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While The Blair Witch Project (1999) may not have been the very first found-footage film (we can argue about it later), it was certainly the film that brought the sub-genre to the attention of the general public and helped get it into the pop culture zeitgeist. It was also the film that helped establish the “rules” that would make found-footage such a popular, if restrictive, way to tell a story: hand-held camera, first-person POV, a lack of obvious action with an emphasis on atmosphere and mood, a focus on verisimilitude that includes mundane conversations and long “dry” stretches, small cast, isolated setting, dropping the camera at the conclusion…these were all presents that The Blair Witch Project pretty much brought to the party. Something obviously must have worked, since the film would go on to be one of the highest-grossing independent films of all time and would help to usher in a new era of lower-profile, word-of-mouth film festival hits, such as the similar Paranormal Activity (2007).

Despite its success and influence, however, The Blair Witch Project isn’t without its problems, some of which are more critical than others. For one thing, the acting tends to be rather rough and the characters are extremely unlikable: we basically get stranded with a bunch of amateur actors in the woods as the yell at each other for upwards of an hour. There’s also a decided lack of actual “action” in the film: the majority of the movie consists of the three actors tromping around the woods, arguing about being lost, before we get the decidedly iconic finale featuring the creepy abandoned house. There is plenty of great atmosphere here, don’t get me wrong, but The Blair Witch Project is pretty much the epitome of a film that hasn’t aged well: after screening it again, recently, I actually found it to be fairly tedious and way too obvious. There’s still a great core idea here, an interesting mythos and a nicely isolated setting but I can’t help but feel there was a much better, more interesting film here struggling (and failing) to get out.

Bobcat Goldthwait’s Willow Creek (2014) is that film. While the movie seems to be a conscious attempt to replicate some of the exact same beats from The Blair Witch Project – small cast searching for a local legend in the woods, meeting exceptionally eccentric locals, getting lost in the woods and coming face-to-face with the exact thing that they’re looking for but don’t, in the end, really want to find – Goldthwait does something rather revolutionary: he gives us characters we can actually care about rather than obnoxious “types” who ultimately serve only as cannon fodder. With this one simple step (along with a small host of refinements, tweaks and improvements), Goldthwait fixes many of the inherent issues with The Blair Witch Project and gives us a glimpse into what the film could have been. Willow Creek is not a perfect film, by any stretch of the imagination, but it is rock-solid, one of the “purest” found-footage films I’ve ever seen and, despite the near complete lack of on-screen chaos, a genuinely scary film.

Premise-wise, Willow Creek is simplicity, itself: Jim (Bryce Johnson), a Bigfoot enthusiast, is determined to follow in the footsteps of the famous Patterson-Gimlin Bigfoot film from 1967 (you’ll know it the second you see it, trust me) and he’s dragged his non-believer girlfriend, Kelly (Alexie Gilmore), along for the ride. He’s decided to turn their “adventure” into a lo-fi documentary with him serving as eager “host” and Kelly running the camcorder (in other words, the perfect found-footage set-up).

The pair head to Willow Creek, California, the small, Bigfoot-obsessed town that lies on the outskirts of the heavily wooded area where Patterson and Gimlin first caught sight of the famously hairy woodland creature. Once there, they poke around town, interviewing the locals (believers and non, alike) and gathering information for their inevitable trek to Bluff Creek, the actual location of the famous sighting. Willow Creek happens to be home to more than its fair share of mysterious disappearances, it seems, although the scuttlebutt seems to be divided as to how much ol’ Bigfoot is responsible for and how much is the work of the extremely uncompromising wilderness surrounding them (bears and mountain lions are common occurrences, after all).

While most of the locals are friendly, they also bump into a couple rather sinister ones (gotta have balance!), which has the effect of giving Kelly second thoughts about their trip: she might not believe in Bigfoot but she sure as hell believes in Deliverance (1972). She’s even more wary once they head into the woods and run into former Forest Ranger Troy Andrews (Peter Jason), who tells them a rather disturbing story about “something” that tore his beloved dog to pieces: she’d rather not meet whatever was responsible but Jim has Sasquatch-fever and won’t take no for an answer. From this point on, the progression of events should be pretty familiar: they wander around a bit, find various eerie hints of strange doings and end up spending a rather terrifying night in their tent, all leading to an explosive, highly disturbing ending that’s the very definition of “you should have left well-enough alone.”

And that’s pretty much it: 80 minutes, from beginning to end, no tricks, no frills, nothing but the goods. As I said, nothing here should really be new to anyone who’s seen The Blair Witch Project but the key here is all in the execution and attention to character development. Unlike the antagonistic, obnoxious characters from Blair Witch, Jim and Kelly come across as realistic, interesting, dynamic and highly likable: they may not be completely three-dimensional but they’re a helluva lot more developed than the paper-thin characters in Blair Witch. Little things are the key here: the way in which we subtly learn how obsessive Jim is, via the way he constantly re-records footage to get the absolute best take, even though he’s going for “realism” above all else…the way that Kelly can express extreme disapproval with only a slightly furrowed eyebrow while still smiling and toeing the “party line”…the quietly stunning moment, towards the end, where Jim apologizes for getting them into their current predicament…these are all the kinds of “actorly” moments and beats that were completely missing from Blair Witch. You know…all those things we normally associate with a “good” film?

Willow Creek is also a genuinely funny film, at times: the scenes where Jim and Kelly goof around in town are great and another crucial way in which Goldthwait keeps building our empathy for the characters. The bit where they riff on the ridiculous mural of Bigfoot that covers the entire outside of one building is an absolute classic bit of comedy: paced like a good stand-up routine, the minutes-long segment had me laughing so loud that I found myself needing to rewind in order to miss additional lines…that, my friends, is the very definition of a funny scene. Despite the inherent humor of the town scenes, however, it never feels as if Goldthwait is playing his subjects as idiots: it’s quite obvious that the scenes where they interview the various towns-folk are real, which adds quite a bit to the film’s overall tone (although this was also something that The Blair Witch Project used to fairly good effect). Perhaps it helps that Goldthwait is, apparently, a Bigfoot enthusiast: he has no interest in poking fun of these people since he, himself, is also a believer.

If you only know Bobcat Goldthwait as the Tazmanian Devil-voiced freak-show from the Police Academy films, you’ve managed to handily miss out on one of the best, most daring modern-day filmmakers around: while I’ve always been a bit hot-and-cold on his debut, the transgressive clown comedy Shakes the Clown (1991), World’s Greatest Dad (2009) is an absolutely perfect stunner and easily one of the best films of its year, if not several years in either direction. The follow-up, God Bless America (2011), was a more obvious, if no less well-made film, and showed that former Cadet Zed had somehow developed into a badass writer-director while no one was looking. While Willow Creek is, technically, Bobcat’s first genre film, it’s no less expertly crafted than the rest of his oeuvre, proving that the guy can pretty much do anything he sets his mind to.

Ultimately, however, a big question remains: Is Willow Creek just a style exercise, an attempt to improve on The Blair Witch Project while giving Goldthwait a chance to play around with Bigfoot mythology? While I think that’s definitely one of the factors behind the film, I certainly don’t think it’s the main one…or even the most important one, to be honest. More than anything, Willow Creek seems like an attempt by Goldthwait to weld the type of fully developed characters from his dramas/black-comedies onto a standard-issue found-footage template (short of the rather astonishing 20-odd minute single-take shot that he uses in the tent, there’s not a whole lot of particularly “innovative” filmmaking here, per se). It’s a film where so many of the truly important details happen in the margins: the chilling foreshadowing of the missing poster scene…the marriage proposal…Jim and Kelly’s arguments about moving to Los Angeles…the little asides and quips that crop up in the documentary parts…these are all genuinely human, dramatic moments and they help make the film seem much more fleshed-out and well-rounded than it might have been (and certainly much more than The Blair Witch Project, at any rate).

Is Willow Creek a good film? To be honest, it’s actually a very good film, even if it does manage to get tripped up by many of the same issues that helped fell Blair Witch: the overly shaky camera; bad sight lines; occasional dry stretches; the lack of any conventional “action” on-screen, save for the finale. Crucially, however, none of these issues are critical hits, which can’t necessarily be said for Blair Witch. While Willow Creek doesn’t necessarily reinvent the wheel, it manages to improve on its spiritual forebear in pretty much every way possible. When we actually care about the characters, their ultimate fates become that much more impactful: suffice to say, I found myself thinking about that finale quite a bit after the end credits rolled. As a huge fan of Goldthwait’s work ever since World’s Greatest Dad, there’s nothing about Willow Creek that really surprised me, for one very important reason: I already knew the guy was gonna knock it out of the park as soon as I saw his name attached. While Willow Creek may not be the best horror film of the year (there’s plenty of competition), it certainly deserves a place on the finalists’ list. Here’s to hoping ol’ Bobcat doesn’t lose his jones for the scary stuff anytime soon: with a calling card like Willow Creek, the sky, literally, is the limit.

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