Bob Goldthwait’s Willow Creek is not only familiar because it mimics the most famous found footage movie of all time The Blair Witch Project, but because it hops on the trend of reality shows based on cryptozoology. The movie tells the story of tourists going on a pilgrimage to see where the Patterson–Gimlin footage was taken in the sixties. Jim (Bryce Johnson) and Kelly (Alexie Gilmore) create a travelogue visiting the tourist towns marketing the Bigfoot legend. Posing against giant statues of the beast, Jim, the true believer, posits that the creature is real and wants to locate where the creature might still be living. Kelly goes along with him, but is skeptical. Mulder and Skully set out for Bigfoot country, visiting tourists traps and locals who offer comic relief and local color in a single brushstroke. There’s a picturesque quality to the movie, dissimilar from Blair Witch which is besotted with dread. Perhaps this is because we’re not really told what happens at the end, there is no menacing crawl with a message about how this footage was discovered. The juxtaposition of the light travelogue gives the terror of the movie a real punch and makes the events almost surreal as they transpire.
Backpacking in the woods despite cryptic warnings from the locals, Jim and Kelly spend a harrowing night in the forest, hearing movement around their tent, the tromp of something stalking them. Here, the camera stays still, the characters simply sit and listen to what’s happening around them. In this way, the events play out in an almost antique way as the shot lingers and lingers and the viewer only has what they hear and Jim and Kelly’s expressions to go by. In the light of day, the familiar trope of being lost in the woods comes into play as Jim and Kelly make a futile effort to escape the woods only to end up in the same place as night falls. This film uses our collective knowledge of found footage movies and the archetype of the bigfoot legend to create a haunting campfire story. The legend is juxtaposed with the in medias res storytelling, creating a visceral experience for the viewer.
The terror happens in between what the viewer believes they will see and the actual glimpses of horror. The movie is uncommonly simple and yet complex giving us, similar to Blair Witch, a story that hints at greater depth. What happens to Jim and Kelly? What is the creature we glimpse in the brief furtive moments before the inevitable conclusion? Much too often in modern horror movies there is no reverence for mystery. Scares are shown in the trailer and much of the mystery of what is happening disappears in the marketing. This is probably because the nature of marketing is to reveal and disclose what’s inherent while horror is most effective when it sticks to the shadows, gives us less so that we can imagine more. While Willow Creek is derivative, it mimics its predecessors in all the ways that make those films effective. It outlines instead of embroiders and leaves us slightly in the dark amongst the mysterious things that live in the woods.