Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Willow Creek

Willow Creek (2013)
Dir. and written by Bobcat Goldthwait
Starring Alexie Gilmore, Bryce Johnson

On thing about this movie: the poster art is fly as fuck.

One day I woke up to discover four things about the world which would obviously change my life forever.

  1. Bobcat Goldthwait made a horror movie?
  2. It’s a bigfoot horror movie?
  3. I guess I’ll have to see that.
  4. Oh, it’s found footage? Crap. Well, still though.

Obviously I was not going to be dissuaded by the fact that there’s no such thing as a good bigfoot movie, and even less a good found footage movie, let alone one about bigfoot. Why let a little thing like logic get in the way of optimism? Besides, I don’t need to be a believer, because apparently director Goldthwait is. That’s the hook to this particular exemplar of the found footage bigfoot film subgenre: it’s a fictional faux-documentary movie made by a real bigfoot true believer about a fictional bigfoot true believer making his own non-fictional documentary about bigfoot.

Or, supposedly, anyway. As you probably know, Goldthwait (POLICE ACADEMY 2-4) is better known as a standup comedian than a horror film director, and so I have to admit to a bit of healthy skepticism about how genuine he is about all this, especially in light of the way the movie plays out. But if he’s trolling the bigfoot faithful, you gotta be impressed by his commitment to the bit; he’s been on-record since at least 2009 as a confirmed Sasquatch hunter, and he even appeared in the Animal Planet “Documentary” (there are not enough quotation marks in the world to adequately convey how loosely I use that term) series Finding Bigfoot. So I’ll take him at his word that he’s not just some opportunistic bully dropping by to derisively jeer at the poor bigfoot true believers, he’s one of them. Or at least has an open mind about the subject.

Nevertheless, there’s a reason I used words like “true believers” and “bigfoot faithful” in that previous paragraph. This is obviously to some extent a film about belief and skepticism, as embodied by its two central characters, Bro-y Bigfoot believer Jim (Bryce “Dallas Howard” Johnson, Goldthwait’s previous films SLEEPING DOGS LIE and GOD BLESS AMERICA) and his incredibly tolerant, much-too-good-for-him-in-my-opinion girlfriend Kelly (Alexie Gilmore, Goldthwait’s WORLD’S GREATEST DAD, some TV) who is very much making this trip as a favor to him and is trying to keep her complete bafflement that anyone takes any of this seriously to herself as much as is humanly possible, which means they still argue about it a lot. They spend some time interviewing people and getting interminable shaky footage of golden hour Northwestern woodland landscapes, but mostly they just inexplicably film themselves driving around, arguing about bigfoot in exactly the same pointless and circular way that you do with your friend who insists on arguing about religion. Meanwhile, Goldthwait muddies the waters a little by having the couple drive around the real-life Bigfoot hunters mecca Willow Creek and interview people who may or may not be actual occupants of the town. What is real, and what is fiction, what is fact and what is belief, man?

Obviously these are questions somewhat outside the scope of this horror blog, but there’s no getting around them here, this is definitely the direction Goldthwait is trying to push the movie. Fortunately, he’s still a comedian, and this part at least turns out sporadically pretty amusing. I’m not sure how much is scripted and how much is just the kind of spontaneous comedy gold you’d expect from interviewing people who live and work in the Bigfoot Mecca of America, but some of it is pretty funny. They interview the “Bob Dylan of the Bigfoot community,” which I assumed meant he was respected and prolific until the eighth or so verse of his folk song about beloved hairy biped. In a pretty amusing twist on the usual horror movie foreshadowing, one guy warns them about the “curse of bigfoot,” which you assume will be something sinister and supernatural but turns out to be that you quit your job and your wife leaves you and you spend the rest of your penniless days furtively hiking through the woods without ever catching a glimpse of the elusive cryptid.

Unfortunately, while there’s some chuckles in there and Gilmore, in particular, is utterly charming and entrancing and to be perfectly honest I think I have a little bit of a crush on her, this is still a found footage movie, meaning that it rarely if ever rises to the level of watchable, and even then only for sequences which would work much, much better if they were shot like a real film. Way, waaaay too much of even a slim 79 minute runtime is pure filler, things which would be useless outtakes in even the shittiest Animal Planet bigfoot faux-documentary, let alone a real movie which people could be expected to watch. On paper, it sounds like a fun idea to take a found footage bigfoot film and use it as a secret examination of faith and skepticism, but in practice it doesn’t turn out to be any more interesting or enlightening than that time your atheist sister came back from her second semester at college the same year Uncle Fred and Aunt Betsy from Kentucky came to Thanksgiving dinner. And it’s further muddled, because there’s really no good argument in favor of bigfoot-belief presented in the movie. The best that meathead Jim can come up with is the standard squishy “well, what if…” mumbo jumbo which is quickly and correctly shut down by Kelly, who points out that the same argument works for leprechauns. But, uh, we also know this is a bigfoot horror film, which means we implicitly already understand that there will be a bigfoot attack by the end of this movie, making all of these points completely moot. By virtue of this being a genre movie, the reality of this situation is a foregone conclusion and we know to ignore whatever point the skeptics may make. So what’s the point of having this discussion while we’re killing time waiting for bigfoot to eat someone?

The magic of cinema.

Speaking of which, it does eventually turn into a horror movie. It’s well over 45 minutes into the movie before this even starts to hint at being horror, but eventually our two protagonists do end up camping in the woods, where they’re doomed to basically exactly reenact a condensed and less eventful version of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, but less so. The standard found footage shaky-cam running-from-something-unseen rigamarole is exactly as dire here as it always was and has been ever since it barely even worked as an acceptable novelty gimmick in 1999 with BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (and even then, only because they managed to convince some people there was some sort of reality behind it) but Goldthwait does try one semi-bold maneuver; right as the movie starts to switch gears to a mostly-horror format, he has our two protagonists wake up in the middle of the night to strange noises outside their tent and for some reason turn on their camera. Yes, this is fucking identical to the BWP, but Goldthwait somewhat boldly lets it play out longer than you’d expect. In fact, a lot longer than you’d expect; the scene plays out, with just a single held shot in the dark, of the two protagonists listening, mostly in total silence, for almost a full 20 minutes. This sequence seems to be the most-cited thing in the spate of bafflingly positive reviews this movie got, and in theory I can see why this sequence is interesting, utilizing the claustrophobic power of the found-footage gimmick to trap you in a single limited perspective and offer you only the terrified faces of our heroes and the mysterious, off-screen presence which is tormenting them, to hold onto. It’s an exercise in horror via a stark limiting of perspective, giving you only the slightest hints of what you should be afraid of, with the expectation that if you’re on the movie’s wavelength, your mind will fill in the gaps with things infinitely more terrifying than even cinema’s greatest bigfoot suit could provide.

Unfortunately, it also means that if you’re not already on the movie’s wavelength, it also gives you nothing whatsoever, nothing whatsoever, to hold onto. Goldthwait is gambling that because of the film’s style, you’ll be automatically more likely to empathize with these people and get invested in the intensity of their situation. And by that, I mostly mean that he’s counting on the found footage gimmick to convince you that what you’re seeing is “real.” Goldthwait is hardly the first person to have made this dire mistake; it seems like a lot of folks erroneously think that just because found footage dispenses with a lot of the tools of cinema, it inherently feels more “real.” Of course, if this situation was real, it would be fucking terrifying. But for me, anyway, there’s simply too much artifice built into the essential premise here to treat this footage as if it has anything to do with reality, and --beyond that-- it’s just too dull to make it worth the effort.

Even with better-than-usual found-footage acting, the attempt at “realism” just highlights to me how phony all of this is, and then all that’s left is a shoddily made aping (ha!) of standard horror beats, but with all the good parts taken out. Characters can’t do or say anything interesting or enlightening or articulate, because that’s not what would happen in real life. Cameras can’t show you the good stuff, because they wouldn’t in real life. But does removing those things really get you closer to presenting actual real life? Movies are fundamentally artificial, but they have an internal reality; they use the tools of cinema to communicate the movie’s specific internal reality to us, and we understand and accept that internal reality reflexively.* We know we’re watching a flat screen, but we also understand and accept the illusion of three dimensions; we know we’re seeing disconnected segments of time, but accept the illusion of a contiguous story; we know we’re watching actors in an elaborate fiction, but accept the illusion that this is simply happening. The cinematic tools that allow us to do this are the most obviously artificial part of the process, but they’re also exactly the thing which allows us to establish and convey the internal truth. I don’t accept that removing or severely restricting them necessarily makes things any more truthful or real. Even stripped down to the barest elements of cinematic grammar (one long shot of two silent faces, mostly in the dark) WILLOW CREEK can’t escape the fact that it, too, is just a horror movie. And that no matter how much they hold back, it’s not the least bit more legitimately authentic than KILLER KLOWNS FROM OUTER SPACE.

I suppose to some people the attempt at replicating some kind of cinema vérité might make the experience of watching these actors feel a little more relatable (though I can’t help but notice, as I inevitably do in these found-footage debacles, that real documentaries inevitably look a lot nicer and frame things better). But honestly, if you’re looking for relatable, what the fuck are you doing watching this movie in the first place? Bigfoot ain’t real either, brutha. Why apply so much draggy naturalism to something which is completely fictional in the first place? I get the feeling that a lot of the positive reviews of this film simply came from people who don’t like or respect horror cinema much in the first place, along with a patronizing sense of “well, here’s a horror film which mostly isn’t a horror film anyway, and at least it feels more realistic than, say, EVIL DEAD.” What you like or don’t like is anyone’s prerogative, but to me the very point of horror cinema it’s that it’s one of the most inherently cinematic genres; relying completely on the medium itself to make you relate to the internal reality of things which are fundamentally outlandish. That, to me, is the whole point of cinema; not to convey reality itself, but to create an artistic, subjective reality for you to immerse yourself in. If you don’t want that, well, you’ve got real life out there to enjoy. But I don’t see the point of this found footage trend clumsily trying to hide those cinematic tools in an effort to seem more realistic. It never will be, and in the process you also lose so much of what makes the whole medium worthwhile and interesting in the first place.

But hey, we could argue about this all day, just as we might argue about the reality of God or the reality of Bigfoot. And I’d still be right about all three, but would you really want to watch minutes on end of unedited footage of me driving a car and doing it? I rest my case.

*Or at any rate, we’re now so familiar with these tools that we accept them reflexively; it’s worth noting that it took quite a while to establish these tools and to understand just how open an audience would be to montage, to music, to rapid cuts in time and space, and other cinematic shorthand which would certainly seem counterintuitive to audience understanding.

Good Kill Hunting

EXISTING SOON (a subtle jab at fellow bigfoot-found-footage debacle EXISTS?)
Willow Creek is a place where much of the action takes place
Found Footage Clusterfuck, Bigfoot
A quick flash at the very end
OK, here we’ve gotta get into SPOILER SPOILER territory and talk about the end of the movie. Bigfoot himself never appears on camera, but in the last minute of the movie, the scared camera running through the woods suddenly glimpses something. But it’s not a bigfoot, it’s a fat naked woman standing in the woods for about a second. Now, this was obviously the subject of some confusion for me. Wait, are there no bigfoots after all, and instead they’re being tormented by some kind of naked woods-dwelling mutant troglodyte people? Or is bigfoot, like, a were-bigfoot and this is his wife in human form or something? I guess that would sort of explain the otherwise completely puzzling bit earlier on where a shifty redneck threatens them for trying to enter Bigfoot’s territory. But apparently none of those theories is correct; wikipedia claims this naked woman, glimpsed for a quick shaky-cam second, is recognizable as “bearing strong resemblance to the missing woman on the [milk] carton [seen earlier for another quick beat in the movie] and an unseen creature attacks them, killing Jim and moving on to Kelly, whose cries for help are heard in the distance. Her fate is ultimately unknown but implied she is taken as a "forest bride" like the other missing woman used by Sasquatch to procreate.” Which, eew. Apparently our spunky skeptic gets punished for her doubt by being kidnapped and raped by bigfoot until the sweet release of death. Classy, and it also makes no sense because why would bigfoot do this? We know for a fact there are available female bigfeet, because they spend the entire fucking movie talking about the famed Patterson-Gimlin footage --which is what brings our two antiheroes to this isolated location in the first place-- and that footage clearly shows a female creature with prominent breasts. So what the hell? Aside from not being set up in any meaningful way, this is just a deeply unpleasant and unearned way to end the movie.  END SPOILERS 
Arguably, although of course we never see one.
No, unless you want to count the madness of blind belief.
No, although I am fond of my were-bigfoot theory
I mean, any found footage premise has an inherently voyeuristic vibe, and if memory serves Jim does creepily try to leave the camera on while they have sex, which, again, ick.
Don’t ever date people who are into bigfoot.

Seriously though Hollywood, if you could put this chick in everything, I would be pretty happy with that, thanks guys.

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