Shakes the Clown, Sleeping Dogs Lie, World’s Greatest Dad, God Bless America…Willow Creek. One of these things is not like the other, but that’s what makes Bobcat Goldthwait an exciting filmmaker: he’s capable of stepping out of his comfort zone (which, ironically enough, encompasses uncomfortable pursuits and ideas) and trying his hand at something that’s totally atypical of his filmography. Why make a found footage picture about two people searching for the truth about Bigfoot? Why not? If the results of Bobcat’s foray into the gimmicky horror sub-genre don’t mesh with his other work, they still make for a great midnight movie and represent an interesting evolution in his directorial career.
Of course, one may assume that Willow Creek, which spends a great deal of time in the company of actual inhabitants of the titular town, is intended as something of a satire. Bobcat’s in the Bigfoot capital of the world, after all, and until he leads his principal characters- a couple consisting of Jim (Bryce Johnson) and Kelly (Alexie Gilmore)- into the forest to seek out the site where the infamous Patterson-Gimlin film was captured, Willow Creek pokes a bit of fun at the culture founded on the mystery of the shaggy, bipedal cryptid while creating a portrait of a believer. But Goldthwait doesn’t sit and smirk at the eccentricities of a hamlet characterized by the Bigfoot statues that stand guard outside of local businesses and shops; he revels in them. How can you not fall in love with a place where the local delicacy is the Bigfoot burger?
Amusingly, Willow Creek‘s most faithful Bigfoot devotee is Jim himself. He and Kelly make their trip on his birthday, filming the entire experience along the way. Kelly represents the skeptical half of the duo, but she’s a loyal significant other and she indulges him happily at first, only becoming more frantic as Willow Creek brings them closer and closer to unknown danger. Jim is almost isolated in his assurance that the creature exists; most of the residents celebrate or at least perpetuate the Bigfoot legend, but not all of them necessarily believe it. It’s worth noting that the people Jim and Kelly interview aren’t actors- they’re real-deal townies, singer-songwriters, book shop owners, and tour guides, and they’re espousing their genuine feelings on Bigfoot. For many of them, Bigfoot is just their legacy as members of Willow Creek’s populace.
Some of them take it more seriously than others, though, and warn off Jim and Kelly when they try to make their sojourn into the deep wilderness. Once the characters head off the beaten path, such as it is, and start trekking through claustrophobic, labyrinthine woods, Willow Creek becomes a very different film. We know from the opening shot what kind of journey Bobcat wants to take his audience on, but the main characters are so real and so affable, and their intentions so innocent, that we may forget we’re watching the set-up of a found footage movie; the film plays like a harmless home movie (albeit one that’s really well shot) out of the couple’s collection rather than as evidence of something ominously primal and savage.
When we arrive at what will surely be seen as the film’s hallmark sequence- a tense, uninterrupted nineteen minute take inside Jim’s and Kelly’s tent- Willow Creek abandons its sly commentary on the nature of belief and turns into a somber tale where curiosity is punished. Initially, the takeaway is that Goldthwait should make horror movies more often; Willow Creek accords only a small portion of its seventy seven minutes (thereabouts) to actual scares, but invests so much in its characters and gives them such a bounty of material to play with that the terror becomes that much more organic and intense. He’s slow-burning in the best way possible. We care about Jim and Kelly, and we empathize with them so strongly that their fear becomes our fear.
It’s masterful stuff, but maybe the real key point here is that Goldthwait can and should make whatever movies he wants to. Anyone capable of successfully synthesizing The Blair Witch Project with Harry and the Hendersons deserves that privilege. (It’s worth noting, perhaps, that Willow Creek owes a great deal to Blair Witch; structurally they’re very, very similar, though Goldthwait has superior character work supporting the framework.) What’s next for Bobcat? He probably won’t figure it out until he’s standing right on the ledge of what looks like a very bad idea, but we should all be excited for whatever he has in store for us in the future.