There aren’t too many comics that have made the sort of drastic career transition that Bobcat Goldthwait has. Known for being one of the most singular stand-up comedians of the 80s and 90s, Goldthwait then turned his attention to directing films in the 2000s. After putting World’s Greatest Dad and God Bless America under his belt, Goldthwait established a John Waters-esque identity for himself, specializing in dark comedies that were caustic, scathing, and (for lack of a better term) seriously fucked up on so many levels. Still, there’s no denying that the man’s ingenuity for off-beat concepts earned him critical recognition, particularly for World’s Greatest Dad, which can be seen as the black comedy that star Robin Williams had been looking to act in for decades now. When Goldthwait had revealed that his next film would be a found-footage horror-film in the vein of The Blair Witch Project, there was certainly a level of both shock and anticipation around the project, as it seemed like such an unlikely turn of genre for the director. Willow Creek turns out to be a film that explores both new and familiar territory for his oeuvre, although perhaps not in a manner that’s fully adroit.
Taking place in rural California, the film immediately introduces us to Jim (Bryce Johnson) and Kelly (Alexie Gilmore), an L.A. couple that’s going on an odd sort of nature hunt. Jim essentially playing the part of Agent Mulder, with his girlfriend naturally Agent Skully, has come to the wilderness equipped with a camera in hopes of capturing footage of Bigfoot. The first half of the film mostly involves these characters talking to townsfolk, and filming intellectual property related to the mythic creature, along with elongated scenes of Jim and Kelly debating on the reality of such a thing existing. The second half, however, is when the film fully adjusts into being a horror film, as the two protagonists find themselves alone in the wilderness, and things take a turn for the worst.
For a director known for bizarre concept and scathing satire, Willow Creek has an oddly pedestrian set-up. It’s a common-place idea for the genre in which a couple going on a trek in hopes of documenting a super-natural presence, and the film has a fare share of cliches in it. For me, one of the most eye-rolling scenes in the film came in a scene where Jim proposes to Kelly, as it appears to be nothing more than an attempt on the film for us to sympathize with these characters right before the shit inevitably hits the fan. Granted, there haven’t been too many serious films made about Bigfoot (Goldthwait has even referred to the film as “Scary and the Hendersons”), but that curio isn’t quite enough to subvert how hackneyed the whole film often feels. It’s also upsetting that Goldthwait casted such a typically good-looking actor and actress for the two leads, as while Johnson and Gilmore both give serviceable acting, it would have been nice to see this indie horror film featuring leads that were a bit more uncommon for the genre.
That said, Goldthwait reveals a few previously un-displayed talents here, particularly during the head-lined 20-minute long take. During this scene, Willow Creek is at it’s most suspenseful, and while it may resort to typical Hollywood-esque pop-out scares, its craft and nuance are enough to make it stand out amidst other films that use similar scare tactics. In addition, Goldwaith also does some interesting things with the style of found-footage, wisely realizing that the less gore shown the better (admittedly, a tactic that was also borrowed from The Blair Witch Project). Also, Goldthwait’s humor is very much appreciated, particularly in the film’s first half when it plays more like a mockumentary.
Despite Willow Creek’s central attempt at breathing new life into a tired horror sub-genre, the film works best when seen as a straight up horror film, rather than as any sort of social commentary or genre-film breakdown. For that reason, fans of Goldthwait’s may leave the theater disappointed, and even newcomers to the director may feel like they’ve witnessed something that was actually a bit of a lost opportunity. Still, the sprinkling of the un-conventional is what makes this otherwise normal horror movie really work, and it’s enough to make me speculate that Goldthwait has a real kick-ass film for us next time around.