As a director, Bobcat Goldthwait piqued my interest with 2011's God Bless America, but after seeing his new backwoods horror movie Willow Creek, he's now firmly on my radar as a filmmaker to watch.
Bigfoot enthusiast Jim and his indulgent but staunchly non-believing girlfriend Kelly head into the California wilderness for a romantic camping trip. The purpose of the excursion is to grant Jim his wish of shooting his very own amateur cryptozoology documentary about the popular mythical beast. Their destination is in the heart of Sasquatch country itself, the town of Willow Creek, situated in California's picturesque Humboldt County.
Jim's wish is to retrace the footsteps of famous 'Squatch-sighters Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin, the men who shot that blurry 1967 footage that has become so ubiquitous. Jim and Kelly spend a day bumbling around in the town itself, enjoying its kitschy Bigfoot related tourist attractions and meeting a few of the local denizens, some of whom are friendly, while others are quite hostile. The next day the couple get back in their car and head off into the surrounding wilderness, but Kelly's patience for her boyfriend's obsession is starting to wear thin. What will they find in the dark wooded hills?
One of the things that makes Willow Creek work so well is the contrast between the first and second halves of the film (this really is a two act movie). The first half, taking place mostly in the town, is sunny, light-hearted and frequently laugh out loud funny. Although there are a few hints of the menace that's to follow, the tone here is more mumblecore mocumentary than horror.
It's when the couple head into the woods that things take the expected turn for the "abominable". What follows is a well disciplined experiment in extremely minimalist horror filmmaking. Willow Creek is very much a spiritual successor to The Blair Witch Project, and as with that film it feels like Goldthwait is trying to test the extent to which you can terrify an audience with as little visual stimulus as possible. And it works.
To even begin to describe the scenes that follow would be to spoil the fun, because the tricks that Goldthwait employs to instill tension, fear and dread in the viewer are so utterly simple. Suffice it to say that Willow Creek's strength lies in its sound design, proving once and for all that our imaginations, when provoked, will conjure up more terrifying imagery than any filmmaker could ever put on screen.
To cap it off, there's a jump scare buried in that second half that is a text book example of how to do it right. I saw it in a packed theatre and for half a second it was like the entire audience levitated out of their seats!