Willow Creek, Bobcat Goldthwait’s last fictional release to date, is a found footage film about a couple, Kelly and Jim, played by Alexie Gilmore and Bryce Johnson, who travel to northern California in hopes of catching a glimpse of the legendary Bigfoot. Kelly is a sceptic, and Jim is a Bigfoot believer, but neither of them is quite prepared for what happens when they finally enter the woods. Since this is also the first found footage film to explore the woods as thoroughly as The Blair Witch Project, Willow Creek plays as a meditation on the golden era of found footage, starting with the sustained opening act, which takes up most of the runtime.
This opening act is fascinated with Bigfoot as media, and the ways in which Bigfoot mediates the local landscape. We approach the Bigfoot region from its outermost limit, the start of the Bigfoot Byway, which leads through the Trinity National Forest in northern California, before Kelly and Jim arrive at Willow Creek, “mecca to the Bigfoot community.” There, they pore through Bigfoot paraphernalia, arcana and infrastructure, from Bigfoot Avenue to the Bigfoot Motel, immersing themselves in a material history and archive of Bigfoot that ends at Bigfoot Books, a bookstore-museum whose owner has compiled every know trace of the creature. From there, Goldthwait shifts to an aural archive, starting with a local singer known affectionately as the “Bob Dylan of Bigfoot,” who sings a ballad called “Roger and Bob,” about Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin, two of the most iconic Bigfoot spotters. We then shift to a local tavern, where more Bigfoot singing ensues, and cementing Bigfoot as an auditory entity.
While Goldthwait is fixated on Bigfoot as media, he’s also entranced by one specific piece of media – the Patterson-Gimlin film, shot near Willow Creek in 1967, which to this day remains the most famous and contested piece of Bigfoot evidence. Part of the controversy around the Patterson-Gimlin footage, which shows an apparent female Bigfoot crossing a creek, is that the grainy quality, ambiguous speed, and low resolution all anticipate found footage horror as we know it today, making it remarkably difficult to parse as a forensic object. In other words, Goldthwait presents the Patterson-Gimlin film as the original found footage object, the DNA of Blair Witch, and sets out to measure its resonance in the present by having his two characters journey to the site where the film was originally shot. Everyone in Willow Creek warns Kelly and Jim that this site is very remote, rugged and inaccessible, and that it basically requires them to bushwhack through thick foliage, and traverse thick canyon walls, to gain access. In fact, changes in riverbed topography meant that the Patterson-Gimlin site had been lost for many years, and only rediscovered in 2011, shortly before Goldthwait’s film was released. By returning to the site, through his characters, Goldthwait aims to return to this primal scene of found footage, newly legible at the end of the modern found footage era.
Not only do Kelly and Jim seek out the site of the Patterson-Gimlin film, but they’re forced to take Patterson and Gimlin’s original route when a crazed riverman forces them off the main track to the stream bed. They retrace and record the steps that led to the original film, reflecting all the while that “it’s amazing to think that we’re in the same woods that Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin were in all those years ago, when they saw that creature.” As the trip takes them deeper into the DNA of found footage itself, the film becomes more and more textural, immersive and atmosphere. Of all the classic found footage films, this is one of the most beautifully shot and attuned to its surrounding landscape, which it doubly contours by way of the residues of Blair Witch and the Patterson-Gimlin footage over thirty years before.
For the most part, this opening act is eerie and atmospheric, but not terrifying in a conventional way. When the horror does come, it’s as a rupture in the fabric of the film, and as a literal disruption to the fabric of Kelly and Jim’s tent, on the first night, that produces a sequence of short, choppy, discontinuous scenes that dissociate us from the expansive ambience of the journey through the woods. These turn out to be the prelude to a single shot, inside the tent, that lasts twenty minutes, and gravitates all the textural thickness of the first act into full-blown horror. Whereas the first act was closer to a handheld documentary, this sustained shot projects us back into the sensory deprivation of classical found footage. All of a sudden, the visual field of the film vanishes, as the couple parse the darkness for a series of threatening sounds, most of which involve Bigfoot “vocalisations” (whooping, yelling, moaning, screaming) but also encompass knocking, rocks being thrown, and footsteps that approach, recede and then approach even closer. Removing visual cues intensifies sound and texture, and fuses them in turn, as the fabric of the film starts to bypass the eyes and act directly on the body, much as the shot depicts the couple staring at the camera, straining to see something that exists beyond the visual scope of the film, and can only be properly felt.
This single shot, which comprises the second act of the film, thus captures the paradox at the heart of retracing the Patterson-Gimlin film – namely, that the more the couple try to flesh out the visual parameters of this footage in the past, the more they are forced to confront the aporia that constitute found footage in the present. On the cusp of reaching this historical found footage space, they are faced with the unbearable present tense of found footage as it has evolved from the Patterson-Gimlin footage. For Goldthwait, found footage swallows up its own conditions of production – it is a self-destructive medium, becoming more opaque as we try to focus on it, and more remote as we try to wrestle some meaning from it. And, as a personification of found footage, Bigfoot exhibits the same quality here, totally defying visualization to exist only as a series of sonic traces, whether the musical numbers of the first act, or the guttural noises of the second act, that play perfectly to Goldthwait’s own background in eccentric sound, music and “vocalisations.” While it’s distant, in some ways, from his comic work, Willow Creek is the film that most plays to the spectrum of Goldthwait’s audiovisual talents, generating much of its horror from the schism between sound and image.
With Bigfoot reduced to a trace of found footage itself, the subject matter of Willow Creek distills, over this second act-shot, into the perennial subject of found footage itself too – the minute gradations, evolutions and modulations of fear. For the most terrifying prospect of this act-shot is not so much the existence of Bigfoot, although that is plenty scary, so much as Kelly’s gradual belief in Bigfoot – her real-time realization that something she previously dismissed as inconceivable might just turn out to be true. That real-time experience of a fear that encompasses both viewer and subject, and that fissures the visual scope of the film in the process, takes Kelly and Jim to the heart of the Patterson-Gimlin footage, eclipsing and displacing the site before they even arrive. Hence the abbreviated third act, which treats the site itself as a mere concatenation of digital textures, that exceed all legibility. It’s as if the Patterson-Gimlin footage, and found footage itself, only exists somewhere between the lengthy buildup of the first act and the abrupt self-destruction of the third – between the finding and the footage, in one of the deftest and most mercurial films of Goldthwait’s career.