Friday, June 6, 2014

The Cinema File #359: "Willow Creek" Review

Given how he started out, it’s weird to think of how fast Hot to Trot’s own Bobcat Goldthwaite has become one of my favorite directors. With movies like Sleeping Dogs Lie, World’s Greatest Dad, and God Bless America, he’s proven himself as a filmmaker almost too willing to do just whatever the hell he wants, but at the same time smart and funny enough to almost always make it work. When I heard that his next film would be a found footage Bigfoot movie, I was conflicted, considering I love Bigfoot movies almost as much as I hate found footage movies, but if anyone could do justice to the subject matter and find something new and different to do with the format, it would be Bobcat. Unfortunately, while Willow Creek manages the first part okay enough, it doesn’t even seem particularly interested in the second.

Willow Creek presents itself as the raw cut of an ill fated indie documentary retracing the steps of Roger Patterson and Robert Gimlin, whose eponymous and infamous short film represents arguably the most well known supposed Bigfoot sighting in modern pop culture history. It’s also been pretty thoroughly debunked at this point, but the movie doesn’t really concern itself with those kinds of trivialities, instead using the established pseudo-history as a springboard to examine one real town’s strange Sasquatch obsession to ultimately propel two fictional characters into a night of ambiguously realized, vaguely articulated terror. Most of the film plays out like a spin off of How I Met Your Mother with Marshall and Lily going on an extended cryptozoology themed vacation, which it suddenly occurs to me I now desperately want to see (without the part at the end where it all goes horribly wrong). In the context of the movie, its one of the few instances where the boring set up in the first act of a found footage movie is actually more engaging and worthwhile than the third act when all the spooky stuff is supposed to happen.

In fact, the movie stumbles upon a better version of itself somewhat accidentally with its one example of novelty, including brief interviews with apparently real people in a Bernie-esque melding of truth and fiction. Its not enough of the movie to really matter beyond an interesting bit of trivia, but knowing where it all leads, I would have much preferred staying in town with these locals instead of following the actors into the woods to be terrorized by, well, sounds mostly (its found footage, remember?). An actual documentary about these people and just how seriously they apparently take the idea of living alongside Bigfoot, not to mention how much the concept has influenced their culture and economy, would have been so much more interesting than a fake one that merely exists to set up the same found footage tropes we've seen a million times before.

That's the problem with Willow Creek, it does absolutely nothing new. Its well made, certainly just short of The Bay as one of the better found footage movies in recent memory just on a technical level, but so what? We get a nearly 20 minute unbroken sequence of two people just sitting in a tent while eerie sounds and the occasional force against the walls outside scare them, and though it is legitimately tense, I kept waiting for the moment where this was all going to transform into something great with that one unpredictable plot turn or strange conceit that Goldthwaite always seems to delight in. And then it never happened. The actors are great and their chemistry together makes this one of the few found footage movies I can think of where I didn't almost fall asleep in the first half, but my fortitude was in no way rewarded by a payoff. Now, ordinarily I've come to expect not getting a great payoff with this kind of movie, but I always expect one in a Goldthwaite movie, and I didn't get one this time. We get all the moments you do expect done as expertly as you would hope, but nothing unexpected, and for a horror subgenre that's probably more over saturated than any other at the moment, that's a deal breaker.

If Willow Creek had been the first of its kind or even the tenth, or if it had been directed by someone who hadn't already proven themselves capable as a filmmaker, I would have no issue with it. As it stands, it feels less like a movie than a feature length art school assignment designed to teach the technique of a found footage horror movie, so preoccupied with the process that it comes out perfect, just like a paint by numbers canvas. Personally, I would have preferred a less polished effort if it meant the story actually went somewhere new and crazy in that way only Bobcat-motherfucking-Goldthwaite can do new and crazy. If by some miracle you aren't sick of this kind of movie by now, especially the Blair Witch style "Lost In The Woods" variant, then you should definitely check this one out, but if you've actually spent any degree of time watching mainstream movies in the last decade or so, you have no real reason to bother with it. My only hope is that now Goldthwaite has learned how to make a movie like this, and he can now feel confident enough to go on to make one that's actually worth making and worth watching. Or just go back to making movies about ladies blowing dogs. That would work for me too.

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