Tuesday, November 11, 2014

From the Archive: Willow Creek (2014)

In 1967, the Patterson-Gimlin film purported to reveal a glimpse of Bigfoot: America’s version of the abominable snowman or yeti.  The film’s authenticity has been debated ever since, with some of the people involved claiming it was a hoax, and others testifying to its veracity.

The found-footage film Willow Creek (2014) takes a likable (and often funny…) young couple on a hiking trip to re-trace the famous steps of filmmakers Roger Patterson and Robert Gimlin in Orleans, California. 

Their hope: to see a Bigfoot or Sasquatch and record it on camera.

In broad, generalized scope Willow Creek is very much like The Blair Witch Project (1999). 

Both films involve local legends.

Both endeavors utilize a similar structural or narrative approach, namely “eyewitness” interviews and hand-held footage. 

The settings are also similar, too -- the woods -- and, finally, both films demonstrate a reluctance to fully resolve their central mystery and showcase anything on screen that might remotely be termed a monster.

And yet despite such numerous similarities, Willow Creek -- directed by Bobcat Goldthwait -- is an original and accomplished piece of genre work.

The film’s dialogue is sharp as a tack, and the third act accomplishes something nearly revolutionary: it generates almost unbearable tension simply by holding the camera on the faces of two scared people as something prowls outside their tent, in the dark. 

A director worried about pacing and movement might hold that shot for three or four minutes at most.

But Goldthwait permits the shot to play out over seventeen minutes or so, and the result is breathtaking. The audience experiences a “real time” sense of horror dawning, growing, and blossoming.

But a word to the cautious about Willow Creek: critics have loved it, and so far the reviews on Amazon.com suggest that audiences hate it. 

On this occasion, I recommend you go with the critical estimation.  Willow Creek is funny and engaging as hell for the first hour, and then it lands in that tent in the woods -- for nearly twenty minutes – and descends into pure terror. 

The horror wouldn’t work so effectively, however, without the sharply observed humor.  By the time you get to that tent interior, you’ll be totally taken with the film’s two stars, and their relationship.  You’ll thus feel authentic concern for them as you go through the same thoughts they do, and at the same time, to boot.

Willow Creek is a lot of fun and a really good found-footage horror movie too, but to embrace it, one must leave expectations of "monsters" and special effects behind.

“I didn’t come all this way to be turned around by that asshole.”

Jim (Bryce Johnson) and Kelly (Alexis Gilmore) head to Willow Creek, “the Bigfoot Capital” of the world, to film a documentary about the Patterson-Gimlin film of 1967.  Jim is obsessed with Bigfoot, though Kim doesn’t believe in the creature. 

They discuss their differences in opinion while posing with Bigfoot statues, eating Bigfoot burgers, and interviewing Bigfoot experts from the region.  They also notice a sign for a missing girl, and jokingly wonder if she was captured by Bigfoot.

After sleeping at the Bigfoot lodge, the couple heads to the woods, but a combative local warns them to go back.

Jim takes an alternate route, and he and Kelly head into the woods. They pitch a tent, and that night Jim proposes to Kelly, despite the fact that she wants to move to Hollywood and become an actress.  He agrees to go with her, if that is her wish.

Then, later that night, they hear strange noises outside their tent. The next morning they flee, but find themselves hopelessly lost.

Their second night in the woods, Kelly and Jim learn the truth about Bigfoot with their own eyes.

“This is a dream I’ve had since I was eight years old.”

The Patterson-Gimlin film may be the ultimate bit of “hucksterism,” a trick that pretends to be real and nearly gets away with it.  

And in some way, Willow Creek knowingly emulates that aesthetic.  The film is both a horror movie and a joke at the same time.  It functions admirably as both.

There’s a cerebral angle to the film as well.  Willow Creek notes the myriad ways that stories like Bigfoot’s make for commercially-successful tourist attractions, places designed to expertly separate the gullible from their hard-earned money. 

Simultaneously, the movie also explores the idea that such cynicism may be a separate thing from the actual existence of Big Foot.

In other words, many profit from the “belief” in Bigfoot.  But that profit doesn’t mean that the creature isn’t real, as the film’s stars learn the hard way. 

We veritably expect to be cynical at every turn these days, and so the possibility of truly encountering something strange like Bigfoot is pretty far off our radar.  This pervasive belief that everything is known, quantified and safe may be the reason that the film's protagonists don’t meaningfully contend with the danger they face until it is far too late.

The film plays with that idea -- that everything and everybody is a joke -- until, finally, everything stops being a joke.

The first half of Willow Creek is wickedly observed. Jim and Kelly comment ironically on all the nutty stuff they witness in Willow Creek, from the novelty Bigfoot burgers, to a mural in which Bigfoot is recruited by locals to work in their gardens (!).  

In the mural, Kelly notes, Bigfoot appears “clinically depressed.”  At another juncture, she looks at the "missing" poster for a local resident, and offers (for the camera) her best "missing" face.

Another terrific scene features John Carpenter regular Peter Jason as a local man whose dog died in an area where Bigfoot has been seen.  He didn’t actually see Bigfoot kill his dog.  He just sort of put two and two together.  The scene plays out as hilarious because, sadly, this kind of “belief” is what passes as evidence in modern America. Jim eats it up, believing the local’s story. But as Kelly point out, the only thing the story proves is that the witness’s dog died.

Willow Creek is really droll, as well, because Jim and Kelly seem to take on sex-specific characteristics as well.  They engage in conversations in this film that my wife and I have also had, on numerous occasions.  Almost literally word-for-word.  Thus, the characters play as real, and more than that, recognizable.

This Bigfoot film is a low-budget film, remember, so there aren’t a lot of weapons in its arsenal, in terms of crafting on-screen horror.  

Perhaps in recognition of that limitation, the film permits the audience’s imagination to do the heavy lifting, and the audacious tent scene -- strange noises stretched out to nearly twenty minutes -- will terrorize some and probably annoy others depending on patience and imagination quotient.  My wife and I were on the edge of our seats.  For me, this is a gamble that pays off for the film.  For one thing, it's different. A studio picture wouldn't take the chance of staying still for so long, or exploring one location for so lengthy a period.

Indeed, you have probably never seen a found-footage horror movie linger so thoroughly in one set-piece.  And indeed, to some extent, that’s what the horror film should really be all about: landing you in a situation where you can’t escape and in which you identify with the imperiled.  Found-footage films are all about a sense of immediacy and urgency; of being in "the moment." And Willow Creek captures that aesthetic beautifully.

Again, Willow Creek is going to divide audiences.  

There are going to be the folks (who also disliked The Blair Witch Project), who suggest it doesn't go anywhere and doesn't show anything.  They will consider the film a long trip to nowhere.

And then there are going to be the folks -- like me, I suppose -- who credit the film for its unconventional alchemy, its sense of humor, and its willingness to commit to its scenario beyond convention, beyond reason, perhaps even beyond sanity.  And for all its humor and commentary on hucksterism, Willow Creek ultimately treads into some transgressive territory that will leave your mind reeling.

And that trick, quite simply, is one that only the best horror films achieve.

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