Nearly 15 years after the release of "The Blair Witch Project," the prospects of a legitimately scary found footage horror movie about a couple of ill-fated naifs wandering through the woods sounds about as likely as an over-the-hill eighties comedian transforming into a provocative filmmaker. But that's exactly what Bobcat Goldthwait has done over the past several years, with a string of black comedies that have obtained cult status through his post-acting career: "Sleeping Dogs Lie" explored the fallout of dog blowjob guilt, "World's Greatest Dad" found Robin Williams exploiting the death of his character's suicidal son, and "God Bless America" featured Joel Murray literally murdering obnoxious reality television stars. Needless to say, Goldthwait's humor belies deep-seated insecurities about people unwilling to consider the consequences of their actions, so it was only a matter of time before he made a horror movie. "Willow Creek" conforms to the traditions of the genre with generally satisfying results, but it also manages to build on them.
The basic premise finds young couple Jim (Bryce Johnson) and Kelly (Alexie Gilmore) venturing into prime Bigfoot territory in Willow Creek, California, a quaint town littered with Bigfoot statues, museums and other seemingly kitschy indulgences in the popular myth. Yet Goldthwait takes the obsession at face value by letting the characters roam about the actual town and interact with its colorful locals. The first half of the movie actually works as a bonafide documentary about the culture of Bigfoot believers with a mixture of genuine curiosity and strangeness on par with Errol Morris' usual routine. Only in its slow burn second half does the suspense take hold as his subjects encounter the possible confirmation of the creature Jim hopes to discover.
The movie's dual nature as both non-fiction portraiture and genuinely scary creature feature turns the project into a unique representation of the tension between those who scoff at the Bigfoot legend and others willing to accept the mythology as gospel. An evident Bigfoot enthusiast himself, Goldthwait has made a genuine ode to its history, including plenty of chatter about the famed Patterson-Gimli footage from the late sixties that has fueled speculation for decades.
Less satiric than critical of the derision of cynical non-believers, "Willow Creek" also belongs to the subgenre of tourism horror, where clueless outsiders arrive in a foreign land and take advantage of it for their own thrills. While eager to believe in Bigfoot, Jim still falls into that camp by treating the possibility of a dangerous, ancient species as his own private thrill ride (and putting his girlfriend in trouble in the process). "This is not a joke," a local mutters to him while he poses for his wife in front of a wooden sculpture. Indeed, "Willow Creek" marks the first of Goldthwait's movies to fight against comedic expectations.
Jim and Kelly provide the sole fictional ingredient until the eerie events of the finale, but Goldthwait still goes great lengths to make them seem real. During a nearly 20-minute long take shot in the couple's tent in the middle of the night, Goldthwait both deepens their chemistry by showing Jim's idealistic mentality and pushes the story into a sudden atmosphere of dread. The balance is deftly achieved, in fact, that the abrupt finale arrives too soon. After Goldthwait sets up so many enticing ingredients, it's a letdown when they dissipate so fast. He might need a sequel.
"Willow Creek" has been quietly screening at regional festival over the summer and may have a hard time getting noticed in a sea of similar projects: Last year saw the release of the poorly received "Bigfoot: The Lost Coast Tapes," while "Blair Witch" co-director Eduardo Sánchez has been developing his own spooky found footage Bigfoot movie, "Exists." However, "Willow Creek" stands alone because it aims to engage with several genres at once. While it eventually devolves into exploring the terrifying prospects of something hairy lurking about in the shadows, Goldthwait uses that thrill factor to validate the commitment of Bigfoot believers. "Willow Creek" never feels like an attempt to proselytize, but it's a smart recognition of the dangers involved in doubt.
A version of this review originally ran during the Fantasia International Film Festival. MPI/Dark Sky opens "Willow Creek" in New York this Friday ahead of a national rollout.