Deviating from caustic comedies, Bobcat Goldthwait reaches into his toolbox and delivers a surprising foray into found-footage horror. “Willow Creek” embraces the limitations of this now-tired genre and breathes new life into it—it’s not a true original but certainly a memorable rumination. Effectively a two-hander with our leads Jim (Bryce Johnson) and Kelly (Alexie Gilmore) dominating the frame for the majority of the running time, “Willow Creek” does a commendable job in fleshing out the ill-fated couple. Presented as a malformed Bigfoot documentary, Jim, steeped in cryptid mythology, strikes out to retrace the steps once taken by Roger Patterson and Bob Gilmin, whose footage, though largely dismissed as a probable hoax, remains hotly debated and cited. Along for the ride is his skeptical partner, Kelly, who embarks on the venture to support the idealistic Jim, enveloped by the Bigfoot legend and reveling at the townsfolk who’ve made a living out of marketing it. As they delve deeper into the forest, leaving their car behind and setting up camp, strange occurrences accumulate and begin to take a toll on the couple and their relationship.
For the majority of its wisely-brief eighty-minute running time, Goldthwait pulls no punches, offering up tidbits that hint at the evolving relationship between Jim and Kelly, their personalities primed for subdued, gentle clashes. The actors bring a refreshing lack of foreshadowing, though the film can’t help but trot out several locals to make enigmatic comments or suggest that the city slickers hightail it back to where they came from. Johnson and Gilmore perform well and there is a sense of getting to know them as more than fool-hardy victims, but rather people making bad decisions that land them in an environment out of their control.
Don’t be surprised when much of the press concerning the film zeroes in on a single unbroken take toward the end of the film. The couple has encamped near the Patterson-Gimlin site, and Jim is awoken by noises outside of the tent. He rouses Kelly and switches on the camera and what follows is an fiendishly clever set-up and a challenging single take, our leads listening for any noise, whispering to each other as the sounds escalate and grow ever closer. It may not translate well to a YouTube clip but the dread stirred up by Goldthwait and co. is startling and uncomfortable to boot.
Found-footage films embrace the distinctive structure that sees a first act introducing the locales and locals, the second slowly tipping over into danger as the leads begin to explore the homestead’s underbelly and a final denouement with the tourists out of their depth and fallen victims to bloodletting. “Willow Creek” fits that mold and yet remains distinctive in how it draws out the violence we expect, maybe even need. We won’t risk spoiling the finale, which does feel underwhelming after the centerpiece long take, but it does more than tip its hat to “The Blair Witch Project” and will certainly satisfy the viewers pondering whether it is the mythical creature visiting havoc on our unprepared protags or backwaters meth dealers punishing them for encroaching on the turf.
The restraint shown here, the patient partitioning of things that go bump in the night, is what sets “Willow Creek” apart, if only for the moment. It’s a canny horror film and a derivative one, but as a reminder of the power of suggestion, the unseen dwarfing even the grandest budgets, prodding our imagination into provocatively chilling us to the bones, the film deserves an easy recommendation. [B-]