Bobcat Goldthwait’s new film Willow Creek is a marvel. It’s a found footage movie, a somewhat tarnished word in genre films nowadays, that actually manages to be scary, suspenseful, and innovative. It’s no surprise, however, when considering what a provocative filmmaker Bobcat* has proven himself to be over the years. Whether it’s a movie about oral sex on a dog (Sleeping Dogs Lie), Robin Williams cashing in on the autoerotic asphyxiation death of his son (World’s Greatest Dad) or a terminally ill man gleefully murdering repugnant symbols of the U.S. (God Bless America), the filmmaker has consistently pushed the constraints of the black comedy into darker depths. When it was announced he’d be taking on Bigfoot in a found footage movie, the only thing to expect was the unexpected.
And that’s exactly what Bobcat has delivered with Willow Creek, a movie that not only manages to be a genuine scare, but also an endearing ode to Bigfoot mythology and the colorful characters who embrace the alleged beast. Bobcat is a self-proclaimed Bigfoot enthusiast and it shows in the film. He’s not laughing at the real-life citizens of Willow Creek, the Bigfoot capitol of the world, as they tell their personal yarns about the creature (or sing about it). This love of the subject matter elevates the film’s realism and its suspense later on.
Our guides through Bigfoot country are Jim (Bryce Johnson) and Kelly (Alexie Gilmore), a young couple who travel to Willow Creek so Jim can feed his lifelong love of the Bigfoot myth. For the first half of the film, Jim interviews locals (presumably for an amateur documentary) while Kelly begrudgingly goes along for the ride. She scoffs at the legend every chance she gets, though she must find something endearing in Jim’s love of it, or else she wouldn’t be tagging along. The locals they meet are a mix of the charmingly bizarre and shockingly normal, but whether they believe in Bigfoot or not, there’s no doubting this town takes the legend very seriously.
The suspense kicks in during the second half, when Jim and Kelly head deep into the surrounding forest in search of the spot where Roger Patterson and Rob Gimlin captured their infamous Bigfoot footage back in 1967 – 18 seconds of film that have sparked nearly 50 years of debate. The manner in which Bobcat builds up suspense is the very definition of slow-burn. During a nearly 20-minute long static take, the couple is terrorized in their tent in the middle of the night by god-knows-what. This remarkable sequence has some of the most effective sound design in a horror flick I’ve experienced in a while. I think everyone should go into this movie fresh as possible, so I won’t give any more details about the aural barrage that goes down. It is a brilliant and downright creepy sequence though.
What also helps makes Willow Creek so suspenseful in parts is that Jim and Kelly are incredibly likable. After spending the first half of the movie listening to their (believable) patter and talk about their aspirations, we want them to survive the night. One of the biggest problems in horror nowadays is the unlikable characters with absolutely no chemistry that we’re supposed to root for just because they’re getting killed (hey, just like in that other Bigfoot found footage movie Happy Camp that came out recently!). Spending the time to make us care about this couple is one of the wisest choices Bobcat made.
The suspense and atmosphere of dread lead up to an abrupt climax that is going to confuse the pants off of many. It reminded me of Enemy‘s sudden ending, a recent example of how to leave an audience wondering what the hell they just saw while also changing how they think about the movie. Willow Creek‘s closing minute baffled me as well, but after a quick Google search, I was satisfied to learn how it fits into the larger Bigfoot mythology. The ending, however, is a bit too abrupt for my tastes. After building up such a cool landscape with fun characters, to have it end as quickly as it did was kind of disappointing. The insane ending is wholly amazing, I just wish they had spent more time getting there.
Willow Creek proves that the life hasn’t been completely drained from found footage. It’s mix of charismatic characters, real Bigfoot lore, and atmospheric suspense (that sound design!) creates one helluva entertaining and scary ride. In my opinion Bobcat can take on any genre in any form after this one.
* In writing, the standard approach is to typically write out someone’s whole name first, then when you refer to them again, just use their surname. But it’s way too hard not to refer to the dude as just “Bobcat.”