Found footage horror fails to raise a fright

16 June 2014

As I sat in the cinema waiting for Willow Creek to start, the patrons behind me were already discussing Cloverfield and other classics of found footage horror. Unfortunately, however, this isn't one of them. The script is full of plot holes, the acting is for the most part laughably substandard, even for a horror film, the ending is rushed and poorly explained at best, and - most unforgivably for a film in this genre - the director seems to have little idea about how to build tension and create suspense.

Willow Creek follows the weekend roadtrip of couple Jim (Bryce Johnson) and Kelly (Alexie Gilmore) to the titular location in search of Bigfoot. This is clearly the culmination of a life-long obsession for Jim, and Kelly is supportive but sceptical. After interviewing locals about the creature (and getting the prerequisite warnings to go away), the couple hike into the woods close to the film site. And then, of course, things start getting weird.

First-time horror writer and director Bobcat Goldthwait has achieved something of a cult following for his comedy films as well as a period directing Jimmy Kimmel, and perhaps he would have had a better result if he had attempted to make a horror comedy in the vein of Shaun of the Dead or Severance. There is humour in Willow Creek, but for the most part the jokes that are supposed to be funny aren't and more serious moments are unintentionally humorous.

Admittedly, I suspect the acting is as often more at fault here than the writing. Alexie Gilmore does quite a good job, but is let down by the wooden, overblown or just downright strange performances of the rest of the cast - the owner of the Bigfoot bookstore whose weird smile seems permanently fixed while his eyebrows never stop moving! Particularly disappointing is the performance of Bryce Johnson, who seems as though he wouldn't know what being scared looked like even if you, well, put him in a tent and told him Bigfoot was after him, which is no small fault in a horror actor.

The biggest problem is the film is its lack of understanding of how to build tension. An hour into the film, and nothing scary has happened save a few rather unbelievable stories from locals. While I prefer horror films with a well-established premise, I did get bored with watching interminable interviews and the couple's visits to hokey tourist shops. When something finally does happen, it's in the form of a single shot of almost twenty minutes duration of the couple in the tent while something howls and claps wood together outside. In the middle of the scene, Jim explains to us allegedly how sasquatches communicate - great, but I've just spent ten minutes listening to clapstick noises being confused

There are some redeeming features of the film, most notably the cinematography, which, unusually for a found footage film, seems to strike the right balance between jerky handheld camera movements that disorient and scare the audience and a fixed camera, usually believably balanced on a flat surface such as the car dashboard. The setting is beautiful and believable, although at times the bright sunlight filtering through leafy green foliage during the day renders the Bigfoot sound effects somewhat less frightening. This crew would have done well to take note of The Blair Witch Project and employed filters, or at least filmed on overcast days.

In summary, I would recommend that Mr Goldthwait sticks to what he knows best - comedy - and leave the horror to those who can build tension without resorting to twenty-minute shots.

Olivia Hopkins is a PhD student at the University of Sydney completing her thesis on the idea of the South in modern American horror film.