No matter what he does (with the possible exception of assassinating the US President), Bobcat Goldthwait is always going to be best known for playing Zed in the POLICE ACADEMY films. To give the versatile comedian/filmmaker his due, he’s developed in the last few years into a mature and engaging director with something genuinely interesting to say. His last film, 2011’s GOD BLESS AMERICA, is a biting satirical crime comedy that showcases his talent for characterisation and penchant for blurring traditional genre lines. Whether in front of the camera or behind it, humour (albeit of a jet-black variety) is the thread that ties all his projects together. It’s no surprise, therefore, that Goldthwait’s latest, last year’s WILLOW CREEK, is funny – what is surprising is that it’s also a full-throated horror film. His subject matter has always been dark, but nothing in the director’s oeuvre suggested an affection for horror. No mere sightseer, Goldthwait’s film is authentic and scary.
On the face of it, WILLOW CREEK is a strange choice of project for a director known for his dark sense of humour and satirical edge. But Goldthwait has always been interested in America, in what makes it tick and what lies beneath its shiny facade, and nothing is more American (and more potentially disturbing) than Bigfoot. Taking the famous Patterson-Gimlin film as its starting point, would-be documentarians and boyfriend/girlfriend Jim (Bryce Johnson) and Kelly (Alexie Gilmore) take a trip to California’s Bluff Creek, hoping to authenticate one of the most debated and controversial pieces of fortean footage ever shot. The premise is intriguing, but the format isn’t – Goldthwait has chosen to jump on that most crowded of genre bandwagons, found footage. It’s not a surprising choice for a horror film, but it’s disappointing, and the director fails to do anything new or innovative with the format. What he does deliver, however, is one of the best examples of found footage since 1999’s THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT.
BLAIR WITCH worked not just because it was something audiences hadn’t seen before, but because it had the ring of truth to it. It’s scary because it’s authentic. Very few found footage films in the last fifteen years have managed to match its sense of realism, but WILLOW CREEK is one of them. For one thing, Goldthwait plays by the rules – there’s only one camera, no clever editing, no special effects, no score – and for another he is content to step back and let the two leads dominate. Johnson and Gilmore are both likable, as are their characters, and their improvised dialogue and easy chemistry goes a long way to selling the relationship. They are layered creations, rather than the usual found footage ciphers, and there are just enough potential impediments to their future happiness together to convince us to root for them.
As is usually the case with this kind of film, the pacing is languid. An hour passes before the tension starts to ramp up, but at least it’s an engaging hour. The first two thirds of most found footage feels perfunctory, like it’s treading water – WILLOW CREEK’s is an exercise in atmosphere and characterisation. When the scares arrive they’re subtle, and owe more than a little to the aforementioned BLAIR WITCH, but at least they work. Eschewing flashy visuals and over-the-top effects, WILLOW CREEK’s chills are claustrophobic and lo-fi, more implied than explicit.
I’m a sucker for Bigfoot films, and I love found footage when it’s done right. WILLOW CREEK is one of the best examples of both to come along in a long time. Even so, in a market saturated with hundreds of superficially similar examples, the film struggles to justify its existence. Goldthwait clearly has a thorough knowledge of the mechanics of horror, and is a good enough filmmaker to understand that interesting and sympathetic characters should form the core of the narrative, but is happy to emulate rather than innovate. There’s nothing in WILLOW CREEK we haven’t seen before, but rarely have we seen it done this well.