Comedian-turned-filmmaker Bobcat Goldthwait’s unlikely but durable directorial career began back in 1991 with Shakes the Clown. Goldthwait has largely extended his scabrous, artfully crazed persona from stage and screen into an aesthetic sensibility, with harsh satires and black comedies looking at the seamier side of modern Americana and the nation’s eddy of fragmented subcultures. Willow Creek, as a horror film, seems like a departure from that fare, leaving behind outré pretences. This proves not entirely true, as he annexes a modern legend to lay bare legends of a more personal nature, and divisions in society and gender, myth and reality, that intrigue him. He does so via a remake-cum-burlesque on The Blair Witch Project (1999), taking on the much-used and much-abused “found footage” style, similarly spinning minimalist tension in presenting footage supposedly shot by would-be documentary filmmaker Jim (Bryce Johnson) and his actress girlfriend Kelly (Alexie Gilmore). This faux-relic depicts Jim’s determined journey to the site of the famous Patterson-Gimlin Bigfoot film in the deep woods of northern California, to work through his own fascination with the legendary beast, and Kelly’s equal determination to humour Jim’s venturesome projects and posturings for the sake of coupledom.
At this point the very mention of the phrase “found footage” might fairly make us wince, and the tropes of the style are largely honoured by Goldthwait in the course of Willow Creek, who doesn't exactly stage a send-up of the genre. But Goldthwait brings humour and impudent élan to the project, mostly by making his central couple a pair of smart-alecks who provide their own stream of drollery, and so supply their footage's own commentary track. Jim and Kelly’s joshing humour, clearly their chief bond as a couple, is turned on the scenes and people they encounter with casual snark that’s not exactly mean-spirited but offers a very common sort of blithely self-justifying mockery. That mockery is then steadily twisted and aimed back at Jim and Kelly, particularly as Kelly’s jokes – posing for her own “missing person” photo and pretending to perform sex acts on a Sasquatch statue – prove to be foreshadowing with a cruel and clever edge. Goldthwait never has any doubts how to use the pseudo-amateurish camerawork to sustain dramatic engagement, with Jim and Kelly's semi-professionalism justifying a reasonable level of camera proficiency, and how to weave in substantive characterisation, where most found-footage cinema seems designed to paper over the filmmakers’ lack of any ideas in this regard.
Jim and Kelly travel out of their world by stages in a fashion long familiar to horror aficionados. Early scenes of the couple driving quickly clue us in on the dynamics of the couple’s relationship, their shared sense of humour apparent and their charm as good-looking entertainer and would-be artist apparent. Also on display however is Jim’s mix of attentive curiosity and unthinkingly entitled boorishness, like a former frat boy who’s outgrown youthful hijinks but isn’t yet quite the sensitive artiste he thinks he is, whilst Kelly half-deliberately dims her sharp instincts for the sake of being with Jim. We’re quickly given a discomforting glimpse of this when Jim makes Kelly hold a microphone he’s testing whilst she’s steering them along a winding, vertiginous highway. Goldthwait, via Jim and Kelly, notes with good humour and some satiric bite the swirl of all-American commercialisation that has grown up around a charming myth: the eponymous town has branded itself thoroughly with Sasquatch mystique, complete with giant fresco depicting the Bigfoot, image of the threat and mystery of nature, as a placidly tamed helper in the great American project of colonialism. Importantly, Goldthwait blurs the boundaries between documentary and fiction filmmaking in a way most other found-footage movies have avoided, because he wants in part to document the weird and entertaining little subculture that has grown off the legend, and implicitly studies its place in the modern American cultural landscape. He offers, neo-realist style, segments of Johnson in character as Jim interviewing with some real-life colourful characters and regional oddballs, like the “Bob Dylan of the Bigfoot community” Tom Yamarone, who happily participate in the mystique, and Nita Rowley, who works in the Willow Creek Visitor Centre and amusingly denies any belief in the creature her job relies upon.
Goldthwait quickly and efficiently notes the patronisation Jim and Kelly turn on their hosts and the double-sided exploitation going on, as Jim just like them wants to fashion the straw of backwoods legend into personally enriching enterprise, but with more slickly knowing presumptions, and obliviousness to real problems, as when the pair fail to note the import of a missing woman’s poster. There's a peculiar, communally-derived warmth inherent in the idealisation of Bigfoot for commercial purposes, a face painted on the wilderness that gives it a value it might not otherwise have. But that mythos, as evinced around the Willow Creek locale, might mask a different blend of these two impulses, as the couple are alerted to the possible dangers of redneck pot growers who exploit the rugged locales for their own ends. An alarming encounter with a quickly angered man (the aptly named Bucky Sinister) on the road to the film site thus presents the possibility that in the course of their adventuring, they’ve blundered into a place that is genuinely dangerous beyond the immediate threat of unforgiving terrain, in ways we know Jim and Kelly are not prepared for. Jim’s romance with the idea of the Bigfoot is however plainly rooted in his concept of himself as a frustrated manly-man and adventurer into the unknown, foiled ever so relentlessly by Kelly’s mordant humour and looming career necessity of moving to Los Angeles. That is a move cool Jim claims he won’t stomach, but capitulates to rather than accept complete defeat in her delicate rejection of his marriage proposal and substituted suggestion of cohabitation.
Nonetheless by the film’s climactic scenes, the couple pass through stages in relationships in hypertrophied speed, including what Jim might well have been hoping for, as Kelly is reduced to quivering and clutching his arm, before they devolve to mutual, frantic berating and disillusionment as circumstances close in, and then become, finally, a besieged, mutually reliant duo surrounded by dark and monsters, standing back to back, armed and ready. Willow Creek could well be one of the more quietly incisive romantic comedies of recent years. Officially, however, Goldthwait’s film sits squarely in a contemporary school of horror cinema. In its themes and settings and even in some plot refrains, Willow Creek also calls back to the small but engaging glut of regionally-made, no-budget US horror films of the ‘70s, some of which featured Bigfoot, like The Legend of Boggy Creek (1972), Creature From Black Lake (1976), and Sasquatch (1978). The film’s long, deceptively casual lead-in, with its ambling, humorous vibe and pseudo-authenticity proves to have been sterling conditioning for a more traditionally intense last act, once Jim and Kelly arrive in the forest. They set up camp and divert for some skinny-dipping before returning to find their camp ransacked: “What’s one of my socks doing in the tree?” Jim questions as they return, a great gag that’s also the warning sign this lovers’ jaunt is about to get menacing.
And so it does, in an epic sequence accomplished entirely in static shots, which merely offers Jim and Kelly straining their ears and cowering as something seems to stalk their camp outside their tent, recorded by Jim only to keep a record of the freakish and frightening moment. A proliferation of strange sounds, from wild howls to branches being bashed together, seem to spell visitation of the very beast they’ve sought but haven't really believed in, or, at least, have never paused to consider what it might act like and want. But what’s making the sounds like a woman’s sobbing? Johnson and Gilmore’s acting is plainly vital to the slow-building force of the sequence, but also Goldthwait’s conceit is matched here by his cunning, his ability to force the viewer to share only the extremely limited viewpoint and paranoia of his characters, with only the bare minimum of cinematic devices, quite detached from the barrage of camera and special effects so many recent horror films offer. Goldthwait takes care to offer a choice of explanations for the events that unfold, and although he presents a weight of evidence that finally favour one, doesn’t entirely spell things out and ruin his dichotomy. The last twenty minutes offer a curtailed version of the sort of herky-jerky, impressionistic survival flight most found-footage movies offer at length, but Goldthwait has an actual, coherent, very dark punch-line to offer without ever violating the entirely suggestive approach he’s taken, and also makes sure that his mordant final note works no matter how one interprets the circumstances leading up to it. Kelly, having resisted falling in thrall to her chosen mate’s self-written mythology, seems now about to fall victim to much less gentlemanly attentions, and be they from cryptid ape-man or redneck man-ape, she’s screwed.