Caution: minor plot spoilers ahead
Indie found footage horror flick Willow Creek cold opens on nothing. Darkness all around as the camera sits idle in a patch of grass blowing lazily in the breeze. We sit in this moment for a tad too long, then the sound crescendos into the title card.
Next, we are in a car with a couple. Jim (Bryce Johnson) is testing out the sound equipment, goading his girlfriend Kelly (Alexie Gilmore) to speak into the microphone while she drives. She recites lines from a feminine hygiene product commercial that she failed to book. They joke about the questionable hygiene of each other’s junk, and the viewer now knows for certain that they are watching a Bobcat Goldthwait picture.
Jim and Kelly are documenting their journey through Bluff Creek, where they are attempting to retread the path of the Patterson-Gimlin Bigfoot sighting footage. Kelly is highly skeptical, but is humoring Jim because it is his birthday.
The relationship between Jim and Kelly is sweet. They poke fun at each other, and the two actors appear naturalistic in these early scenes. The camera dwells on action in these first couple of scenes for too long, however. A scene where they eat at a local Bigfoot-themed restaurant shows them eating with no dialogue for a few seconds. Another scene shows Jim introducing his documentary with three successive takes. Scenes like these make the exposition last much longer than necessary.
In contrast, what is immediately interesting about the exposition scenes is that we get a glimpse into the real Bigfoot tourist trap that is Willow Creek. Shot on location where the alleged Bigfoot sighting takes place, the nearby town is full of kitschy, Bigfoot tourist destinations. The couple passes by a large mural that depicts Bigfoot helping men build a house. They also interview real people in the town about the area and the mystery of Bigfoot.
These scenes add a layer of improvisation to the acting that gives the movie some realism. It is a technique reminiscent of The Blair Witch Project, although, in this day and age, it is impossible for the same confusion to arise about the film’s purported reality.
The essential prerequisite for a found footage film is fulfilled with Willow Creek: it is pitiful to look at. The landscape would be beautiful. The town would be rustic and homey. If only the camera work was professionally handled. Some shots are passable, of course, like the one that sweeps across the vast forested horizon. Mainly, however, the camera movements are purposefully jerky and hard to stomach.
Other cliche tropes of horror are employed in Willow Creek as well. Cell phones don’t work (and a slight self-aware nod that that’s how horror movies begin doesn’t make up for the lazy isolation technique). A stranger appears just before they reach the border between safety and certain death to warn them that they need to turn around immediately. It all feels too familiar.
The set-up of this film lasts forever. At the halfway point, the couple has just laid down their tent in the woods. Nothing particularly scary has happened, and the man on the street interviews can only entertain for so long.
Once they do set up camp and night falls, the stakes still rise at a crawl pace. An extended take shows the couple in their tent. The camera is static, as are the characters. All they do is listen to strange sounds occurring around the campsite. The take rolls on for long minutes, and nothing happens on camera. The scene builds for–no exaggeration–15 minutes.
By the end of the scene, the tension is at a fever pitch. When tension builds for so long, and you are given nothing but a static image for that time, you expect the payoff to be immense. In this case, the payoff is underwhelming.
Willow Creek succeeds in the suspense department, but it certainly milks it for all its worth where it can, which acts to belittle the actual scares. The clear budgetary restrictions also counteract the ability to produce real scare-worthy moments, leaving the finished product to be just a step short of entertaining.
I wonder if Bobcat Goldthwait did all of the Bigfoot noises?
Willow Creek is available to stream on Amazon Instant Video here.
As always, thanks for reading!
Have you seen Willow Creek? If so, what did you think? Let me know in the comments!
–Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)