrills were left.
Keep in mind that this is the intent of found footage and rarely the result. Films like “Paranormal Activity” have also become popular because of a focus on an inescapable chaos that infects the lives of an otherwise normal family. At this point the industry has become saturated with copycat films that have attempted to recreate this phenomenon, and it’s important to note that found footage is often utilized in conjunction with the supernatural, but there’s an art and balance to found footage that is often lost on most filmmakers and, unfortunately, most audiences. Neither is really sure what they want, and in the end the final product is a compilation of ideas used to better effect in other films, but also a lifeless and uninspired collection of shaky, unfocused images that are strung together with no regard for the craft of decent horror.
“Willow Creek” is, by all accounts, a fairly standard horror film, one that exists in the most maligned sub-genre of horror to ever be committed to celluloid, and it’s for this very reason that Goldthwait should have ditched the slow-burn formula of so many found footage films and tried something completely different. Films like the “V/H/S” series, “The Sacrament,” and “Chronicle” are keeping found footage alive for now. However, as the ideas get bigger and the cameras get smaller, there seems to be room for a second wave of found footage to come around eventually. As of right now, most found footage has become little more than an excuse for horror filmmakers to cash in on an exceedingly popular trend with films that often require less than a million dollars, and absolutely no creative vision, to make. The returns are often limitless.
While this was almost certainly not Goldthwait’s intention, his film says otherwise. He plays on a number of classic tropes, but never makes any attempt to comment on them or use his wry wit to subvert expectations like he has in previous efforts. Instead, he basks in the cliches of the many, better “lost in the woods” movies that have preceded this one. Do we ever see the monster? No, of course not. Do both of the characters die off-screen? Yes, they do. Is there an ambiguous ending that is open to multiple interpretations, in the hopes that viewers will debate the film hours after the credits have rolled? You bet your ass there is. But again, what does all of this achieve? Nothing, really. What “Willow Creek” lacks is direction, discipline, and a compelling cast of characters to establish the intimate setting it so desperately craves. Adopting the slow-burn technique that has been recently put to good use by directors like Adam Wingard and Ti West, Goldthwait’s “Willow Creek” cannot, no pun intended, hold a candle to the work of these two budding filmmakers. At some point, it seems that Goldthwait forgot that, to have a slow burn, you actually have to light a fuse.
Goldthwait spends the first forty minutes of the film developing the relationship between Jim and Kelly, displaying their strengths and weaknesses as a couple but also continually defining their fundamental differences. Jim is an eager, open-minded adventurer while Kelly is a cynical homebody, but Goldthwait seems so determined to establish this that he doesn’t allow the actors any room to breathe. Most of the dialogue seems like it was improvised, but Goldthwait pushes the conversations, and the film, into the same direction scene after scene; so much so that he might as well have just written a script. Every conversation in the film is obviously poised to reveal one character trait about each of the two leads, and it becomes so repetitive and dull that it completely deflates any dramatic tension between them.
“Willow Creek” is already predictable enough seeing that it’s almost literally a beat-for-beat remake of “The Blair Witch Project,” but it doesn’t help that the two leads carrying the film have so little to work with beyond what the scene requires, forcing the chemistry into an unbalanced and near non-existent perdition where it is left to die a slow and painful death. Bryce Johnson’s performance is mediocre at best, and Alexie Gilmore, who has always done good work with Goldthwait, is saddled with carrying the film for its entire 80 minute runtime. Her performance is some of the best work she’s done so far, and it’s great to see her finally taking on a lead role. However, it’s a shame that it had to be this particular film.
The film’s only saving grace is an excellent 17-minute, unbroken static shot that could have easily been a legendary short film. Goldthwait builds tension in one of the most unique ways I’ve seen in a horror film, and it’s this very scene that makes the rest of “Willow Creek” so unfulfilling. The truth is, Bobcat Goldthwait really is a talented and inventive director. “World’s Greatest Dad” is one of the best American comedies of the 21st century, and while “God Bless America” never quite lived up to that standard, there was still a bravery and inventiveness that continued to display Goldthwait’s cinematic fearlessness. “Willow Creek,” on the other hand, has none of the trademarks of Goldthwait’s best work, and is indicative of nothing subtextual beyond the flimsy gender politics it introduces throughout much of the first act.
Jim and Kelly should not be together and they should definitely not, under any circumstances, be in the woods. One could argue that, when all is said and done, that’s the point of the film, but even if it is, it doesn’t make for very compelling cinema. At some points, “Willow Creek” hints at the possibility of subversion, but it never seems to have the bravery, or the ingenuity, to make it there. Bobcat Goldthwait is an important filmmaker, one who needs to keep making films, but “Willow Creek” can’t help but feel like a cheap side project that’s just a warmup for the real thing. Given the opportunity, I’d be truly interested to see what Goldthwait’s second foray into horror would look like, but only if I never have to see “Willow Creek” ever again.Continue Reading Issue #6
Summer 2014 (check local listings)
1 hr. 20 min.
Alexie Gilmore, Bryce Johnson