Willow Creek (2013)

SEPTEMBER 6, 2014

GENRE: MOCKUMENTARY, MONSTER (?)
SOURCE: BLU-RAY (OWN COLLECTION)

Well it took what seems like a half dozen tries, but I've finally found a good found footage movie about Bigfoot. You'd think it'd be the easiest thing to pull off since it's a well known story and there are probably hundreds of legitimate home videos of idiots walking around in the Pacific Northwest looking for him, but as far as my (admittedly spotty) memory is concerned, Bobcat Goldthwait is the only one to do it. Willow Creek doesn't exactly reinvent the wheel when it comes to doing a found footage movie, but it gets so much right that others get wrong that it FEELS like it does; had I watched it in early 2013 (when I was so tired of FF films I swore them off for a while) I'd probably declare it a masterpiece in comparison.

Don't get me wrong, it's a good movie on its own right - the pacing is acceptable for this sort of thing (read: can be a bit slow, but with only two characters instead of the usual 3-4, that's an acceptable issue), the characters likable, and the scares effective. But it's just amusing that it succeeds mainly for doing found footage RIGHT; you'd think that would be the one thing that you can count on, but so many of them botch even the simplest elements that we sadly DO have to point out when a filmmaker actually considers his narrative and characters when taking this approach to creating a film. When the hero turns on his camera because something just happened (instead of the more common mistake of inexplicably having the cameras already rolling for no reason and just so happening to get something exciting in the frame), I was relieved - this one knew what it was doing.

Then again, Bobcat Goldthwait is a real filmmaker. Much like Martin Scorsese using 3D in a far more superior way on his first time out (Hugo) than some others have done after 3-4 tries, Goldthwait knows enough about how to construct a film that he is able to implement this tool (and that's what it is: a tool. Not an excuse.) in an effective way that rarely has you questioning why they're filming or (worse) wondering why he was using the POV gimmick anyway. As many of these films go, our heroes are making a documentary (about Bigfoot, of course), so not only do we have the built in explanation for all the tapes and batteries they must have, but it even makes sense why they film when things get a bit scary - that's exactly what they're there for. Unlike a ghost or whatever, Bigfoot's legacy is centered on the fact that there's only ever been one good film of him (the Patterson-Gimlin one), so sticking around for a few more second hoping to catch another glimpse before running for the hills is easy enough for an audience to buy, unlike some made up ghost that we have zero connection to beyond what the movie has invented before that point. The real mythology and interest surrounding Mr. Foot also gives him some added production value most FF movies can't have, such as a giant mural depicting Bigfoot helping people build houses and such (I guess the idea is that he's a resident and not something to fear), and a Bigfoot diner serving Bigfoot burgers and such. Even if you have for some reason gone your whole life without ever hearing of him, the movie has enough at its disposal to clarify its significance. Most movies just have to settle for having their characters look at (obviously fake) websites to sell their backstory.

Another thing making it work so well is that they make it ambiguous. Early on our heroes are scorned by a local for making fun of a giant Bigfoot statue, and when they enter the woods they run afoul of an angry man who gives them the "go back where you came from and stay the fuck out" speech, so (unlike Blair Witch Project, which never introduced such "red herrings") you get the idea that the noises they hear and the destruction of their tent could just be locals trying to scare off the city folk. A raccoon is also introduced as a possible "suspect", and of course bears are mentioned more than once. Given his comedic background, I was always half-expecting Goldthwait to pull the wool over our eyes and do something that might be construed as making fun of either Bigfoot hunters OR the found footage sub-genre as a whole; I won't spoil if he DOES, but I will say that this makes his scares more effective, as you're always kind of letting your guard down by thinking there's a non-Bigfoot explanation for what's happening.

But the real thing that sets this one apart from the pack is an incredibly nerve-wracking 18 minute single take shot that kicks off the film's 3rd act. I remember back when I made a Blair Witch parody back in 1999 I tried like 25 times to get the obligatory "apology" parody scene done in one take, only to realize later that Heather's version had several jumpcuts and thus I didn't need to bother (which, of course, could be said for the whole affair), and ever since I've always wondered why the sub-genre didn't have more of these epic single take shots. Bobcat must have wondered the same, and so he finally offers one; like others it starts after the first scare has already occurred, and we get to see the skeptical girlfriend (it's the male character who is gung ho about Bigfoot; she's just there to help out and spend time with him) go from "it's nothing, go back to sleep" to hysterical and scared, played out literally in real time. It's worth the price of admission alone to watch this one scene (which has four chapter breaks on the Blu!), and it further demonstrates how intelligently Goldthwait approached the aesthetic - BWP is one of the very few to offer an explanation for the obvious edits and the like (as the police gave the footage to a film school to sort out and tell a story to assist with their case), and this is not one of the others. Thus, it wouldn't make sense to have any cuts (the camera has been placed down, our only two characters are on-screen and not close enough to hit pause), and this isn't the only example - an early scene has the male doing the documentary intro 5 times as he keeps messing up. Unlike 99% of these things, I really felt like this was the full, unedited tape that was found by someone.

I just wish that he hadn't included a couple of moments that seem directly lifted from Blair. Most of these movies end up being compared to it no matter what (just as any possession movie gets an Exorcist namecheck in the review), and that's fine, but he could have reduced it some by not having a bit where our heroes break down over the fact that they walk by the same tree they passed hours ago. In BWP there was a possible supernatural explanation for this, that the woods weren't going to LET them leave, but there's no such element in this movie (unless I misunderstood something), so it just suggests that our characters are fools who can't walk in a straight line. The other isn't as big of a deal - there's a scare scene that starts with loud knocking noises and finally something rattling the tent, another big moment in BWP that I wish he could have avoided reprising.

Dark Sky's Blu-ray has some nice extras, including a deleted scene with a real Bigfoot hunter and a fun behind the scenes look at Bobcat and his DP trying to make the giant footprints in the mud without wrecking them or getting human prints mixed in and killing the illusion. The trailer, which possibly plays up the scares a bit too much, is also included, but the real draw is the commentary by Goldthwait and the two actors, Alexie Gilmore and Bryce Johnson. Both have worked with him before, and so they have a pretty nice rapport and cover all usual bases in a very relaxed and genial way that most tracks lack. Bobcat points out some fun Easter Eggs (like his legs being reflected in a shot where he was lying down in the backseat of the car) and laments forgetting to brush away the fake tracks he made, worried someone will find them and they will become what's known as "false evidence" about his existence. They also discuss how much of the film was created by the actors on the spot (he had a roughly 25 page outline) and how the one-take shot was pulled off, with him and his cohorts listening to the (improvised) dialogue via walkie talkie so that they could dole out their scares at the best possible moments (i.e. when the two of them had explained away the last scare and were about to relax again). The movie is only 80 minutes long, so there's no reason you should skip the track if you dug the film - you got time!

I really wish more veteran filmmakers would try the found footage thing. Many of them are by first timers who, no offense, simply don't understand enough about storytelling to handle what is essentially a crutch. Of course there are exceptions (the Blair guys, Oren Peli), but for every one of those there's a dozen from directors who I'm not convinced could make a compelling film even without something that requires finesse to pull off with any measure of success. Maybe I take these things more seriously than the average moviegoer who just wants a few cheap scares, but I look at it the same way I do 3D: a tool that when used correctly can create a truly memorable moviegoing experience. And like 3D, it's a shame found footage gets used a selling point by producers and filmmakers who simply don't appreciate the power it has when implemented with care. So kudos to Goldthwait for reminding me that it's not the gimmick itself that makes my eyes roll - it's the number of films where it's simply not being used half as well as it is here.

What say you?

2 comments:

  1. Saw a decent FF horror flick the other night called The Borderlands, essentially a British FF version of Carpenter's Prince of Darkness, recasting the story as a Vatican-authorized investigation of a spooky, reputedly haunted church. It got me thinking about the differences between the two approaches, the advantages of the FF style weighed against all the sacrifices it entails, etc. Nothing beats a well-shot, fully realized production like Carpenter's, but some of the better FF efforts are able to do things these bigger-budgeted movies can't always pull off, like fully exploiting the natural eeriness of a really creepy setting and its surrounds, and the pitch darkness of an unlit stretch of remote, isolated countryside at night.

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  2. I don't want to spoil anything but what is your interpretation of the woman?

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