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Willow Creek

Dark Sky Films // Unrated // September 9, 2014
List Price: $29.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted September 17, 2014 | E-mail the Author
The Film:

Typically, the first thought that comes to mind about Bigfoot -- or Sasquatch, or yetis -- probably isn't one of terror, but more of enigmatic curiosity and apprehension over the unknowns lurking in the wilderness. It's a frame of mind that writer/director Bobcat Goldthwait banks on with Willow Creek, his micro-budget venture into the found-footage horror genre, as an enthusiastic aficionado and his doubtful long-term girlfriend document their trip to the famed shooting location of that blurry Bigfoot footage so ingrained in popular culture. Contrary to the dark humor or clever subversion of World's Greatest Dad or God Bless America, however, Goldthwait doesn't leave many signature footprints within the interviews, wilderness travel, and things going bump in the night that hallmark other films of its breed. His by-the-books take on the genre will seem entirely familiar to anyone who's endured interrupted faux-documentary horror before, with the couple's trip through the woods barely enlivened by the anticipation of observing what one of the shaggy hominids might actually do in the wild.

The discovered footage kicks in as Jim (Bryce Johnson, Sleeping Dogs Lie), an amateur Bigfoot buff, readies his camera in a car passenger seat for his journey deep into Six Rivers National Forest, the location of the famous Patterson-Gimlin film that introduced the fabled creature to the world in the late-60s. He's accompanied by his girlfriend, Kelly (Alexie Gilmore, World's Greatest Dad), an up-and-coming voice actress who's more than a little skeptical of Bigfoot's existence, but whose affection for Jim gets her to go along anyway. As they arrive at Willow Creek, a small town molded into a tourist trap around the mountain-dwellin' monster, Jim gives the documentary thing the old college try by interviewing locals and experts. Despite being met with some hostility and spooky firsthand accounts, the pair venture deep into the woods by themselves, in hopes of reaching the shooting location and, perhaps, catching some wind of their subject out there. What they encounter, however, is much more unsettling than a hazy look at a furry biped briskly walking in the opposite direction.

Before Jim and Kelly actually get into the woods, Willow Creek endures many of the unsurprising trappings of its genre in their investigation of local mythology. The clash between enthusiasm and skepticism over what they're researching doesn't tread into any uncharted territory amid the build-up, either, sluggishly moving the film along the same paths paved by The Blair Witch Project and other faux-documentary flicks built around belief in the unknown. Instead of generating a tense atmosphere, director Goldthwait weighs down the pace with deadpan glimpses at Willow Creek's kitschy obsession with their local monster, where minutes-long singing numbers and a quirky dining spot overshadow the flickers of eeriness -- the formation of Bigfoot as a credible threat -- in Jim's interviews. Despite the opening shots of adjusting the camera and keeping tabs on cutting and rolling during Jim's doc, few noticeable steps are taken to sell the atmospheric illusion of this being found footage, merely readjusting the genre's assumed conceits to focus on Bigfoot's stomping ground.

Excluding the hairy beast of myth, the developing rapport between the couple becomes Willow Creek's defining and reliable characteristic, with Jim's gusto getting challenged by Kelly's practical cynicism as they inch closer to their time in the wild. Respectable character drama carries on between them as they drive between locations, built on how their different viewpoints -- both about Bigfoot and their relationship in general -- could create rifts under enough pressure. Paired with the reminders of hostile mountain locals and the presence of bears throughout the forests, their hike through Bigfoot's suspected location provides just enough of said pressure; however, despite their tenuous romance, the head-butting between them touches on the same old conflicts seen elsewhere, over tussled camping sites and navigating the byzantine woods. Stomach-turning handheld camerawork captures the honest back-and-forth squabbles between Alexie Gilmore and Bryce Johnson, who feel like a real couple, nailing down the requisite validity without tapping into much originality.

Willow Creek only branches into distinctive territory once the sun sets, hinged on the anticipation of experiencing what lurks in the forest's darkened depths. While it's unsurprising to see the spookier side of the film go down outside a tent in the dead of night, director Goldthwait uses ambiguous sounds and the intermittence of Jim's recording to strengthen the camping-gone-wrong atmosphere, including a nuanced twenty-minute long take that relies on the reactive body language and verbal tone of the actors for its chills. By that point, though, he's already meandered through so much of the formula to get there that it's hard to justify the approach for the film's spine-tingling lynchpin, especially when he reverts to predictable and overdone lost-in-the-woods mischief in response. For a comedian/filmmaker who rejuvenated his career by undermining expectations with his offbeat directing and writing style, it's disappointing to see him craft such an imitative drag out of his search for Bigfoot.

The Blu-ray:

Video and Audio:

Well, the found-footage genre always presents a challenge when it comes to evaluating the quality of a transfer (especially in high-def), where elevated contrast and flattening digital integrity in darker sequences play into the director's no-budget intentions for the camerawork. Willow Creek offers no exception in its 1.78:1-framed, 1080p AVC encode, but the straightforward outdoor photography capturing the California forests mostly leans toward crisp details, warmth of skin tones, and capable responses to sunlight. Some fine details step out from the etchings of wooden statues, clothing, and the density of foliage during the photography's more stable moments, typically earlier on during Jim's interviews and in the car. As the film progresses, things become more erratic: shaky camera movement predictably emerges in the hikes through the woods that result in lots of jittering, while nighttime and indoor sequences struggle to respect elements underneath heavy (inherent) digital grain. Generally, though? Dark Sky's treatment of Willow Creek is a stable, balanced rendering that gets the mood just right.

The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track follows a similar line of thought about the found-footage's audio quality, up until the later sequences. For the majority of the film, the most important feature comes in replicating the tempo of Jim and Kelly's dialogue and making sure their interviews remain audible, which the soundtrack does well by responding to the environments -- in cars, diners, and bookstores -- and using the bass channel for adequate realism. The sounds of traffic passing through town and the rustling of trees in the outdoors capture those subtle atmospheric touches gifted to the production, while the sounds of a guitar strumming and rushing creek water offer little touches of impressive clarity. Where the track really needs to flex its muscle, however, is during the nighttime sequences outside the tent, and that entire sequence creates an incredibly spacious and immersive environment, replicating eerie noises through deft channel separation and awareness. Everywhere it counts, Willow Creek reputably hikes along its necessary sonic path. A 2-channel PCM track is also available, along with optional English subs.

Special Features:

Audio Commentary with Bobcat Goldthwait, Bryce Johnson, and Alexie Gilmore:
Goldthwait and his pair of actors are clearly comfortable with one another and their love for the trying art of filmmaking, revealed in the lively yet perceptive rhythm of this commentary track. Their rapport makes it possible for Johnson and Gilmore to frankly discuss their awkwardness during certain scenes, as well as their ability to divulge what's ad-libbed and scripted out of all their interactions. Goldthwait's charm meshes well with his director's insight, casually pointing out how they achieved certain shots -- sometimes through trial and error -- and how the film's inspiration derived from a Bigfoot convention. It's cool to hear Johnson and Gilmore discuss how their characters in the film reflect their position on things in real life (and how they aided their performances), as well as how the film depicts the real town of Willow Creek and how they handled their faux-documentary shooting. The honesty and upbeat tone in this track is great, down to Bobcat Goldthwait's chat about his problems with the found-footage horror genre in general.

Along with a Deleted Scene with Cliff Barackman (4:32, 16x9 HD), Dark Sky Films have also included Bryce Johnson's "The Making of Willow Creek" (11:32, 16x9 HD), which sounds a whole lot more substantial and official than it actually is: eleven minutes of watching the crew goof around while preparing a space with Bigfoot tracks. It's entertaining, though, and it offers a neat look at how simple details can create something much more substantial in motion.

Final Thoughts:

There are better and worse found-footage films out there than Bobcat Goldthwait's Willow Creek, but seeing the director's name on the poster after his other unique, challenging productions makes one expect more than his largely paint-by-numbers indie about hunting down Bigfoot. Aside from a few organic relationship moments and its tense, lengthy retooling of a camping nightmare, there's very little here that hasn't been done in any number of similar films, trumped by the likes of Trollhunter and, naturally, The Blair Witch Project ... but a better representation of the genre than stuff like The Jungle or whichever one's the newest Paranormal Activity flick. Goldthwait's direction, steady as it may be, molds to the formula too frequently for its own good, making the nearly hour-long crawl to the film's unsettling moments a bit of a burden for a limited, familiar payoff. Give it a Rental for the things it does well within the blueprint, and to relive a similar brand of tension to that of its predecessors.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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