Deja Vu Blocks Search for Bigfoot in Old-Hat 'Willow Creek'

Directed by: Bobcat Goldthwait; Runtime: 77 minutes
Grade: C+

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.

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