Some preamble on Bobcat Goldthwait. I first heard of Bobcat when I read Filmcrithulk’s review of God Bless America. I quietly filed the director and his films away for later exploration. Then somewhere in there, I caved in and started devouring Harmontown, the podcast Dan Harmon (my Community fandom has been well-documented) publishes. Bobcat guested a few times, and was continually fascinating. Not only were the stories of his life amazing, and really, go listen to his Gathering of the Juggalo’s story, but he routinely displays the sort of artistic mentality that I tend to admire. So I watched World’s Greatest Dad. Which you can read my take on:
Which is really what makes the movie black comedy. Sure there are scenes like the one where the grieving Lance has to zip up his deceased son’s pants, but the movie’s world is truly dark because it rewards Lance throughout. He does something that seems innocuous enough at first, but then gets more and more morally shady, and the universe just rewards him. That deep-seated notion is pretty queasy. A good guy does something bad, something guilt-causing, and only faces self-inflicted punishment.
While I ended up being slightly unsure about World’s Greatest Dad, I was sure that it was brilliant. Just the sort of brilliant that could’ve used some polishing. But apparently that’s all part of Bobcat Goldthwait’s manic and speedy writing process. As someone who struggles with the whole “taking your time” part of art I can’t help but relate to this mentality. At its best it lends itself to fantastic enthusiastic punk-rock projects. At its worst it can lead to a Transformers script, and clearly Bobcat falls on the fantastic side of that spectrum. So I was really looking forward to watching his found-footage Bigfoot movie, Willow Creek.
The opening shot of Willow Creek is the only shot that goes against the found-footage concept. It’s a nighttime shot of a quivering blade of grass that constitutes a flash forward. You’ll have to forgive me for a second as I tackle some conceptual and technical complaints with the hordes of found footage projects out there. None of this stuff truly alters the value of the film; it’s all stylistic and rarely matters in terms of story or character. It’s also frequently obnoxiously ignored. Willow Creek functions wonderfully as a piece of “true” found footage. There is one camera. No editing, just a series of sequential clips (which means that we occasionally see several takes of the same scene), and no clearly crafted camera shots. Compare that to something like Chronicle which totally shatters its premise with a massive quantity of editing and invented cameras and bullshit. Or even better is the short lived TV show The River, which will forever remain my chief example of a piece of found footage filmmaking that barely bothered to justify or maintain its found-footage choice. Even Cloverfield’s (which largely isn’t as bad as people say, there’s stuff going on there script-wise) treatment of the genre is utter bullshit. A digital camera that records over previous footage like a tape-based camera, leading to a film rife with nonsensical editing disguised as glitches that don’t behave like a digital camera or a tape.
Willow Creek also entirely removes the ever-present question found-footage brings to the table: “Why the fuck are you still recording?” Willow Creek revolves around a couple filming a documentary. Not only that but the movie neatly keeps the stakes low, right up until they’re not and it’s suddenly too late to turn the camera off. There wasn’t a single scene in the movie where I questioned the continued filming. Even character development largely involved the camera in some form. The couple might be filming when an argument starts, but then the camera is almost always turned off immediately, leaving us to intuit the ending of the fight by the beginning of the next scene.
Again though, all this stuff is, at its core, surface set-dressing. It’s just nice, in the case of found footage, to see this set-dressing stem from the nature of the movie, and not feel like an afterthought decided by the necessities of budgeting or marketing. Stylistic decisions are at their best when they’re not born in a vacuum separate from the actual nature of the film. All this may not ultimately effect the power of the movie’s story but it does betray an artistically driven thought process, and it more than affects some of the movie’s other key visceral goals, namely the creation of atmosphere (and eventually horror).
Watching World’s Greatest Dad, I would never have pegged Bobcat Goldthwait for a future horror director, which clearly shows I have a limited imagination. Because in a film-landscape inundated with found-footage horror, Bobcat Goldthwait’s Willow Creek stands a cut above the rest. So much above the rest that I don’t hesitate to label Willow Creek as the best found-footage horror movie I’ve ever seen. Which makes it the best found-footage movie I’ve seen. So that’s something.
The movie follows a Bigfoot believer and his skeptical girlfriend as they attempt to visit the site of the iconic Bigfoot footage. Yes, that footage you’re thinking of. Which was taken by Willow Creek. Hence the title. They’re making a little documentary as they go, in part as a birthday gift to the machismo-driven Bigfoot believer. This documentary brings them into contact with a series of rural dwellers that have built lives around this furry figure. These interviews are mainly real interviews with real people who didn’t know they were in a fictional movie, giving them both a surprisingly humorous and surprisingly spooky edge.
One of the things I immediately have to praise the film for (other than the aforementioned stylistic choices) is its runtime. This is a razor sharp little movie with a minimal runtime. The short runtime really changes up the constraints of the found-footage style, especially when considering found-footage horror. I mentioned before that the movie never lets you question why the characters are still filming by keeping the threats and horror completely in the shadows until its entirely too late to turn the camera off. Basically, and this could almost constitute a spoiler, if you’re really worried, there’s nothing but a series of thinly veiled threats and signs and atmosphere-building warnings until a series of long, terrifying takes building to one heart-pounding final shot (it’s a cheated take naturally, but it’s still so fabulously taut and startling and terrifying). Right as the horror climaxes the movie ends. It’s a problem faced by many a horror movie. Everything after the horror money shot is pretty boring. Bobcat alleviates this by ending the movie as soon as it gets truly terrifying.
The film nerd in me has to talk about these last takes. The last one was around six minutes long. They basically make use of the idea that the camera was turned on when there wasn’t immediate danger, and then the characters were too frightened and panicked to even think about the camera. The tensest take comes about two scenes from the final shot, which is more of a jump scare than anything. This take is almost twenty minutes long. It’s broken up when the main characters turn off the camera’s light and sit in the dark for a bit, providing a nice black interlude. It’s still wonderfully tension building. The shot is from a static camera and focuses on the two main characters sitting in a tent as ominous sounds circle the tent. At the scene’s peak, something knocks against the fabric of the tent. It reminded me a bit of the way Ingmar Bergman uses his signature shot (long take of an actor’s face as they describe an intense scene) to create a horrific atmosphere in The Hour of the Wolf. Let’s turn to Walter Murch to talk about the reason long takes work so well with horror (hey, what do you know, Kubrick does this too):
Blinking is some way of tabulating—a kind of carriage return, click, or save to disk—that helps the process of “Okay, now change the subject.” Every time you move your eyes, there’s an interruption in the visual field—you go momentarily blind when your eyeballs are moving. In order not to freak us out, the brain, almost condescendingly, inserts the last thing that we looked at, which has been stored in a sort of cache.
The motion of the eyes is the fastest motion in the body. The displacement of the eye has the most rapid acceleration and rapid deceleration. No other muscle can do it like the eye can. Ninety-nine percent of the time we’re dealing with somebody, we’re looking at their eyes. We’re not looking at their nose or their lips or whatever. So without knowing it, we have incorporated this idea of blinking into how we’re dealing with people. Can we trust them, or not? Are they telling the truth? It’s a perennial problem for politicians, because they’re up there giving a speech and, most often, they’re not really in the moment. They’re reading a text, and they’re thinking about ten thousand different things. Their mouth is in motor mode. As a result, their blinks are off, especially with the ones that don’t get elected. We don’t trust them. We say there’s something funny about this guy, and we don’t know what it is. A good percentage of that is the fact that he’s not blinking at the right place. Dan Quayle was notorious for this.
This is basically Murch explaining how he realized that cuts in a film should serve as a blink, only appearing when the audience should focus on something else (which seems self-explanatory, but basically this method eschews the idea of cutting together shots of the same subject matter if it’s unnecessary, or cutting to something superfluous). Murch also talks about how an audience will blink in time with cuts, his book, In the Blink of an Eye, is well worth reading. All this is just to explain why long takes are tense. It forces the audience’s focus to stay unwavering for an uncomfortable amount of time, mimicking the way your senses actually behave in moments of tension. Yay for science.
All this clever filmmaking built around well-realized characters (with honest to god arcs) makes this movie an instant classic, at least for me.
Of course the found footage style and simplistic story (there’s something more interesting going on with the film’s final reveal than some noticed, but never mind that*) means the film is being misinterpreted.
Despite the impressively committed performances by the two leads and the screenplay’s touches of sly humor, the proceedings are mostly all too redolent of the endless found-footage horror films that have followed in the wake of The Blair Witch Project. Running a scant 80 minutes, Willow Creek doesn’t exactly wear out its welcome. But it does make one hope that now that Goldthwait, an acknowledged Bigfoot buff, has gotten this one out of his system, he’ll go back to making more of his wildly adventurous comedies.
This take (from the Hollywood reporter) completely fails to notice the innate justification for Bobcat Goldthwait’s stylistic and formalistic choices. These choices aren’t born of a “lets look like Blair Witch mentality” they’re honestly artistically driven choices born of the film’s content.
Which, again, and for the last time, is a brilliant change of pace.
Welcome to my first ever footnote. This is just the place where I want to point out that it’s not fucking Bigfoot at the end of that movie. It’s clearly a woman. Making me think there’s some sort of backwoods Bigfoot cult taunting and eventually killing this couple. They’re also probably leaving footprints using the cast we see earlier in the film. Making this movie about believing in things (Bigfoot type things) far darker in its ultimate take than it might seem at first.