[6 June 2014]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Growing up in the ‘60s and ‘70s, urban legends and regional folklore were a big deal, and none were bigger than the hairy man-ape known as Bigfoot. From the moment Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin supposedly captured an ambling Sasquatch on film during a 1967 excursion into the Northern California wilderness, we pre and post adolescents were obsessed. We poured over Chariots of the Gods like treatises, watched as many documentaries, TV specials, and docudramas as we could. We even lined up for such exploitation epics as Charles B. Pierce’s The Legend of Boggy Creek. Before the shark in Jaws, any kid who lived near a forest or heavily wooded area believed there was a foul-smelling ‘thing’ within, laying in wait, hoping to capture some stupid kid dumb enough to wander into its well protected territory.
All throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, the Bigfoot legend grew. Books and TV shows, proposed scientific investigations and frequent sightings became the norm, with everyone discussing their own regional version of the skunk ape/bayou beast legend. Then the Internet arrived, giving believers a forum to compare notes while skeptics spent countless hours debunking such truths. Today, Sasquatch is part prop, part problem. Areas used to making money of the creature have seen their fortunes turn while reality television has taken all the bite out of so-called “experts.” Bigfoot has become a punchline, not a potent piece of evolutionary interest.
Into this complicated fray comes comedian turned filmmaker Bobcat Goldthwait and his found footage horror film, Willow Creek. Ostensibly about a couple looking for the mythic beast, there’s also a sneaky subtext about the carnival barking that’s become associated with the creature. As a fright film, it’s effective. As a commentary - well, we could have used more of it. When we meet Jim (Bryce Johnson) and Kelly (Alexie Gilmore), they are preparing to travel to the same location where Patterson and Gimlin got their famed footage. He wants to make a documentary on the monster. She’s a skeptic and darn proud to call him out as a kook.
For the first 30 minutes or so, we watch as the duo deconstruct The Blair Witch Project approach to moviemaking. We get the interpersonal conversations meant to set up the characters. We see interviews with individuals who either know about the beast or who give off a vibe that can only be described as “creepy.” There’s also jabs at the endless merchandising of Bigfoot, including slavery suggesting murals, oversized greasy hamburgers, tacky souvenirs, and horrible hand carved statuary. There’s even a moment when the couple, about to embark on their journey into the woods, meets up with the standard redneck voice of doom and gloom. Warning them against continuing their investigation, there’s a real feeling of danger in the air.
For his part, Goldthwait embraces the filmmaking gimmick without going overboard into the Paul Greengrass/‘everything must move’ camera jitters arena. During the opening act, the lens is mobile, but never to excess. Even as Jim and Kelly trek through the forest, things remain normal, not nausea inducing. Then our director does something really brave. Like Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick, who used nightfall and its accompanying darkness to play with audience expectations and fears, Goldthwait simply sets up his camera, and lets two actors play frightening for twenty terrifying minutes straight. No cuts. No obvious edits. Just random noises inching ever closer to the duo’s tent. The tension built here is beyond palpable. Even the payoff, which comes quickly and efficiently, argues for the approach.
The rest of the movie is a bit of a letdown after this. Our pair find themselves lost in the woods, unable to leave. They discover some kind of “hair” on a tree stump. We are then treated to the endless nagging of Kelly with Jim’s still hopeful inanity. By the time night falls again, the sudden conclusion is confusing. We are supposed to understand via various sensory clues what is going on, but it still a bit too ambiguous. It’s as if Goldthwait understood that he’d have to either stand and deliver or simply let the found footage premise play out. Like its Burkittsville counterpart, there are ways to interpret what happens. Unlike what Myrick and Sanchez showed (that still haunting image of a man standing solitary in a darkened basement corner), Goldthwait’s imagery is elusive. It doesn’t lend itself to the creation of movie myth. Instead, it’s matter of fact, and relatively sedate.
When you consider his previous output, from Shakes the Clown to Sleeping Dogs Lie, World’s Greatest Dad and God Bless America, you’d never expect this from Goldthwait. There’s no perversion, no attempt to tweak social conventions while adding an unique perspective and/or observation along the way. Instead, this is a straight forward horror romp, albeit one with a bit of satire toward the start. Once we get into the woods, it’s fear factors o’plenty. In fact, with such a reputation preceding him, one imagines a last minute appearance by a demented clown, or a reveal that casts Bigfoot as some kind of CIA spy. But by caving into the convention, Goldthwait may have made his most avant-garde decision yet.
Willow Creek works because the filmmaker believes in his abilities. He doesn’t try to circumvent expectations so much as meet and then exceed them. He knows what he’s doing, and as a result, the movie delivers. Is it one of the scariest movies ever? Not really. Are there moments when the meet cute aspects of Kelly and Jim’s relationship start to wear on you? Absolutely. Could there have been a bit more clarity in what happens at the conclusion? Sure. Would any of this made the movie any better? Who knows. One of the best things about Willow Creek is that it represents someone’s unwavering vision, and in today’s commodity oriented movie marketplace, that’s unusual indeed.