Bigfoot may or may not exist, but there’s definitely something freaky going down in the woods in “Willow Creek,” Bobcat Goldthwait’s effective yet wholly unnecessary contribution to the genre of horror movies allegedly recovered from the hard drives of dead cameramen. As in “The Blair Witch Project,” the power of suggestion substitutes for onscreen scares as a couple wanders off the grid in Northern California in search of Sasquatch, with predictable results. Still, the project does represent an amusing stretch for the comedian-turned-helmer. Considering the low cost, Goldthwait should have no trouble recouping this self-financed venture by hand-targeting receptive auds.
As it happens, “Blair Witch” co-director Eduardo Sanchez is developing a Bigfoot chiller of his own, titled “Exists,” though “Willow Creek” has the good fortune to reach screens first. Even though Goldthwait doesn’t even bother to show the creature in question, he could sap what little interest exists in the subject simply by being first on the scene, the way “Olympus Has Fallen” trumped the bigger-budget “White House Down” earlier this year.
Lead characters Jim (Bryce Johnson) and Kelly (Alexie Gilmore) belong to the tail end of a generation whose only real connection to Bigfoot has been the 1987 kidpic “Harry and the Hendersons.” An amateur documentarian determined to capture firsthand proof of the creature’s existence, Jim drags his reluctant g.f. along for what he oddly considers a romantic getaway. While not exactly hipsters, the couple display enough ironic disrespect for the region’s folksy tourism trade — reflected in everything from crudely painted murals to oversized burgers — that they’re practically begging to be humbled by the experience.
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By contrast, there’s something relatively endearing about the locals who agree to be interviewed oncamera, and these anthropological bits offer a fraction more human interest than the relatively tired device of actors bumbling through the woods recording everything via handheld video diary. Although inherently frustrating, the found-footage approach does suit the subject, considering that the most compelling evidence of Bigfoot to date has been the equally shaky Patterson-Gimlin film.
When not wasting time on multiple takes of Jim’s surfer-dude narration, “Willow Creek” casually sets up some of the Bigfoot lore that will resurface later, including talk of a missing woman who might be the source of the forlorn crying they hear late at night. Jim clearly hasn’t considered what they would do if Bigfoot actually appeared (Kelly’s too skeptical to be worried at first), and the pair sneak down to the site where the creature has reportedly been spotted in the past and set up camp.
Once darkness falls, Goldthwait treats audiences to a nerve-wracking 19-minute shot inside the tent, as the jumpy couple respond to a host of unnatural sounds coming from all around them. It’s not easy to manufacture the kind of tension “Willow Creek” achieves during this sequence, though it will undoubtedly play better in crowded theaters than alone at home, where the entire endeavor feels more like a cheap trick. In angling for suspense, this low-budget stunt relies a bit too heavily on our suspension of disbelief.