D: Bobcat Goldthwait / 80m Cast: Alexie Gilmore, Bryce Johnson, Laura Montagna, Bucky Sinister, Tom Yamarone, Troy Andrews
Riffing on the legend of Bigfoot, Willow Creek is yet another entry in the overstuffed found footage genre. Jim (Johnson) and his girlfriend Kelly (Gilmore) are making a trip to the spot where the famous Patterson-Gimlin footage of a sasquatch-type creature was shot in 1967. Other than the fact that Jim is a big fan of the hairy biped, there seems no real reason for them to make the journey, as Kelly is a non-believer, and there are signs that their relationship isn’t as strong as it might be (though it’s intimated that Jim hopes to find the creature and film it as well). Making a variety of stops along the way, Jim and Kelly head further and further into Bigfoot country, and despite an angry warning from one of the locals, head for the trail that will be the start of their trek to Bluff Creek.
As they approach the trail, another local stops them and tells them to turn around; intimidated but still determined, Jim takes another route to the trail. He and Kelly begin to head into the forest. By nightfall they still haven’t reached the creek and so make camp. During the night they are woken by strange sounds coming from the forest. They also hear what sounds like a woman crying. Soon they hear footsteps outside their tent, and the tent is shaken by whatever is there. The next morning they head back to the head of the trail but become lost. With nightfall quickly approaching, they find themselves at the mercy of whatever it is that inhabits the forest.
Willow Creek makes a valiant effort to return to the halcyon days of the found footage genre, when The Blair Witch Project (1999) made such an impact, but in simplifying both its story and its presentation, the end result is largely unremarkable. Jim and Kelly as a couple are likeable enough, though Jim – in the grand tradition of this kind of movie – behaves like an unfeeling idiot far too many times, and as the movie ventures further into the wilderness, writer/director Goldthwait throws in a left field moment that undermines their relationship even further. It’s certainly a first for the genre but lacks sincerity, and will have viewers wondering if there was a point to even including it.
Frustratingly, the movie spends so much time getting Jim and Kelly into harm’s way that when they finally are, it’s almost a relief. It seems that the couple visit every Bigfoot-related tourist trap and “expert” in the entire Orleans, California area (including the very real Tom Yamarone; his song, “Roger and Bob (Rode Out That Day)” is the movie’s unexpected highlight). It’s also here that Goldthwait makes a grievous error in judgment and signals way in advance just what Jim and Kelly are going to encounter once they get to the forest. Even if you’ve seen just a handful of similar movies, you’ll be able to work it out, and being put “in the know” so far in advance has the effect of robbing the movie of any subsequent tension; you’ll just be waiting for your suspicions to be proved correct – and they will be.
There’s an impressive eighteen-minute scene that is comprised solely of a medium shot of Jim and Kelly in their tent on the first night. As the noises outside grow more and more unnerving and frightening, Goldthwait’s decision to hold the camera on them for so long pays off (though Jim seems not to be too bothered by what’s happening). It’s a bravura scene, and Goldthwait milks it for all it’s worth. Afterwards though, the movie hurries towards its conclusion, and the entirely predictable ending feels rushed and a concession to the budget.
Light on real scares, and low on atmosphere, Willow Creek is a laudable effort to return to genre basics, but achieves its remit at the expense of characters you can care about, and any distinct threat. Goldthwait directs with a clear affection for, and knowledge of, the genre but is let down by the weaknesses in his own script. With average performances from Gilmore and Johnson, Willow Creek is only fitfully engaging and will leave you wondering what all the fuss is about.
Rating: 5/10 – with its first half entrenched firmly in “warning” territory, Willow Creek doesn’t follow through with the scares it needs to ensure it stands out from the crowd; not bad, but not great either.