Just when you thought the found-footage gimmick had finally been pounded into eternal irrelevance by the half-dozen Paranormal Activity sequels, which were inspired by countless horror films riffing on unearthed VHS tapes, which themselves were the evil spawn of The Blair Witch Project, along comes a micro-budgeted little surprise called Willow Creek.
Directed by renegade provocateur Bobcat Goldthwaite, set in the wilderness of Northern California and centered around Sasquatch, the silliest of modern-day monsters, Willow Creek turns out to be a truly frightening, intensely unforgiving experience. The fact that it accomplishes this, not by applying a new twist to the found-footage cliché, but by polishing the cliché with gripping effectiveness makes this video-on-demand thriller one of the “finds” of the decade.
I’ll admit, I’ve never seen any of Goldthwaite’s previous movies. The former stand-up comic has a penchant for subject matter so off-putting, at least on paper, that I simply haven’t wanted to go there. Autoerotic asphyxiation; canine fellatio; a depressed alcoholic clown. But since I’m a Northwest kid with an affection for the loopy wilderness legend of Bigfoot, how could I pass on Willow Creek?
The framing device for the film sets us up with a Bigfoot-believing Internet journalist and his non-believing girlfriend on a trek to the original location of the first, and still disputed, “authentic” footage of a Bigfoot ever recorded. (That was way back in the late ‘60s.) The couple appears to be shooting a feature for an online reality TV show, although the whole thing has the feel of a lark, one the girlfriend puts up with because, as she tells her companion, “I like hanging out with you.”
Alexie Gilmore and Bryce Johnson play the lovebirds, and it is here where Goldthwaite first shakes the cobwebs out of the found-footage bin. Gilmore and Johnson engage in a playful, lively banter as they work through some hiccups in their relationship, toss around ideas about their future and display a respect and intelligence so often missing from these characterizations, which usually devolve into idiotic sniping and a consistent use of the F-word.
As the pair interviews townsfolk in the real Humboldt County town of Willow Creek, shoot goofy stand-ups in front of Bigfoot sculptures and sample a pair of Bigfoot submarine sandwiches, the movie cruises forward with an amiable rhythm. Even the camerawork soothes with tripod-solid compositions and lovely summer light, another step-up from the jerky amateurism of the genre.
But our adventurous duo is not professional when it comes to heeding a few ominous warnings. One local tells them Bigfoot is no joke. Another cautions that the wilderness they’re heading into is full of bears and cougars. Later, once they are trundling down a gravel road in the middle of nowhere, they have a nerve-racking encounter with a surly backwoods creep, a potential man-raping tweaker who orders them to get the hell out.
Wiser heads would normally prevail at this point. But instead of heading back to town to buy a few furry Sasquatch tchotchkes from the gift shop, the couple goes all in, backpacking off into the trail-free underbrush. Later that night, awakened in their tent by strange noises, Goldthwaite puts the “oh” into auteur, as in “Oh, shit.”
What follows is a master class in things that go bump in the night. The director and his 5-person sound department understand that hearing is sometimes much more terrifying than seeing, and they employ that strategy via a riveting, locked-down, 19-minute-long single shot of Johnson and Gilmore cowering in their tent. The scene is broken only by a brief moment when they turn off and on their video camera’s on-board light.
Outside, a staccato assault of weird noises and thrown objects inches inexorably closer. The source could be the hairy beast of legend or a purely human boogeyman. Whatever it is, it is freaky.
This interlude, occurring before the couple’s special hell truly breaks loose, sneaks up on you with a disarming ease, and then builds to a level of punishing tension. For every backcountry camper awakened by a cracking branch coming from somewhere in the deep dark woods, the scene is a living nightmare.
The thing is, we wouldn’t care less what happens to our two protagonists if the first half of the film had not invested us in their relationship and quixotic quest. At one point, as panic rises in their throats, Johnson admits to Gilmore, “I fucked up” — and you, the audience, truly hope they survive their ordeal.
I don’t want to hint at how the movie ends. In order to find out if this intrepid but naïve couple, now paralyzed in a state of helpless dread, live to tell their tale, you’ll need to make the journey with them deep into the woods of Willow Creek.
This review first appeared on The Restless Critic blog.