'Willow Creek' is one of the few worthy found-footage successors to 'Blair Witch'
Willow Creek Dark Sky Films
Director: Bobcat Goldthwait
Screenplay: Bobcat Goldthwait
Starring: Alexie Gilmore and Bryce Johnson
Not rated / 1 hour, 20 minutes
Now playing in limited release and VOD
(out of four)
Of all the found-footage movies to have come along in the 15 years since The Blair Witch Project, Bobcat Goldthwait's Willow Creek is the closest thing to it, in spirit and authenticity, that I've seen yet.
I suspect this is deliberate, as the two films share a similar set-up and structure, and key scenes of Willow Creek share a noticeable resemblance to its 1999 predecessor. It may have taken a decade-and-a-half, but it seems someone has finally learned the lessons of what made Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez's infamous micro-budget horror film so uniquely effective.
This is horror built on sound and suggestion - no jump-scares with clanging musical cues, no horrifying images reflected in a mirror, no visible monsters or terrors anywhere. It brings horror back to its natural, psychological place, where the implications of each event and each moment are as much a reflection of the characters' states of mind as anything else. In both films, the characters are starting with a particular pretense, which completely shapes how they interpret the eerie happenings that they experience later on. In Blair Witch, it was three student filmmakers hiking around Maryland to investigate a local myth, while Willow Creek revolves around a couple heading up to a national forest in Northern California to look for Bigfoot.
Goldthwait roots his story in existing pop-culture tropes, as his co-protagonist Jim (Bryce Johnson) is a true Bigfoot believer and has thus planned a trip to the very site where Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin famously captured that now-iconic image of a supposed Sasquatch walking through the woods (conveniently turning to stare directly at the camera). Jim's girlfriend Kelly (Alexie Gilmore) - the more skeptical of the two, who never hesitates to poke fun at her other half for his faith in the Bigfoot legend - is cheerfully along for the ride. The two take turns with their camcorder as they travel around the local area near Willow Creek - documenting their road trip, interviewing the locals, bickering, etc. - before finally making their way to the Patterson/Gimlin site, camping gear in tow. (After, needless to say, being warned away by a scary-looking local fellow.)
There is a scene that truly puts the film over the top, and which demonstrates a sense of restraint and purpose often lacking in other found-footage entries - or low-budget horror movies in general, for that matter.
It's a scene that takes place entirely inside Jim and Kelly's tent, from a fixed angle, in the middle of the night. The two have already gone to bed, but a noise outside has awoken them. It's probably nothing, they tell each other. But they sit there (by this point Jim has turned the camera on), growing more wide awake by the moment, their fear and agitation getting more palpable the stranger and more frequent these noises become. And the closer they come to the tent. Here, again, Goldthwait evokes The Blair Witch Project, whose most suspenseful scenes were built on the anonymous rustling of trees and branches outside the students' tent, without any answer as to what (or who) was actually lingering outside.
This film accomplishes the same thing, with Jim and Kelly holding each other - trying to be as silent as possible, but periodically letting off a yelp, or whispering too loud - as they try to determine what it could be that's making all that noise. They hear some kind of high-pitched howling - a sound they've never heard before - and they wonder whether it could possibly be coming from a human. They consider the possibility that someone is merely playing a trick on them - maybe, the audience is meant to wonder, that guy who warned them away from the woods earlier in the afternoon. Once again, the characters' psychology is what's important here - all they've been talking about is Bigfoot. All they've heard from locals are the tales of those who have supposedly encountered it. But it could be anything. It could be aliens, for all we (or they) know. Or bears. Or wolves. Or Godzilla.
Whatever the case may be, something seems to be hovering around their tent. Leaves crunch, branches snap, something scurries this way and that, and at one point it even seems to lean directly against their tent. Curiously, when the couple briefly turns off the light of the camera, whatever is hovering around them gets closer, more confident - until Jim turns the camera back on, at which point it races back in the other direction.
This scene is made up of either one or two shots (the screen goes to black when Jim turns off the camera, so I imagine there's a hidden cut in there) and it lasts anywhere from 25-40 minutes of the film's 80-minute runtime. I couldn't keep an exact count. In any case, it's a bold move on Goldthwait's part, and what makes it really effective is how unexpectedly (for Jim and Kelly, especially) it disrupts the rhythm of the story. Up to that point, we'd seen a perfectly amiable but relatively familiar video travelogue, with only the tiniest of hints that anything strange might be afoot later on. But then this scene comes along - and it begins unassumingly enough, but it just keeps on going, and the sounds outside keep on growing, and the moment becomes more and more tense.
In all honesty, "found footage" and "directed by Bobcat Goldthwait" are not among my favorite phrases, so I count Willow Creek as a most welcome surprise. Goldthwait has taken a genre so often mishandled and essentially brought it back to its roots, creating a kind of primal horror in which the most frightening things are the ones that remain unseen.