Sunday, September 27, 2015

Willow Creek: Fearing the Unseen

I seem to have stumbled into a mess of found-footage horror movies lately, not so much because the style appeals to me (it really kinda doesn't) but because several of the subjects I do enjoy — ghosties, trolls, and bigfeet — apparently also appeal to movie makers with an affinity for the form. Bobcat Goldthwait's Willow Creek is the latest of these I've checked out, and I did so mainly because a couple of writers whose opinions I trust gave it high marks. With some caveats, I will do the same.

Here there be spoilers.

Willow Creek is about a young couple who set out in search of Bigfoot. Their destination: Bluff Creek, in Six Rivers National Forest, CA, the site of the infamous 1967 Patterson-Gimlin Bigfoot film. Jim (Bryce Johnson) is a confirmed believer looking to make a documentary about the legendary beast. His girlfriend, Kelley (Alexie Gilmore), though skeptical of the critter's existence, is sporting enough to accompany Jim on his venture. They head out to the wilderness, via the town of Willow Creek, a.k.a. the Bigfoot Capital of the World. We have a few lighthearted moments here, especially at some of the establishments that actually exist, but soon enough, things start looking a bit hairy. In town, they find posters displaying a photograph of a woman who has recently gone missing. And immediately they reach the old logging road that leads to the filming site, an unfriendly local accosts them and warns them to get the hell out of there and return to town. But having come this far, Jim refuses to abandon his plans and finds another route to his destination.

Once the couple has set up camp, they take a swim break at a nearby stream. However, when they return to their campsite, they find it in shambles. Figuring it to be the work of a curious bear, they resolve to be more cautious, but the incident does little to dampen Jim's mood. After sundown, though, exuberance gives way to trepidation as the couple hear strange noises in the darkness. Indeed, the sounds — ranging from inexplicable knocking to bizarre vocalizations — move steadily closer. And it isn't long before Jim and Kelley — and we, the audience — discover the source of the sounds.

It's sort of what you expect, but sort of not.

Willow Creek breaks no new ground, none, following the formula established by The Blair Witch Project to a tee. A crucial difference, however, is the fact that the two main characters in Willow Creek, unlike the former film (and so many other horror movies with youthful protagonists), are not obnoxious idiots. While perhaps myopic and foolish enough to make you want to give each of them an occasional swift kick, Jim and Kelley make for a believable couple, and even his Bigfoot mania isn't so over the top as to be ridiculous. Having some positive emotional investment in the characters shouldn't be such a breath of fresh air, but this is an aspect of characterization that movie makers have failed to understand from time immemorial — particularly in the realm of horror movies, where I would argue that a positive emotional connection is most needed.

Until Jim and Kelley retire to their tent after dark, there hasn't been much in the way of suspense. But when it kicks in, it kicks in, and I can safely say that, as one who frequents the woods and has been an avid camper, I haven't been so riveted by a movie scene since a nurse got her head chopped (just off camera) in William Peter Blatty's mostly excellent Exorcist III. The power in the scene in Willow Creek comes not from any visual effect; in fact, for 17 full minutes, the camera is focused solely on Jim and Kelley, listening, inside their tent. And the sounds coming from the woods could not be more disconcerting. As the camera comes on, we see Jim gazing into space wearing a curious expression, and Kelley stirs beside him. He tells her he has heard a knocking sound in the forest, but she doesn't hear anything. Neither do we — until a few moments later, a distinct knocking does echo from the distance. Gradually, more sounds rise out of the night: weird, muted sounds that might be voices, or perhaps low, non-human vocalizations; rustling; increasingly loud knocking. And as the source of these noises draws nearer, it's easy to feel as if we are right there with the characters. As Jim's fascination turns to fear, one might just feel compelled to get the hell out of, well, wherever the hell you're watching the movie.

The staging in these last few minutes is not quite spot on. Once Jim and Kelley do leave their tent, too much time is spent with the camera simply aimed at their faces. It only stands to reason that if there's something out there in the woods, and you're bound and determined to keep that camera running, you'd be trying to record whatever is out there and not your every facial expression. To put a more positive spin on it, at least this keeps the shaking, weaving, lurching camera work — the single biggest blunder of found-footage movies — to a bare minimum.

Without completely giving away the ending, I'll mention that at no time do we actually see Bigfoot — and in this movie, that's a clear positive. We don't need to see Bigfoot. The things we've heard are far more convincing than any image. The movie Exists (reviewed here), which in many ways blew beans, did present us with an excellent visual depiction of ye Sasquatch; but in Willow Creek, we're better left with the one disturbing visual it does afford us just before the movie ends. And because there is at least some emotional investment in these characters, there's a deeper sense of tragedy than one could derive from Exists, or The Blair Witch Project, or (insert most any teenage victim movie title here) during which most of us are praying for the characters to die and thus put us out of their misery.

I haven't read many positive reviews of Willow Creek, and to some extent, I can understand the lack of love. As I said, we're not breaking any new ground. There's no big visual payoff. Some viewers find the protagonists as vacuous those in The Blair Witch Project; I disagree but I do grant that these people are not colorful, deep, or particularly clever. I find them to be individuals who might be my next-door neighbors (actually, sadly, my former next-door neighbors). In this movie, these characters are just made to order.

What shines in Willow Creek is its superior immersion factor. I am in this movie. I am loving the gorgeous forest scenery. I am hearing those inexplicable noises in the dark. And I am feeling the terror build as the sounds move nearer. And what happens in those 17 minutes in the dark in that tent, well, that is precisely what pushes my fear buttons.

3.5 out 5 Damned Rodan's Dirty Firetinis.
Jim interviews Bigfoot for his documentary in the town of Willow Creek, the "Bigfoot Capital of the World"
Jim and Kelley enjoy Bigfoot Burgers at The Bigfoot Restaurant in Willow Creek — a real treat at a real location.
Jim gives an on-the-spot report at Bluff Creek, the site of the infamous 1967 Patterson-Gimlin Bigfoot film clip
Noises in the dark wake Jim and Kelley in the middle of the night.
Something is out there. But Bigfoot beware! Kelley is brandishing a big stick!

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