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Willow Creek (2014)

Squatching Reality

Though Willow Creek is an intermittently funny film featuring a charming pair of leads, I spent much of it confused and bored out of my mind. And, yes, I absolutely recommend this movie--with a warning that you not approach it like our protagonists, Bigfoot enthusiast, Jim (Bryce Johnson), and his supportive girlfriend, Kelly (Alexie Gilmore). With starry eyes and no back-up plan, they venture deep into the woods of the Pacific Northwest in search of something they only think they know from pop culture. What awaits them is more bizarre and life-changing than they could have imagined.

Similarly, you might look at the film's eerie, painted poster (featuring a magnificent, skull-faced Sasquatch comprised of screaming, twisted souls) and assume you're in for a standard horror movie. But if you know anything about writer/director Bobcat Goldthwait's filmmaking career, alarm bells should immediately go off in the deepest, smartest part of your brain. Just as World's Greatest Dad is the blackest satire of single-dad dramas and God Bless America skewers media-culture cranks, Willow Creek offers a harsh examination of found-footage fright flicks. It's so effective because Goldtwhait camouflages his critique in a convincingly bland, frustrating shell that, by the end, will have unnerved you for all the right reasons.

Goldthwait doesn't hold back on filmmakers and audiences who've made the subgenre both increasingly disposable and exponentially more profitable. The confluence of The Blair Witch Project and the rise of do-it-yourself mega-fame outlets like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Vine have created a mystery vacuum at the core of our pop landscape. Today, it seems, there's no such thing as an idea that can't be explained away, laughed off, or simply swiped past if it proves too challenging (or, God forbid, scary).

This is Jim and Kelly's reality, precisely, which explains their trek to the heart of nowhere without weapons, military-grade GPS, or even a back-up plan. They simply drive until they can't--then get out and walk, with only some flimsy camping equipment and their digital camera as protection. At least the first leg of their journey to the abyss is fun--for them.

Kelly films Jim standing next to statues (and not-ready-for-prime-time locals who might as well be statues) for segments that they'll cobble together later for upload or micro-festival documentary consideration. Either way, based on the duo's iffy camera work and Jim's cheesy, anyone-can-be-a-host demeanor, it's clear that this effort was doomed from the start. As a moviegoing experience, Willow Creek not only dares the swipers and the watch-checkers to sit still (indeed, to not get up and leave), but also to reconsider the entertainment value of their own DIY art projects in the process.

Goldthwait and company intentionally wear out their comedic welcome early on. By the time Jim and Kelly cross over the barrier into the wild, they're about as sick of each other as the locals and the audience are of them. Squabbling, back-tracking, and refusing to simply go home, even when they begin to see evidence of the big, scary monster--these two gave me flashbacks to the Blair Witch crew (minus the gallons of watery snot).

Just when the empathy meter is about to zero-out, the lovely and terrifying tent scene comes along to re-set the picture. Following a tender-yet-awkward marriage proposal, Jim and Kelly are awakened in the middle of the night by a strange noise in the distance. Jim turns on the camera and its mounted light, and tries to convince Kelly that he's heard something. Kelly begs him to go back to bed--until she hears something, too. It's faint, but real...possibly.

Goldthwait holds on this shot for nineteen minutes, as the actors react to things moving outside their thin walls, drawing closer and making creepy calling sounds. This segment is driven by uncertainty, evolving from "Is there a noise?" to "Is that an animal?" to "Is it getting closer?" to "Is this tent really fooling anyone?"

Looking at that last sentence, I can understand the chorus of dismissive sniffles that just emanated from a thousand bathrooms, home offices, and commuter trains. I assure you, reading this scenario is much different than experiencing it in a theatre with a rapt audience. Goldthwait, his crew, and especially Johnson and Gilmore take us on an emotional journey in the middle of Willow Creek that cannot be understated. It helps that the director began the project with a twenty-five-page script that didn't include any dialogue for this scene--and that he didnt' tell his performers exactly what he'd planned to do here (and I guess it didn't hurt that the movie was shot in the actual middle of nowhere, under conditions that would not be considered "luxurious", "comfortable", or even "safe" by most definitions).

This is the dramatic high point of the film, but it's not the end. That comes after our tired, scared, and utterly lost protagonists are forced to take shelter under a tree, in the rain, with only a camera and clothes to differentiate them from every other animal in the woods. Your big question now is, probably, "Do they find Bigfoot?"

The answer is, "I don't know." Jim and Kelly find something out there, and it may be the basis for the legend, but also may have nothing to do with ol' Sasquatch. Goldthwait ends his film on a startlingly ambiguous note that is full of possibilities and realism--two factors lacking in many found-footage pictures. The last couple minutes will undoubtedly frustrate casual fans, simply because the writer/director doesn't cheat. There are no cute title cards, fancy edits, or suddenly omniscient points of view here. We're watching what a hiker might find on a battered camera someday, which he or she will have picked up from a heap of shredded, weathered flannel. In placing the cherry atop his Reality TV-culture sundae, Goldthwait goes back to the well of a famous documentary about similar subject matter--which I won't name for fear of spoiling the ending altogether.

This is a big recommendation from me, but a tough one. Depending on your patience, understanding of the wider themes being addressed, and comfort with movies sidestepping convention, Goldthwait's latest venture may or may not be for you. His is a beautiful example of the lost art of showing not telling, but not showing so much that the mystery gets trampled by a rote plot. There's so much to digest here that I saw the film a month ago and still find myself lost in Willow Creek.

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