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Hairy on the outside
Another day, another found footage horror. But WILLOW CREEK, Bobcat Goldthwait's alternative take on The Blair Witch Project, is well made, involving, and actually had Gort chewing his fingernails in fear.
 

Sasquatch, like cumquat and butternut squash, is one of those silly sounding terms that you'd think was made up by an immature amateur linguist. Mind you, the colloquial alternative, 'Bigfoot', isn't much better. That's a human characteristic, and a far from intimidating one. I've got a big foot. Two of them, as it happens, and I'm not that scary. Oh wait a minute, according to my partner I am after all. But as a moniker for a potential monster, it just doesn't have the threat value of something horribly descriptive like Black Widow Spider or the suggestive Latin of Tyrannosaurus Rex. Look out, there's a Bigfoot coming. Tell me that and it would probably get me because instead of running away I'd be laughing hard enough to piss my pants.

But get past the name and you have one of those folklore tales out of which beliefs have grown, in this case thanks largely to film footage shot in 1967 by Roger Patterson and Robert Gimlin of a big hairy man-thing walking off into the woods in Bluff Creek, California. It's America's own Loch Ness Monster, a creature whose existence has neither been proven nor disproven and whose legitimacy hangs largely on a single suspect piece of audio-visual evidence.

Jim Kessel is a believer. His girlfriend Kelly is not. But game girl that she is, she's agreed to accompany him on a birthday hike to Willow Creek (which is near to Bluff Creek and a likely sasquatch stomping ground) in the hope of capturing a glimpse of this elusive creature. Our Jim's not in the least bit dissuaded by Kelly's cheerful cynicism or the fact that no hard evidence has ever been found to back up the Patterson-Gimlin footage. He's even taken a camcorder with him to shoot the whole trip as an amateur documentary.

Yes, Willow Creek is a found footage horror, and yes, it follows that sub-genre's restrictive formula largely to the letter. Thus when Kelly expresses her belief that the legend is all hooey, we just know she'll be given cause later to feast on her words. We're not in the least bit surprised when her cell phone signal dies, and she even winks at the audience by proclaiming that this is "the beginning of every horror movie." Oh, ha ha. And we know how it's going to end, goddammit, because just about every bloody found footage horror ends the same way. It probably doesn't help that, in terms of its key components, Willow Creek feels organically bonded to The Blair Witch Project, the film that kick-started the sub-genre in the first place. And as we know only too well, every witless would-be filmmaker with no budget and a video camera, including half the media students in the western world, has made their own shitty Blair Witch knock-off. Seriously, this long after the event, do we really need another?

Well hold on there a second. That Willow Creek is not swimming in originality is obvious even before you sit down to watch it. Take a look at the premise. But this is no opportunistic cash-in, but a thoughtful rethink of the Blair Witch setup. First up, Jim and Kelley are genuinely likeable individuals and believable as a couple. This makes a real difference later. Secondly, their would-be documentary footage, with its iffy framing and wobbly pans, really does have the feel of amateurs having a first stab at filmmaking rather than pros pretending to be amateurs by waving the camera around like they have wasps in their undies. Not only that, the Bigfoot-themed locations they visit are all real places (I can't be the only one who really fancies getting his teeth into one of those Bigfoot burgers) and some of their interviewees are the genuine article. Thus their journey into Bigfoot country is not only interesting, it actually has real documentary value. By the time the film is ready to start cranking up the tension, we actually have some investment in the characters and their adventure.

The first threat is an unexpectedly tangible one, a roughneck hillbilly who stops them on the path to the Patterson-Gimlin film site and suggests, in that special way local bullies have of intimidating outsiders, that they fuck off back to town. It's a nicely pitched performance by an actor credited with the unlikely name of Bucky Sinister – his aggressive parting slap on Jim's shoulder is particularly authentic and appropriately intimidating. Not wanting to get stomped by this human ape, Jim and Kelly decide it would be prudent to look for a different way in.

By the time they set up camp in the woods we're back in more recognisable genre territory, and a quick swim in a nearby river gives someone or something all the time they need to toss the camp asunder. But it's when night falls that comedian turned director Bobcat Goldthwait – he of World's Greatest Dad and God Bless America – pulls a masterstroke that I still can't believe works as well as it does. Following a surprisingly touching scene of proposal and commitment hesitance, Jim wakes in the night convinced he can hear a knocking sound in the distance, his uncertain expression captured by the camera and a small light he has set up to record his reaction. At first Kelly hears nothing and neither do we. Go back to sleep, she tells him. But soon she is hearing something too, something odd but ambiguous. Could it be human? A forest animal? What exactly was that long and unearthly moan? Wait a minute, is that a woman sobbing? There's definitely something out there. And it's getting closer. A lot closer.

It's territory the sub-genre has explored many times before, but Goldthwait takes a real gamble here by staying on this static shot of the couple's reaction to whatever the hell is going on outside for a frankly staggering 17 minutes (the film itself is only 76 minutes long, including the end credits). It really shouldn't work. We should get bored and start reaching for the fast-forward button. But we don't. By not cutting away, he places us in the tent with Jim and Kelly and invites us to experience what they're going through on an empathic level. And oh boy does it work. The longer the shot went on, the more wound-up I became. Sound and silence are both impeccably used here, the extended moments of quiet anticipation putting you increasingly on edge for whatever will hit next. And serious kudos to lead players Bryce Johnson and Alexie Gilmore, who over the course of that 17 minutes make the transformation from curious to petrified so convincingly that I completely forgot I was watching actors at work.

It's a bit of a shame that the film then reverts to formula for a finale that, despite some hair-raising moments and a disturbing suggestion about a missing girl, is largely out of the do-it-yourself found footage horror movie kit. But Willow Creek still ably demonstrates that, in the right hands, this much maligned and too often poorly executed sub-genre is still capable of spinning an involving tale and delivering its share of serious scares.

sound and vision

OK, we're looking at a DVD rather than a Blu-ray here, despite the fact that the footage was shot on a prosumer HD camcorder. But this is one sub-genre that SD still feels absolutely right for, taking the edge of the high-def sharpness and giving it what we still tend to think of as a more amateur video feel. And in all other respects this is a great looking transfer. The contrast is well balanced, the low light footage clear, and the occasional burned-out highlights par for the prosumer HD course. Colour is naturalistic when the light levels allow, and the detail is damned good for an SD transfer. There is some occasional image stuttering, but it's confined to a few specific shots, so I'm assuming this is a glitch on the original footage or an effect added in post. The framing is 1.78:1 and the image is anamorphically enhanced.

You can choose between Dolby 2.0 stereo and Dolby 5.1 surround, but the difference is in the fine tuning. Both are effectively stereo tracks and both have clear reproduction of the dialogue and effects, which is appropriate to the recording format and the faux documentary style (Jim is seen setting up a decent quality mic in the opening scene), but the 5.1 feels a little fuller than the 2.0. Full surround sound would have definitely been scarier during the 17-minute tent shot, but not as authentic, and the stereo separation is still effective here.

There are no subtitle options.

extra features

Trailer (1:08)
A reasonably good sell, but worth saving for later if you want to get the best out of the 17 minute tent shot.

Tom Yamarone Interview and Song (4:34)
An alternative take of Jim interviewing local man Tom Yamarone, who again performs the oddly catchy 'Roger and Bob Rode Out That Day' song he delivers in the film proper, this time without a stumble.

Bigfoot's Footprints (10:56)
One long behind-the-scenes shot captured by actor Bryce Johnson of director Goldthwait and one of the crew members struggling to fake the Bigfoot footprints using specially constructed but ill-fitting wooden Bigfoot sandals. Goes on a bit.

West Coast Premiere (6:18)
Bobcat Goldthwait introduces the film at its West Coast premiere and suggests many of those attending smell strangely of weed. Following the screening, Tom Yamarone performs another Bigfoot themed song, 'Bigfoot the Living Legend', assisted by a very large Sasquatch believer named Bobo.

summary

There's not a lot of plot and much of it walks a very familiar path, but Willow Creek is still well executed and appropriately tense evidence that there's still life in the found footage horror film yet. The final scenes hold few surprises but are still very well handled, and the documentary elements are interesting, the character interaction engaging, and that 17 minute tent shot is one of the most nail-chewing scenes I've sat through all year. Kaleidoscope's DVD sports a very good transfer and a sprinkling of OK extras. Horror fans should definitely check it out.

Willow Creek

USA 2014
76 mins
directed by
Bobcat Goldthwait
produced by
Aimee Pierson
written by
Bobcat Goldthwait
cinematography
Evan Phelan
editing
Jason Stewart
starring
Alexie Gilmore
Bryce Johnson
Bucky Sinister
Tom Yamarone

disc details
region 2
video
1.78:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 2.0 stereo
Dolby 5.1 surround
languages
English
subtitles
none
extras
Trailer
Tom Yamarone Interview and Song
Bigfoot's Footprints featurette
West Coast Premiere
distributor
Kaleidoscope
release date
26 May 2014
review posted
25 May 2014