by Patrick Bromley
First, a confession: I'm as guilty as anyone of saying I'm tired of the found footage genre. But what I -- and most others -- forget is that found footage is not a genre at all; it's an aesthetic tool. Used properly, it can recontextualize the story being told and force the audience to question their relationship to the material by positioning it from their point of view. Used incorrectly -- like, say, to save money or (even worse) to cash in on a popular trend -- and found footage feels like a tired, obvious cheat.
Willow Creek, the fifth and latest feature from Bobcat Goldthwait, mostly does found footage right. Bryce Johnson and Alexie Gilmore are Jim and Kelly, twentysomethings in a long-term relationship on a pilgrimage to see the elusive Bigfoot. They travel to the woods in upstate California to find the monster, documenting everything that happens to them on a video camera. They interview some of the locals, eat at a Bigfoot-themed restaurant (home of the Bigfoot burger) and then ignore the warnings of some angry townies to go in search of the site where the Patterson-Gimlin footage was shot in the late '60s. And then shit gets weird.
What will make Willow Creek famous -- what horror fans will still be talking about years from now -- is a 19-minute unbroken take halfway through during which the movie turns to horror. Kelly and Jim are sleeping in their tent when they begin to hear noises...and then the noises become something else...and I don't want to say more. The way that Goldthwait ratchets up the terror in that sequence is something to behold; I don't scare easily in movies, but even I was caught up in being freaked out at the same time I was standing outside of the moment, marveling at the audaciousness of what he was pulling off. Played only with sound, the occasional movement and loooong stretches of anticipatory silence, the sequence segues effortlessly from uneasy laughter to genuine terror. Goldthwait gives James Wan a run for his money in the "things that go bump/less is more" school of horror filmmaking. It's an incredible sequence.
It's good to see Goldthwait take such a sharp turn in his career; after a series of satirical dark comedies (to call God Bless America "dark" is a gross understatement) in which horrifying real-world things happen but are played for either laughs or pathos, Goldthwait's shift to horror feels well-earned. While it shares some of the same thematic concerns as his past work -- the folly of man's belief that he is the center of his own universe and that his actions will have only the consequence he can predict -- it works better as an interesting departure. He does a good job of marrying the two halves of Willow Creek, but I'd be lying if I didn't say the "horror" sequences (specifically that long take in the middle) show that he's skilled enough with the genre that I wish he would go ahead and make a full-on, balls-out horror movie. The best moments of Willow Creek prove that he's got the chops. Of course, they're also scary enough that I'm not sure I could take it if he did.