Willow Creek, and the Dangers of Finding Bigfoot

Try to think of a goofier monster than Bigfoot. I dare you. Despite being a mysterious, enigmatic cryptid, a creature that could possibly really exist somewhere out there in the forests of the American Pacific northwest, it’s been pretty much rendered a hokey joke by pop culture. The name Sasquatch doesn’t so much conjure the image of an elusive, majestic mythological beast so much as it does Jack Link’s Beef Jerky.

Bigfoot’s history on film is surprisingly sparse. I always found it odd that cryptids like Nessie and El Chupacabra didn’t have more screen presence over the years, even deep in the annals of schlocky B-movie fodder. And, frankly, Bigfoot seems more marketable than any of them. A large, powerful, ape-like animal, hidden deep within the forest, just waiting for unsuspecting campers to wander into their territory. Nessie would be budget restrictive and the Chupacabra has an ethnic twinge to it the mainstream horror has been largely hesitant to really embrace, but Bigfoot? Slap a gorilla suit on an intern and call it a day, you’ve got yourself a horror movie.

And yet, with the exception of the criminally-underrated Legend of Boggy Creek, released in 1972, Bigfoot has been largely absent from the horror genre in any meaningful way. Sure, there’s been some low-budget attempts to cash in on the hairy beast, but they’ve been mostly beyond terrible, and aren’t worth mentioning beyond anything in passing. And even outside of horror, Bigfoot has mostly just been played for one-scene gags, particularly in comedies like A Goofy Movie and Tenacious D and the Pick of Destiny (where he sings a duet with Jack Black, which is as magical as it sounds).

The only real mainstream Bigfoot film that gained any sort of publicity or attention in pop culture was the 1987 John Lithgow comedy vehicle Harry and the Hendersons, which, critics be damned, is actually pretty fantastic. In a cheesy, 80s sort of way.

But if you wanted your Bigfoot fix to be a little more intense, you would’ve been mostly out of luck until 2013, with the indie release of found-footage horror flick Willow Creek. Directed by comedian Bobcat Goldthwait, of all people, Willow Creek is the Bigfoot-themed thrill ride that we should have gotten decades ago.

Shot for a relatively low budget, which, per usual, means it’s a found-footage flick, Willow Creek follows a young couple as they venture out into the woods Northern California with the hopes of catching the shy, evasive creature on film. Along they way, they encounter the usual host of horror-movie harbingers of doom, warning them not to go into the woods and that a terrible fate awaits them. This being a horror movie, of course, they completely ignore the concerned locals, and hike deep out in the middle of the woods.

From here on, the film takes obvious inspirations from The Blair Witch Project as the couple experiences the most terrifying night of their lives. Bigfoot is indeed living in these woods, and he doesn’t seem too keen on trespassers. And he may also be interested in something far more depraved and sinister than just ransacking their tent and making horrific noises in the dead of night.

I won’t spoil anything, but Willow Creek is one of the most effective, economic horror films I’ve seen released independently in quite some time. Like Blair Witch before it, its low-budget forces it to be inventively conservative with its scares, leading to a less-is-more experience more akin to something like Jaws than the straight-forward monster movie than its premise would initially suggest. It wisely focuses more on the reactions that its characters have towards the terrible things that await outside their tent, rather than the horrors themselves, allowing the audience to fill in the gaps with their own imagination. And that age-old lesson in horror rings just as true as ever: Things are always infinitely scarier in your mind than they can ever be on screen, and a clever filmmaker can capitalize on that to great effect.

Willow Creek is more than just tense and scary, however. As you might expect from Goldthwait, if also features a lively veneer of humor as well. It never ventures too close to being an all-out comedy, but there’s enough sharp wit and nervous laughter to more than balance out the intensity and suspense. The best horror films use horror as an accessory, not a crutch, and Willow Creek does an admirable job at sticking to that credo.

The effectiveness of the humor, as well as the scares, owes as much to the chemistry of the two leads as it does Golsthwait’s direction and writing. Relative unknowns Alexie Gilmore and Bryce Johnson bring an authentic charm and sincerity to their characters, which not only helps to inject some much-needed levity to counterbalance all the film’s atmospheric dread, but also simultaneously elevate and ground a lot of moments that may have otherwise been corny or overly-saccharine.

And despite being a movie about a Sasquatch, make no mistake: This isn’t some friendly wooden critter here to sell dried meat products or sing musical numbers. He’s a savage monster, driven by instinct, and only wants what any animals wants. I won’t go into the specifics of what that means exactly, but don’t expect a happy ending here. Thing’s get dark.

Since Willow Creek was released nearly a decade ago, there hasn’t exactly been a sharp rise in the beast’s media appearances, so I have to imagine that this is likely going to be a largely one-and-done novelty. But even if that’s the case, Bigfoot could do far, far worse for a star horror outing. And maybe it’s for the best that his usage in film is as sparse as his real-life sightings. If this is the best we’re ever going to get, then that just helps even more to cement Willow Creek as the rare gem that it is.

Let me know if you’ve seen it! And if there’s some other Bigfoot-themed horror media that I’m tragically overlooking, please tell me. I want to see it all.

Happy Halloween

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