Willow Creek (2013)

Willow Creek first published by Grolsch FilmWorks

Willow Creek is a film of two tightly interwoven halves. It begins with amateur documentarian/Bigfoot believer Jim (Bryce Johnson) and his sceptical actress girlfriend Kelly (Alexie Simone) heading to the eponymous mountain town (in Humboldt County, California) to film interviews with residents about their most famous local legend. Its second half shows the ill-fated couple’s filmed experiences a-camping in search of Bigfoot in the nearby Trinity National Forest – where, back in 1967, Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin had shot their famous (big) footage of a (supposed) sasquatch.

Both the very low budget and the narrative structure (first tell, then show) are familiar from Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s pioneering 1999 found-footage movie The Blair Witch Project (and interestingly, Sánchez has now made his own found-footage Bigfoot film, Exists) – but the writing and direction from Bobcat Goldthwait, a filmmaker more normally associated with confronting comedy (Shakes The Clown, Sleeping Dogs, World’s Greatest Dad, God Bless America) than with horror, ensure that Willow Creek comes with its own very special flavour. First, the use of real Willow Creek locals essentially (although not entirely) playing themselves brings with it not only authenticity, but also an unexpectedly affectionate portrait of smalltown eccentricity (complete with songs about the Patterson-Gimlin expedition!), while the professional actors in the two lead rôles come with lived-in chemistry.

The often hilarious banter in the film’s first half feels believably everyday and intuitive, which might suggest improvisation but for its focus on sexual and anatomical taboos (something of a signature in Goldthwait’s writing). When Kelly casually recites an ad for a feminine hygiene product, speculates on what other parts of a sasquatch’s anatomy (besides the feet) might be in their Bigfoot Burgers (“we might be eating really big wieners right now”), and simulates masturbating and fellating a Bigfoot statue for Jim’s camera – or indeed when Steven Streufert, actual owner of Bigfoot Books at Willow Creek, points out that the camera which Patterson rented to shoot his footage could also be used for “home movies and amateur films like pornos“, or when Jim declares himself to be “balls-deep in the Trinity National Forest”, and half-jokingly attempts to film his canoodling with Kelly in their tent (“it might be good for your career”), a strong sexual motif emerges which, while entirely characteristic of Goldthwait’s other films, also haunts the film’s unspeakable off-camera climax.

The best news of all is that while Goldthwait may be a novice at horror, he is also a natural. One simple, 18-minute long take of Kelly and Jim becoming increasingly freaked by the noises outside their tent is a minimalist masterclass in mounting tension – and Goldthwait fully understands that nothing is more frightening than what cannot be seen. The results, by turns funny and frightening, are a perfect hybridisation of familiar found footage tropes and transgressive Bobcattery.

© Anton Bitel