If you’d have told me, say, ten years ago that the annoying comedian best known for doing the voice of that stupid rabbit puppet on a third-rate Married With Children knock-off sitcom would develop into one of the most eclectic, incisive, and provocative independent filmmakers to come down the pipeline in some time—and that he’d be in his fifties when said entirely unexpected career transformation took place—well, I’m sure I’d have laughed. And yet here we are, in 2014, and it’s the inimitable Bobcat Goldthwait who’s having the last laugh on all of us. Funny how life works, ain’t it?
Here’s the thing, though—having surprised us already by coming out of nowhere and delivering two very funny, but also painfully human, robustly scathing critiques of dysfunctional American family life and consumer/media “culture” with World’s Greatest Dad and God Bless America, Goldthwait has opted to eschew easy pigeon-holing and take his writing/directing career down yet another road none of us saw coming, scaling things back tremendously for his latest, Willow Creek, a low-budget flick shot in 2013 and released this year (now available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Dark Sky Films—on the technical front both widescreen picture and 5.1 sound are superb, and extras include a deleted scene, a brief “behind-the-scenes” vignette, and a full-length commentary track featuring Goldthwait and his two principal actors that’s actually pretty engrossing and informative). Willow Creek breathes some much welcome new life into not just one, but two sub-genres—the Bigfoot movie and the “found footage” or “mockumentary”-style horror, both of which are considered by many to be well past their sell-by dates.
First let’s talk Sasquatch, shall we? He’s never really gone away, but let’s face it—these days you’re just not likely to get away with a movie like The Legend Of Boggy Creek or Night Of The Demon (my personal favorite of the bunch, best known for being “the one where Bigfoot rips a guy’s dick off”). Audiences are too sophisticated, apparently, for good old-fashioned cheesy fun and we’re more interested, so we’re told, in angst and gravitas and all that. Yet there definitely remains a hard-core group of “Bigfooters” out there, as evidenced by the sheer number of websites devoted to “proving” the creature’s existence and the fact that the venerable late-night radio show Coast To Coast probably still has at least one or two segments devoted to “Squatchers” every week. With Willow Creek we have a film that not only acknowledges, but actively embraces, this sub-culture—to the point where Goldthwait even dedicates his work to Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin, the two guys who shot what remains the most-famous Sasquatch footage ever back in 1967. More on them in a minute.
As for “found footage” horror—well, it’s really not going away, even if it’s been pretty thoroughly played out in the eyes of many. We’re probably never going to see this particular genre regain the staggering heights of effectiveness it achieved when first utilized by Ruggero Deodato in his notorious (and, in my book at any rate, legendary) 1980 film Cannibal Holocaust, nor will it ever enjoy the kind of commercial success it did when first revived, after a long hibernation, with The Blair Witch Project, but it has staying power for a couple of reasons: one, it’s economical, so indie horror auteurs on a tight budget can always turn to it out of practicality/necessity; and two, the old adages of “the scariest stuff is what you don’t see” and “the creepiest explanations are the ones you have to provide for yourself” are woven right into its celluloid DNA automatically, since we almost never get a clear picture of what’s actually happening, either physically or conceptually, with a shaky, hand-held, purportedly-operated-by-an-amateur camera.
The sheer number of these “mockumentary” horror flicks available on Netflix instant streaming alone is proof that this conceit is very much alive, but whether or not it’s alive and well—shit, I guess that’s open for debate. I’m not as bone-tired of it as many of my fellow wannabe-critics out there, as evidenced by the healthy amount of digital “ink” I’ve devoted to reviewing some of these movies, but it does need to be handled right, and too many filmmakers have taken too many liberties with it that often strain credulity. “I assembled this footage later, added a musical score, and edited the sequence of events to play out like a traditional narrative” not only doesn’t cut it logically, but rather defeats the whole purpose by taking away the two things that the genre should, at least, always have going for it—namely immediacy and authenticity. Here again, Goldthwait comes up trumps by making sure that his supposedly “raw” and “amateur” footage does, indeed, feel both “raw” and “amateur.” It takes a seasoned pro to make something that has all the airs of something this unseasoned and unprofessional.
Now, getting back to Patterson and Gimlin, as promised—coming in at a brisk 77 minutes, Willow Creek follows the trials and travails of neophyte “Squatcher” Jim (Bryce Johnson) and his “struggling actress” girlfriend, Kelly (Alexie Gilmore), as they venture into the northern California wilderness to re-trace the steps the fathers of modern “Bigfooting” first took way back in ’67. They spend an enjoyable day and night in the titular town of, ya know, Willow Creek, before heading off into the woods for a night of camping and finding—well, pretty much exactly what they were expecting to find (or what he was expecting to find, at any rate—she’s a bit more agnostic on the whole matter going in). Along the way we get a few tried-and-true horror tropes thrown at us—locals warning them off, etc.—but even those don’t feel too hackneyed and clichéd when delivered with the proper air of genuine menace. In due course, though, it becomes plainly obvious that, in the tradition of celebrated horror fare like Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes and the aforementioned Cannibal Holocaust and The Blair Witch Project, these city slickers have no fucking idea what they’re doing and can barely pitch a tent much less hope to survive a night in the inhospitable wilderness, so it’s fairly obvious from the word go that things aren’t going to end well for our young lovers.
Mind you, that’s not a complaint on my part. No one’s out to reinvent the wheel here, and like most horror fans, all I ask for is that the filmmakers do a reasonable enough job telling a variation on a story I already know. Goldthwait definitely delivers on that score by keeping things nice and tight—his small (okay, very small) cast of, let’s face it, complete unknowns, do a terrific job, and they’re stuck in a very tense and confined situation, thus allowing the chills to really hit home. In stark contrast to so many other horror films these days, the people in this one are actually quite likable and we don’t want anything bad to happen to them, even though we know it both will and, frankly, must.
How tense and confined is this situation they’re stuck in, you ask? Well, it’s no exaggeration to say that the film’s most harrowing scene involves nothing but the two of them in a tent, whispering in the dark, for a good 15 minutes or so while they hear strange noises outside. In the wrong hands that could get pretty tedious pretty quickly, but in Goldthwait’s, it’s almost unbearably gripping. With no special effects, not much by way of a set, and only two characters, he gives an absolute clinic on how to make “things that go bump in the night” work. It’s the most bare-bones, stripped-down tour-de-force I’ve seen in quite some time, oozing with more power and drama than 100 million dollars’ worth of robots or super-heroes battling it out while the city burns behind them could ever hope to achieve.
Which brings us to one more—and final—thing that sets Willow Creek apart: not only does it lack the soulless bluster and bombast of the big-budget blockbusters, unlike most of its genre contemporaries, it’s also a fairly bloodless and gore-free affair. Don’t get me wrong—I love a good splatter-fest as much as anybody, and appreciate the efforts of most horror directors to flat-out sicken and repulse me, but Goldthwait manages to frighten the bejeezus out of me here without showing so much as a drop of the red stuff on screen. That’s an impressive feat in and of itself, even if it isn’t exactly what many of my fellow “gorehounds” are usually in the mood for.
At the end of the day, then, I have to say that I hope Willow Creek—which was never released theatrically, to my knowledge—finds an audience on home video, and that said audience includes plenty of aspiring horror filmmakers. Bobcat Goldthwait, who has never made a horror movie before, is teaching some valuable lessons here that future generations can learn from—give us good characters worth caring about, a believable and easy-to-relate-to premise, and scenes that play out best late at night with all the lights off, and it doesn’t matter if we don’t see heads getting ripped off or bridges blowing up, a rustle against a tent can be more effective than all the special effects in the world. I like being “shocked and awed” as much anyone, but ya know what? I like being scared even more.