The found-footage film, like any subgenre, lives or dies on how well it is pulled off. "Willow Creek," however, makes a convincing case for why modern movies stylistically and subjectively modeled after 1999's game-changing "The Blair Witch Project
" would best be laid to rest for a while. Bobcat Goldthwait, changing things up yet again after 2012's razor-wired satire "God Bless America
," is a writer-director of very clear promise who continues to zig and zag from what most viewers familiar with his former career as a stand-up comic might expect. By extension, this minimalistic excursion into horror territory relies upon sound, suggestion and performance to put a choke-hold on its audience. All of that is just fineAlexie Gilmore (2008's "Definitely, Maybe
") and Bryce Johnson (2007's "Freshman Orientation
") are terrific as the beleaguered leadsand yet there is no getting around how plainly derivative it all is. There is no chancezero, zip, zilchthat "Willow Creek" would exist without Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez's premillennial indie sensation, and Goldthwait's decision to follow it beat for beat, to the letter, marginalizes an otherwise fairly effective spine-tingler.
With camera in hand, aspiring documentarian Jim Kessel (Bryce Johnson) has set out for the Northern California wilderness in search of the notorious 1967 film site where Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin allegedly captured footage of a Bigfoot creature roaming the area. Girlfriend Kelly Monteleone (Alexie Gilmore) is a self-professed skeptic, but has tagged along to help and support him in his part-ambitious/part-crazy endeavor. Surrounded by one big tourist trap in the middle of nowherethere is a Bigfoot Motel, a Sasquatch-themed bookstore, gift shops around every corner, and even a restaurant serving the Bigfoot BurgerJim first begins questioning the locals and soaking up the sights before the couple journey deep into the forests of Bluff Creek. Naturally, as if on cue, there is a backwoods yokel who warns them to turn back, but Jim didn't travel all this way just to suddenly quit. By the middle of their first night camping out, he and Kelly will wish they had never left home.
"Willow Creek" begins with discussions and debates about the validity of the Bigfoot legend, segues into an interview segment with the eccentric townies, and then sets forth into a wild that provides its characters no detectable safety. Jim and Kelly discover after a while that they have been walking in circles, and stringy swaths of fur are found hanging from a tree branch. All of this is excessively standard stuff, but right there in the middle, arriving at the 44-minute mark, is a prolonged 19-minute showstopper of uncommon cathartic power that puts everything that bookends it to shame. Captured entirely within the confines of a tent, Jim and Kelly are left alone and helpless as creatures they can hear but not see come literally knocking. Told almost entirely within a single shot, further brought to teeth-rattling life by Frank Montes' exceptionally chilling sound design, this sequence is nothing short of a tour de force that should have even the most hardened viewers leaping from their seats. Sadly, what follows destroys the thickly riled intensity and ends things with a dispiriting, ultimately hacky whimper. By aping upon other like-minded pictures and never quite releasing himself from the shackles of humdrum convention, director Bobcat Goldthwait sells himself short.