Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Willow Creek

Let’s move past the fact that the found footage genre was rendered stale years ago. Move past the fact that most films of this kind are lazy, uneventful, and boring. Move past the cheap production design, bad acting, and uninteresting conclusions. Bogging this review down with all of the things found footage films get wrong is fruitless. Instead, our time is better spent discussing everything that Willow Creek gets right.

Yes, Willow Creek is a found footage/lost in the woods film. (And yes, the characters get lost while hunting for Bigfoot.) Yes, the film looks cheap and relies heavily on non-actors to execute its story. In fact, there’s really nothing about Willow Creek that should work. Yet there wasn’t a second of its 80 minutes that I didn’t enjoy. I was stunned by its authenticity, pleased by its candor, and so thankful it embraced the faults of its genre.

The film is about a Bigfoot enthusiast named Jim (Bryce Johnson), who travels to northern California with his supportive yet skeptical girlfriend, Kelly (Alexie Gilmore), to document his search of an actual Sasquatch. Ever since Jim saw the famed Patterson-Gimlin film from the late ‘60s (which, apparently, captured a Sasquatch on film), it has been his dream to see one in the flesh.
During their drive, Jim and Kelly playfully debate the existence of Bigfoot, thankfully straying away from just petty arguments of he said, she said. Kelly never entertains the thought that Bigfoot(s) actually exists, but that isn’t of issue. She’s here to support her boyfriend, and she does a fine job doing so. When Jim records himself giving a painfully awkward testimonial, for example, Kelly, a budding actress herself, offers words of encouragement instead of laughing in his face.

The first thing I noticed in these early scenes was the natural chemistry between Johnson and Gilmore. Throughout the film, Gilmore in particular delivers one of the most natural performances I’ve seen in years. Really. IMDb currently lists 46 TV and movie credits for her, but I can’t recall any of those performances. Make no mistake, my lack of awareness should be taken as a compliment, as Gilmore is clearly an actress who’s able to fall into a character and never draw attention to her acting. Honestly, for the first 15 minutes of Willow Creek, I wondered if writer/director Bobcat Goldthwait had struck gold by casting two supremely authentic unknowns. Johnson occasionally hams it up, but that happens very rarely. Truly, I was sold by these two from the beginning. The movie wouldn’t work without them.

The film’s insistence on authenticity continues as Jim and Kelly reach Willow Creek. In town (the movie was actually shot in the real Willow Creek), Kelly films Jim conducting a handful of clumsy interviews that are humorously spot-on. Jim stammers over his words, calls for in-camera retakes, interrupts his subjects when he shouldn’t, and so on. Additionally, Goldthwait has said that most of the people interviewed in the film had no idea they were being filmed for a fictional found footage movie. Goldthwait kept his crew small and his budget ultra slim; no lights, no expensive microphones, just a goofy guy with a Bigfoot fascination, accompanied by his polite girlfriend. In short, there is very little acting in Willow Creek, which is high praise for any found footage film, or, really, any film in general.
Once Jim and Kelly enter the nearby woods in Bluff Creek (where the Patterson-Gimlin film was shot), the film organically adopts a tense vibe. One that is punctuated with one of the most thrilling movie sequences I’ve seen so far this year: a 19-minute long shot of Jim and Kelly being awoken in the middle of the night by strange noises around their tent. Throughout this scene, the camera never moves and the tension becomes unbearable. And it is during this sequence that Alexie Gilmore exudes the best of her talent, subtly transforming Kelly from staunch opponent to scared shitless believer. I was so wowed by the effectiveness of the scene’s simplicity. The scene itself is enough to make the movie worth it.

Bobcat Goldthwait makes odd films about odd people. They’re dark, funny, and void of judgment. It would be so easy for Goldthwait to make fun of Bigfoot believers with Willow Creek. But rather than going for the easy laugh, he roots his film in truth. He could’ve filmed that tent scene in a cozy living room and added the creepy sound effects in post-production. Instead, he hiked to the middle of Bluff Creek, told his actors to get in a tent, and had members of his small crew circle around them and make Sasquatch-like noises. Whether you like found footage films or not, believe in Bigfoot or don’t – it’s obvious that Willow Creek knows what it’s doing, and is doing it damn well. B+ 

16 comments:

  1. I heard good things about the film as I have been aware that Bobcat Goldthwait has been making a name for himself as a filmmaker as Gilmore was in his last feature in World's Greatest Dad as Robin Williams' girlfriend which was a really good film.

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    1. I think you'd dig it man. I need to go back and rewatch Would's Greatest Dad, especially to pay keen attention to Gilmore's work. She's sensational.

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  2. Well, after this post, man, I'm really intrigued to give it a watch. It's one these films that I happen to always postpone on watching them for some reason. And I really like the "weird" factor with which Goldthwait imbues his stories.

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    1. I highly recommend this one. What's interesting is that, as a Goldthwait fan, Willow Creek is easily the least Bobcat Goldthwait movie Bobcat Goldthwait has made yet. It just works, in every way.

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  3. I thought it was great. I caught it at last years Frightfest in London and Bob introduced the film and did a Q&A afterwards. He said it was just an extension of an actual trip him and his wife made to Willow Creek and that the two characters were basically him and his wife. I loved how he made you really like the two leads and then put them in moral danger. It was genuinely tense in that tent and I think was made more so because you cared what happened to them. How creepy was that guy they met in the woods, too? The one one who became quite aggressive and told them to, ahem...leave? Love Bobcats flicks. His last 3 have been truly different.

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    1. Awesome man, so glad you liked it. Very cool that you had a chance to see Bobcat talk about the film as well. That dude they ran into... yeah, forget blood and guts and guns and knives, THAT guy is scary to me. He was so real and menacing, you really had no idea what the hell he was going to do. A great way to kick off the tension of that sequence. I actually watched the movie again last night. I really do enjoy it.

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  4. I'd considered seeing this at the Sydney Film Festival last weekend, but ended up cutting it from my shortlist. After your review I'll have to find another opportunity to see it!

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    1. It's a solid little flick, but I can totally understand why you'd skip it. Film festivals are hard that way!

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  5. I wish I could share your enthusiasm for this film but until that extended scene in the tent I was rather bored with what both characters were doing. I will agree that the performances are far (FAR) more naturalistic and believable than those usually employed in this genre of film, but even that didn't do much for me in here. After the tent scene is when I found my attention grabbed though. I think it was a nice attempt at something by Goldthwait but I think that both this and God Bless America have failed to live up to the promise of World's Greatest Dad. Your review is expertly written as always though and did provide the incentive for me to watch it in the first place - so thank you for that!

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    1. Hey man, I'm glad you at least took the time to watch it. Small films like this deserve a fighting chance, you know? And I completely get where you're coming from. I was rather bored with the first two acts as well, but I liked that they were slow. It was all about the build up, and for me, it more than paid off.

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  6. Good review Alex. I enjoyed this one. It borrowed a little too much from The Blair Witch Project but Goldthwait did a good "version" and that sequence in the tent towards the end is excellent.

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    1. Thanks Dan. Yeah, it's influences are rather obvious, but that tent scene really turned things for me. A truly thrilling sequence.

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  7. Really good movie, and solid use of the found footage genre. The build-up sort of reminded of Ti West's The Sacrament.

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    1. Hell yeah man, glad you liked it. I watched The Sacrament the day after I watched Willow Creek. Again, I liked it a lot more than I thought I would. I think I still prefer Willow Creek, but they are both very solid efforts.

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  8. Hmm, it sounds interesting. I have a lot to see from earlier this year, but I'll put this on the back burner.

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    1. Yeah, I think that's a safe bet. Not essential viewing, but a rather breezy watch.

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