‘Found-footage’ horror has been much maligned of late, due mainly to an incessant plethora of bland Paranormal Activity sequels and redundant cash-ins, each more derivative than the last. A few titles have proven the effectiveness of the formula — most notably The Blair Witch Project; [REC]; Lake Mungo; The Last Exorcism; and more recently The Borderlands — but for every Trollhunter or Apollo 13, there’s yet another Paranormal Entity or Grave Encounters 2. Thankfully, Bobcat Goldthwait’s Willow Creek quietly demonstrates that the found-footage format, when utilised effectively, can still offer a downright chilling viewing experience. Indeed, the format is perfect for this particular story, which tells of young city couple Jim and Kelly, who venture into the wilds of Bluff Creek, California, in search of the legendary Sasquatch, filming their journey on a handheld camera and debating the Bigfoot legend, unexplained phenomena and the existence of the unknown as they go.
While Goldthwait doesn’t stray too far from a well-trodden path, his subdued approach and subtle direction result in some rather nerve-shredding moments of tension. At times the odd sense of humour threatens to tip proceedings into the realms of the ludicrous, particularly the odd banter between the couple; hardly surprising though given that Goldthwait is a comedy actor and stand-up famed for his oddly pitched voice, strange comedy routines throughout the 1980s and reoccurring appearances in the Police Academy series.
The first half of the film establishes the characters and their setting. Bigfoot drives the economy of the small town on the edge of Bluff Creek — there are Bigfoot statues and murals everywhere, museums, gift shops and bookstores, and, not surprisingly, a themed restaurant with giant foot-shaped burgers. The locals the couple encounter and interview — apparently real people, which really enhances the documentary feel — are either weary of the attention, completely obsessed with the legend, or, in one or two cases, outright hostile. Jim and Kelly aren’t a particularly interesting couple, but their sheer ordinariness, and the naturalistic performances by Alexie Gilmore and Bryce Johnson, help to garner viewer sympathy. Relationship issues threaten to expose strain at various points, and while tension between the couple is slowly revealed, Goldthwait never really develops it.
What is surprising is how quickly everything descends into panic. With its brief running time, Willow Creek doesn’t outstay its welcome, or feel padded; it’s lean and eventually very mean. Much like The Blair Witch Project, the tension and dread is established largely through a reliance on sound, shadows and suggestion. Once the characters are established, and Goldthwait has demonstrated an effective slow-burn approach, he lets rip with the grim and nasty when the couple venture into the incomprehensibly dense, largely unexplored wilds of the forest… The standout moment is a 20-minute scene, largely improvised and all filmed in one take, in which Jim and Kelly awaken in the night to hear strange noises outside their tent. They sit stock still, waiting, listening; as do we. Tension grows, strange sounds echo all about them, panic sets in. Their vulnerability is effectively realised and the actors really convey a sense of increasing terror. All that comes between them and whatever it is that circles their tent is a thin sheet of canvas. It’s a brilliant moment. To begin with, Kelly remains sceptical, which still brings no comfort. If it isn’t a Sasquatch prowling around outside their tent — what is it? Other people? The thought of people being so far out in the middle of nowhere, and what their intentions might be, is a chilling one. This is the same fear The Blair Witch Project tapped into — the notion of being lost in the middle of the forest and being hunted by things unknown; wild, unreasoning, but possibly human things.
With its central idea of man vs. nature, and its civilised city protagonists straying off the path into uncharted territory, only to suffer the bloody consequences, Willow Creek arguably doesn’t offer us anything that hasn’t been done before; but with its long takes, reliance on sound and suggestion, likeable leads, and chilling climax, it emerges as one of the better, more interesting found-footage horror titles in recent memory.
Willow Creek is available on DVD from today