Monday, June 9, 2014

Big Feet to Fill: "Willow Creek" makes few discoveries but manages slow-burn fun



Willow Creek (2014)
80 min., not rated (but equivalent to R).

Thanks to 1999's groundbreaking "The Blair Witch Project," there is now an endless stream of found-footage cheapies. What makes the prospect of a pseudo-documentary about the hunt for Sasquatch so very exciting is the one at the helm. With "Willow Creek," writer-director Bobcat Goldthwait treks into woodsy horror. That the comedian had a couple of satirically incisive, risk-taking dark comedies (2009's "World's Greatest Dad" and 2012's "God Bless America") in him should not have come as a surprise because Goldthwait's next step in making a micro-budget found-footage horror pic was much less expected. The sky was the limit, so while it doesn't bring anything wholly new to the table of a juddering camera and mythical advocacy, "Willow Creek" at least feels deftly modulated in its mix of backwoods local color, verbal wit, relationship drama, and more-natural scares.

Laid-back documentary filmmaker Jim Kessel (Bryce Johnson) is eager to visit Willow Creek, Northern California's mecca to the community of Bigfoot. While she may not be a believer, he drags along actress girlfriend Kelly (Alexie Gilmore) to help him shoot some footage. In their search for more information on the hairy creature, Jim and Kelly make a few stops through town before traveling to the site of the famous 1967 footage by Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin. They find themselves in a tourist trap, staying at the Bigfoot Motel and even tasting a Bigfoot Burger at a restaurant dedicated to the monster. Of course, there will be a few locals telling them to get the hell out of dodge, but the couple goes bushwhacking anyway and camps out in the wilderness of Bluff Creek. At night, Jim and Kelly will learn the hard way that they probably shouldn't have trespassed. 

Mounted with a compelling immediacy and informative rather than instantly horrific, "Willow Creek" is a slow burn in the truest sense, daring those expecting their scares to come fast and furious to stay put and wait it out. It certainly helps that writer-director Goldthwait positions his audience with Jim and Kelly, played by Bryce Johnson and Alexie Gilmore with an easy, likable rapport and playful repartee. We like them and we are forced to experience exactly what they go through, from their tourist stops and local interviews on the Bigfoot legend to their confrontations with some angry yokels and then whatever comes to their tent at night. Apart from one sly meta reference where Kelly realizes they have no cell reception ("like the beginning of every horror movie"), the film is never a snarky send-up of the threadbare subgenre as one might expect from the wacky comic. 

In the middle of the film, there is a craftily goosey 19-minute sequence of long, uninterrupted unease with the static camera holding on the couple sitting awake in their tent. This frightfully rattling section is a master class in itself of what one can do with limited resources and just the power of suggestive sound, creepily using the widely spaced noises of distant howling, vocalization, wood knocking, and crunching footsteps closing in. After Jim and Kelly begin realizing they're hiking in circles, only for night to fall again, the film ends on a maddeningly rote note, letting down the viewer from what came immediately before. "Willow Creek" may not reach "rave" status or leave you screaming, but whether or not the faux-footage subgenre is ready to be put out to pasture, this little exercise still keeps it going without reinvention or regression.

Grade: B -

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