Day 26: Willow Creek

Halloween Every Day (for a Month)

By Andrew Neil Cole

Day 26: Willow Creek (2013).        WillowCreek

Ah … found-footage horror movies. There’s not much left to be said, really. Either you find this particular gimmick to be fun or you don’t. Or maybe you once found it fun, back in those halcyon, sepia-toned days of Blair Witches and Paranormal Activities, but those times are now nothing but a blurry little shapeless mass in your rearview mirror. Found footage doesn’t usually work all that well because it almost always promotes the position that the method of storytelling is much more interesting than the story itself. The attraction is not the telling of a good old-fashioned creepy story but rather the haphazard jiggly-cam presentation of the story, which engenders obtuse, idiotic observations and forced character revelations (usually in the form of tearful confessions and phony, self-serving apologies). Ultimately, most found-footage movies are hollow viewing experiences. After all, the only thing worse than rooting for the monster/madman to hurry up and kill off all of the lame-o characters in a bad horror movie is having to do so while fighting off recurring bouts of nausea (from the absurdly unsteady camera work) and boredom (from the absurdly uninteresting story and characters). By definition, found-footage movies have to be lesser works of cinema, because in order for the gimmick to work in the first place, the story has to be so simplistic it can be captured adequately by a tiny crew working with extremely limited financial resources and equipment.

Which brings me to Willow Creek, a movie that illustrates the best and the worst attributes of found-footage horror. Like a lot of found-footage movies, the journey in Willow Creek is more interesting than the destination. The story of a boyfriend and girlfriend on a road trip to document the site of the infamous 1967 home movie of a casually strolling Sasquatch taken by Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin is more believable than most found-footage setups, since literally thousands of people from all over the world descend upon Willow Creek, CA, each year to do exactly what these characters are attempting to do. The found-footage gimmick actually aids in creating believable (if not particularly interesting) characters who turn their camera on actual locations well known to the Bigfoot community. There’s even a fun moment at a Bigfoot-themed diner in which the characters banter playfully while consuming enormous burgers served on buns shaped like a Sasquatch footprint.

Once the characters are in the woods and in full-on camping mode, the film delivers not only the best scene of the movie but one of the best uses of the found-footage gimmick I’ve yet seen. The scene consists of one static shot that lasts approximately 18 minutes, most of which transpires in complete character silence, some of which in complete darkness. This sequence works because it allows the ambient sounds of the surrounding forest, and all the things that dwell within it, to be the source of suspense. There is nothing for the actors to do but react to what they hear outside of their tent. Their confusion and deepening terror is palpable. Kudos to director Bobcat Goldthwait for having the courage to let the scene simply play out and for trusting his actors, and kudos to the actors (Alexie Gilmore and Bryce Johnson) for delivering the goods. So often found-footage movies feel phony despite the implied reality of the gimmick; the performances and camera work feel forced, disjointed, like they are never really on the same page, like they are trying so hard to appear “realistic” that they’ve forgotten how to be compelling. That is not the case with much of Willow Creek.

That is, until the film’s finale.

This is where the worst attributes of found-footage gimmickry finally find the spotlight.  Willow Creek eventually dissolves, as do all found-footage movies, into scenes of characters arguing, then running, then running and screaming, then arguing, then back to running and screaming. The photography becomes shakier and shakier until it becomes nearly unwatchable. By this point, you could literally be watching the final moments of any found-footage movie, since they all end on the same note: chaos followed by abrupt, halting stillness.

The result: Willow Creek both wildly succeeds and wildly fails. There are enough strong moments to merit watching the film; however, the most promising moments (including some truly great ones) are ultimately wasted, as the film takes a disappointing narrative turn back toward inevitability and predictability.

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