By pure definition, a “found footage” film implies something that Willow Creek ultimately fails at. The basic idea behind of these films is that something terrible has happened and all that remains is videotape and that that videotape has then been found and assembled into a film by some invisible being that audiences are meant to watch and hopefully be terrified by. Obviously, we all know this isn’t how found footage horror movies actually work, and that they can be just as meticulously crafted and thought out as any other film, aiming to manipulate the viewer in ways that other films can or won’t, but it bears mentioning. They don’t always work for various reasons, but I find myself defending many of them. Not only for providing an effective way of eliminating the hurdle of disbelief that can come with films about ghosts, possessions, or – in this case – Bigfoot and putting an audience directly in the action, but also for the way they shirk the high-gloss HD digital look of their brethren. Today any film can look a million bucks, whether it’s detrimental to the film’s effect or not. Willow Creek certainly does not look a million bucks, nor should it. Thankfully.
If we’re to believe this line of thinking with found footage, however, then whoever found the footage of Jim (Bryce Johnson) and Kelly (Alexie Gilmore) out in the woods of California mustn’t have had much to work with. Willow Creek is 80 minutes long, but only 30 of that are actually scary. Or designed to be scary. Or attempt to even get to scary. The rest is made up of a seemingly endless prologue involving Jim’s intentions to make a movie about Bigfoot, and a second act of casual repartee between its (admittedly likable) leads. Furthermore, if Jim is wanting to make a film about Bigfoot then why didn’t he bring a tripod? Or proper sound recording products? And why keep filming the girlfriend if she doesn’t want to be in it. Willow Creek lacks real world logic, which is usually one thing that the found footage concept allows a filmmaker to circumvent to focus on other, scarier things.
I liked many individual aspects of Willow Creek, but I just wished they came together as a whole better than they do. I respected that the film is basically one big essay on why The Blair Witch Project still works so well and how it’s impossible to recreate it (attention Hollywood, I guess). I also thought the dynamic between Johnson and Gilmore was fun, which is important given how shapeless much of the film is. Without their personalities this film would be dead long before the end credits. The two share some funny dialogue that has the air of improvisation about it (I particularly enjoyed their riffing on a Bigfoot mural) and the progression of their relationship is in retrospect far more interesting than anything else in the film. Especially as director Bobcat Goldthwait appears far more interested in them than anything involving Bigfoot. Their scenes have a certain Joe Swanberg observational quality to them that would make for a nice film if Willow Creek weren’t also trying to be a horror film, which is ultimately where Goldthwait trips himself up. It’s all well and good to want to say things using the world of a horror movie, but it’s even better when you don’t forget to try and be scary for 75% of the runtime.
These elements are strung together in 50 minutes that barely even attempt at creating atmosphere and tension. At least the film’s final 30 minutes are excellent in the way sound is used to create a sense of dread and terror. One scene that runs for nearly 20 minutes, and will remain this film’s calling card for as long people remember it, in particular makes a perfect case for horror filmmakers only really needing a decent sound designer to send chills up an audience’s spine. Something like The Conjuring breaks records by throwing everything at the screen, but when Willow Creek works it does so by stripping everything away and relying on the things that in our own homes would scare us the most. The rustling of an unfamiliar sound, an unexpected animal cry, things that literally go bump in the night.
The end is abrupt and doesn’t have half the power of The Blair Witch Project’s (an image that haunts me to this day), but at least does something interesting and effectively scary. It’s just a shame that the rest of the movie is a limp attempt at recreating old glories. Goldthwait appears to be attempting at shoehorning subjects into the narrative like relationship isolation and the cost of mythbusting to storytelling most prominently, but as a horror film, there is not enough meat on the bones to justify its few moments of greatness. As a piece of found footage horror, it lacks its own internal logic and reason to work more than fleetingly.