I have a huge amount of respect for Bobcat Goldthwait as a filmmaker. With films like “Sleeping Dogs Lie” and “World’s Greatest Dad,” he has always been able to find both the humor and horror in real life. That’s why I was slightly disappointed by his first attempt at making a true horror film. “Willow Creek” is basically “The Blair Sasquatch Project,” but unlike the film it borrows from liberally, the ending falls flat.
Putting a practical spin on the found footage genre, Goldthwait frames “Willow Creek” as a documentary shoot gone wrong. Jim (Bryce Johnson) is the instigator, fulfilling a childhood dream to one-up the famously blurry Patterson-Gimlin film with cold, hard photographic evidence of the existence of Sasquatch, aka Bigfoot. Though Jim calls himself a believer, he approaches the project with a sense of humor and whimsy, enjoying the many tourist traps of the town of Willow Creek with his patient but wholly incredulous girlfriend, Kelly (Alexie Gilmore).
The first half of the film is very nearly an actual documentary because the town and its inhabitants really exist. As far as any of these people know, Jim and Kelly are genuine. Hell, the town economy thrives on tourists enjoying the myriad Bigfoot themed businesses, murals and wood carved statues. Jim interviews believers and skeptics alike and eventually get directions to the exact Patterson-Gimlin film site from a full time Cryptozoologist.
As a sort of ironic foreshadowing, Jim and Kelly manage to piss off a couple of locals with their breezy attitude about the subject. The Bigfoot Jim seeks is the cuddly “Harry and the Hendersons” variety. The locals who believe see Sasquatch as wild, dangerous animals to be feared and respected along with the rest of the wilderness’ inhabitants. Smug city folk like Jim and Kelly are precisely the sort to become preparedness cautionary tales. But Johnson and Gilmore also make Jim and Kelly genuinely amusing and likeable people. You certainly don’t want anything bad to happen to them, even if they seem like they’re asking for it.
The horror kicks in, as it often does, when they encounter a menacing redneck, who warns them to turn back. They are disturbed but undeterred, defiantly finding a back way into the woods to follow the miles long, unmarked route to the film site. What follows is mostly auditory horror, which Goldthwait nails, interspersed with authentic relationship drama. There is a particularly long take (19 minutes) which covers both at once and miraculously manages to keep the tension alive the entire time. But Goldthwait inevitably must commit to the veracity of the monster and it is here that he fails. I don’t want to spoil the ending for you, but trust me when I say it doesn’t live up to the preceding film. It’s definitely worth watching and it’s impressive what Goldthwait and his two leads were able to accomplish with what couldn’t have been much more than a $100 budget and a weekend. But the ending is too abrupt and indecisive to make it a truly great film.