When I first heard that screamy ’80s comedian-turned-director Bobcat Goldthwait had made a found footage Bigfoot horror movie, I was pretty surprised. I mean, if you weren’t already aware that he had made such a film and just read that, what was your response? It doesn’t seem to fit that a guy who’s made some of the most comically provocative films of the last few decades would do an almost total 180 from his career path to make a film that most everyone agrees is in a style that’s gimmicky and played out.
Yet as the lights lowered on “Willow Creek,” it suddenly struck me that Bobcat Goldthwait is the perfect filmmaker to make a found footage horror movie because, judging by his past work, the man is willing and able to show anything on-screen. That’s scary in and of itself, yet in the horror context, the sky is the limit and I got creeped out trying to imagine what he might pull out of his…err…hat.
Here’s a filmmaker that’s written and directed various films featuring an alcoholic clown, a girl fellating a dog, a much loved and extremely hairy comedian in a full-frontal nude scene and a baby tossed up in the air and obliterated by a shotgun. With his latest film, he has a budget that probably cost less than a late model used car and thus no studio or big investors telling him what (or what not) to do. Mixing that with his perverse way of screwing with audience expectations and I became nearly terrified at what Goldthwait might toss up on the screen in “Willow Creek.”
Luckily the film is Goldthwait at his best, mixing painful truths with comedy and skilled filmmaking that adds to the late-blooming terror. While I was never sure what to expect at any moment in the film, never in a million years would it be that Bobcat Goldthwait would turn in one of the best found footage movies ever, as well as one of the most tension filled scenes I’ve seen in a film in some time. “Willow Creek” delivers on every level.
There are many, many things to love about this film. First is the fact that it’s a hybrid documentary/fictional narrative, an idea that is used far too rarely in my estimation. The film starts with young couple Jim (Johnson) and Kelly (Gilmore) trekking to Trinity County, California, to visit the area where Bigfoot was seen in the famous Patterson-Gimlin film of 1967. You know, the footage with the casual looking, well-endowed lady Bigfoot cruising through a camera frame for about three seconds?
Jim is an amateur filmmaker, as well as a Bigfoot enthusiast, whose plan is to film interviews with locals in town before actually camping in the remote spot where Patterson and Gimlin saw the infamous beast, with hopes of capturing similar footage. Trooper girlfriend Kelly is a non-believer who loves Jim, and for that reason alone is along for the ride. The first quarter or so of “Willow Creek” is the couple idly chatting about their relationship as well as filming locals and “famous” places in a tourist town devoted to Bigfoot. It’s a real documentary with actors behind the camera and the results are hilarious and weird. The footage and comfy, natural acting also sets the mood for the film and allows it steady ground to start out on.
Eventually the film morphs as real actors give “interviews” warning Jim and Kelly that looking for Bigfoot is no joke and that the wilderness is still the wild and no place for yuppie thrill seekers. But still, the conceit of Johnson and Gilmore playing characters making a Bigfoot documentary not only brilliantly sets up the “found footage” device (or, gimmick), it submerges you in the style of the documentary film before giving way to the rest.
Another cool aspect of “Willow Creek” is that for once a found footage film doesn’t employ some silly found footage tagline where remnants of a film were found and constructed by some editor to make a lame movie. The cuts in “Willow Creek” are organic and fit the style while also adding to the realism onscreen. The other effect of this natural, almost lackadaisical, storytelling is that you get a chance to get to know Jim and Kelly, which is a big success because they’re so damned likable. This too is a slick move, as in any good horror film, you have to like the characters or at least care what happens to them and here you definitely do.
Both Gilmore and Johnson look like actors you’ve seen before but not so much that you’re reminded they’re ACTORS throughout the film. As their journey goofily unfolds, I genuinely liked Jim and Kelly and forgot they were actors and this is because… they’re really good actors! Their relationship is totally believable as Goldthwait once again shows his subtle way of telling a story with funny moments that reveal painful truths about human relationships.
Although fairly dorky and slightly annoying as characters, Jim and Kelly are basically nice, innocuous people and the playful way they have with one another, as well as the bizarre world of “Bigfoot City” (or, whatever it’s called), further draw you into the film and put your mind at ease. That is until the two go off the main trail and dreadful terror sets in. From that point on the two become almost prototypical horror movie idiots that beg for you to scream “No! Don’t do that!!” at the screen.
I’m not going to say much about what happens in the film, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t scared and fairly glued to my seat. And obviously everyday people who see this film may not be freaked out for the same reasons as me in that they may not know that Goldthwait is a twisted f**k who might do whatever crosses his mind at any time. No, they’ll be scared because “Willow Creek” is a downright scary ride that’s also a ton of fun. It combines extremely clever filmmaking with great acting and a story that careens from the funny to the painful and then back to funny before pouring on the scares and weirdness. It’s quite a ride and I was a totally satisfied customer by the time the lights came up which, again, I have to admit I was skeptical would happen.
I love all of Goldthwait’s films (except one) but I wasn’t sure what his goal was with “Willow Creek.” I can rest assured now that like any good filmmaker, he wanted to take the audience for a hell of a ride and tell a great story. He has succeeded.