Found-footage movies have come a long way in the last fifteen years. The runaway success of The Blair Witch Project helped to popularize the genre in the late nineties, but it wasn’t until 2007’s Paranormal Activity and 2008’s Cloverfield that the genre seemed to firmly establish itself as a viable source of hit (read: profitable) movies. But along with the many movies that have come out in the ensuing years have come the genre’s tropes and cliches. It’s safe to say that with no less than two A Haunted House movies which made attempts to cash in on and skewer the genre, the standards of found-footage films are so firmly established in viewers’ minds that filmmakers can easily fall into the trap of relying on tired plots and techniques. Even though it has some effective moments, Willow Creek seems to exist somewhere between an homage to the genre and a regurgitation of its cliches.
Willow Creek is the latest film written and directed by comedic legend Bobcat Goldthwait. Over the last few years Goldthwait has become known for creating dark comedies like God Bless America and World’s Greatest Dad. If he had gone the black comedy route with Willow Creek, the movie might have felt more original and fresh. Unfortunately, it comes across as an attempt at a mostly serious entry into the found footage horror category that sticks so closely to the formula of The Blair Witch Project that it almost seems like a remake or reimagining. If you’ve seen The Blair Witch Project, just imagine that movie but with a sasquatch instead of a witch. You now know the premise and some of the major plot points of Willow Creek.
Willow Creek stars Alexie Gilmore and Bryce Johnson as Kelly and Jim, a couple who travel to the heart of “Bigfoot Country” (the titular Willow Creek) in northern California in hopes of visiting the location of the filming of the famous Patterson-Gimlin bigfoot film. Jim is a fervent sasquatch enthusiast but Kelly is definitely not. Kelly is supportive though and makes it clear that even though she doesn’t believe in bigfoot for one second, she is happy to go along on the trip because she cares for Jim and enjoys spending time with him. The differences in opinion between Kelly and Jim help build some mild tension between the characters who are otherwise pretty in sync with each other.
Jim’s childlike fascination with bigfoot comes across as endearing a lot of the time, but much like the the audience probably does, Kelly gets annoyed with it from time to time. To be fair, they are both on the far extremes of the issue and throw out the stereotypical arguments for and against the existence of bigfoot. Every time Kelly asks why no bigfoot remains have ever been found, Jim responds that the world is a big place and just because remains haven’t been found that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Then they go back an forth until they both drop it. I expected the tension between them to grow, and it did a little for the first half of the movie, but it never really translated into anything more intense after things started happening later in the film. Regardless, both characters are likable enough to engage the audience and real enough to make them care what happens to them, something that many horror directors fail miserably at.
Like I mentioned above, the plot itself is extremely reminiscent of The Blair Witch Project. Jim wants to make a homemade documentary of the trip, so he and Kelly travel to the small town of Willow Creek and interview a number of local residents about their beliefs and experiences with bigfoot. Some of them don’t believe and some of them do. Some of them give them warnings about the area and others tell them to go home and stay away from the woods. Just like Blair Witch. This portion of the movie seems to last for a long time. Although it helps to build character and some of the locals provide good exposition, some of it seemed unnecessary since it’s more than thirty minutes into the movie before they even step foot into the woods.
Once they get into the woods, like in Blair Witch, odd things begin to happen. Someone (or some thing) messes with their stuff. They begin to hear noises in the distance. Of course the noises and get louder and closer at night, and that’s when the real tension starts to build. There is a really nice scene that lasts a significant amount of time where Goldthwait allows the actors to react to what’s going on around them in a single shot with a stationary camera. The stillness and quietness of the night is punctuated by sparse moments of building terror. It’s a very effective scene and probably the best of the movie. The restraint shown in that scene and others throughout the movie are a nice change of pace from many found footage films where the screen is dominated by a shaking camera and screams. There is that too though.
The final act of the film is well done if not entirely original or unexpected. If you remember a prominent log from The Blair Witch Project then you’ll see a particular event in Willow Creek coming from a mile away. Even so, there are some nice shocks and the pace quickens significantly towards the end of the movie. All in all, the movie is a very slow build, but the exclamation point at the end is worth the wait and isn’t cheap like some other found footage movies.
So is Willow Creek worth watching? Well, if you’ve seen The Blair Witch Project then no, probably not. That is, unless you absolutely loved The Blair Witch Project, then I’d say yes. I know I’ve talked about how similar these two movies are throughout this review, and some may think that’s a bit unfair, but the similarities are unmistakable and unavoidable. If Willow Creek was an attempt at parody then it was much too subtle and I missed it. No, it seems like it’s a nicely made genre piece that fits exactly into the mold created by others while lightly pushing against its restraints, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. If you like slow-build horror movies or just found footage films in general, then check Willow Creek out. It’s definitely one of the better entries in a genre blighted with mediocrity.
6 – Pretty Good
The similarities to other films of the genre, and one in particular, make it difficult for me to rate this anything other than “Fun”. It’s a well made movie, and it is enjoyable, but the fun factor outweighs the goodness of it all. It has good scares and likable characters; that’s all you really need for a fun horror movie.
The Last Exorcism
This is one of my favorite found footage films of the last few years. Some people argue with me about whether or not the ending is good, but I don’t mind it. I think the subject matter is handled in a unique and interesting way and the scares are nice. There is a particular moment in this film that seems like it was lifted straight out of it for Willow Creek. Early in both films there’s a local who approaches the lead character while he’s in his car and tells him to go away. These moments are nearly identical, even down to some of the dialogue phrasing and the throwing of rocks.
This isn’t found footage, but it’s a great low budget movie about people being hunted by big hairy beasts in the woods. In Dog Soldiers it’s werewolves rather than bigfoot, and these monsters don’t hide in the dark. It’s really more of an action horror than anything else, but it’s really good and definitely worth tracking down.
Review Format: DVD (rental)
Availability: DVD and Blu-ray released September 9, 2014 (US)
Director: Bobcat Goldthwait
Writer: Bobcat Goldthwait
Featured Cast: Alexie Gilmore, Bryce Johnson
Run Time: 77 minutes