Bobcat Goldthwait’s found footage Bigfoot movie sounds like a joke concept. You can imagine Bobcat taking dark satirical aim not just at believers of the paranormal but also the modern filmmaking culture, hitting a bunch of targets with his caustic venom. But Willow Creek isn’t a joke. It’s not a satire. It’s an actual found footage horror movie that centers on Bigfoot... and it’s actually scary.
The premise of Willow Creek is exactly what you assume it would be: people head into the forests of the Pacific Northwest seeking Sasquatch and get more than they bargained for. The film is more than that basic synopsis, though, and it stands as one of the best found footage movies I’ve seen in a while because Goldthwait injects humor, features likable characters and actually seems to understand how to use the limitations of the form to build incredible amounts of tension.
Jim (Bryce Johnson, whose voice you may recognize from some recent animated superhero movies) is a Bigfoot fanatic since he was a kid, and he brings his girlfriend Kelly (Alexie Gilmore, in her third Goldthwait film) with him on a documentary filming trip to the site of the famed Patterson-Gimlin film, which supposedly captured a Bigfoot as it lumbered through a ravine. Jim’s sort of a doofus, and his low-rent asides to the camera are done in an endearingly bro fashion, as if In Search Of were presented by Ed Hardy. Kelly is a nonbeliever who is supportive of Jim’s passion... to a point. The two actors have excellent chemistry, and for the first half of the film they deliver lots of great, funny dialogue together. There’s true banter, not the usual hemming and hawing of mumblecore actors trying to be profound.
That lightness and sense of humor permeates the first half of the film. Goldthwait understands how people film things, and Willow Creek feels more like a true in-camera found footage experience than we usually expect. This stuff looks like the vacation footage of a guy making a YouTube-level documentary, with all of the warmth that entails. And as the two head into Bigfoot territory - Willow Creek, California, a town all but given over to Sasquatch tourism - the laughs keep coming. Jim interviews many of the locals who are involved in the Bigfoot community, and Goldthwait has wrangled actual Bigfoot experts, Willow Creek residents and even a guy who writes Bigfoot songs to be in the film.
As a dweeb who grew up immersed in the Time-Life Mysteries of the Unknown and Charles Berlitz books, the Bigfoot lore in Willow Creek is fun and exciting. Goldthwait more or less honors the weird theories and obsessions of Sasquatchologists, while also making some winking fun at the inherent oddness of the people who throw their lives into these bizarre, unlikely pursuits.
Willow Creek’s sense of fun gradually transitions to tension as Jim and Kelly make their way into the forest. Goldthwait was smart; by making us like these characters in the first half, we’re not as annoyed with them when they get to arguing in the woods. This is so vital, and so often done wrong in horror films (and almost always in found footage films) - it’s better to be trapped with characters we like, and who are in danger, than to be trapped with characters against whom we’re rooting. The slasher films of the 80s really impacted horror in this way, because the cookie-cutter teens being led to the slaughter were not the heroes. We were cheering on the killers, and so the victims needed to be deserving of death. Whatever problems Jim and Kelly have in Willow Creek, you’d certainly prefer they not die, and maybe even hope they can work out some of the issues that are nagging at their relationship.
What sets Willow Creek truly apart from many other found footage films is the way Goldthwait uses silence. There is an astonishing 19 minute sequence that is a single shot of Jim and Kelly sitting in a tent, being menaced by something or someone outside. There are noises and scares, but what makes this sequence work so well is the silence. Jim and Kelly sit listening, waiting for something to happen and the audience strains to hear as well, the background sounds of the forest all becoming more and more menacing and frightening. Anyone who has ever awoken with a start in the dark of the night, convinced they heard a noise in the house, will understand exactly the sense of dread and terror that grows out of such silence. I don’t know how this sequence will play at home - it would be so easy to start checking your phone - but in a theater, where you’re trapped in the dark, it is a perfect escalation of fear.
The old saw holds that comedy and horror are both about timing, so it’s no surprise that Bobcat Goldthwait can make an effective horror film. He lulls the audience with that funny, bright first half before beginning to slowly twist the screws. The weird, disturbing ending will send you out of the theater trying to figure out just exactly what happened, but all the answers exist in Bigfoot lore. In a way Willow Creek is designed to set you off on your own Bigfoot hunt at the end, searching for answers.