Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The scariest movie of 1999

Warning: Willow Creek spoilers ahead.

Question: How did Bobcat Goldthwait celebrate the 15th anniversary of The Blair Witch Project?

Answer: He remade it.

Except, you know, not nearly as good.

I had been trying not to hear very much about Willow Creek, the latest from the iconoclastic director who brought us such movies as Shakes the Clown, Sleeping Dogs Lie, World's Greatest Dad and God Bless America (actually, I think that's all the movies he's brought us). What I had heard was that I shouldn't hear any more. I knew it was a found footage movie and I knew it was about Bigfoot (the poster tells you as much), but beyond that I didn't know anything.

From the tones in which it was vaguely referenced on various podcasts, I had a sense it took brave risks that didn't pay off, which suggested to me a kind of formal daring of which Goldthwait is certainly capable. I thought it might start out as a found footage movie, then break down the fourth wall and show the actors involved in the task of making the found footage movie. For example.

Uh uh. It's just The Blair Witch Project with Sasquatch.

Like, it's shockingly derivative of The Blair Witch Project. It's like Bob Goldthwait didn't ever see The Blair Witch Project, and wanted to blow our minds with the landmark idea of a movie where a small group of people gets lost in the woods while making a documentary about a creature from local folklore. Except, he had to have seen it, else he could not have copied its details so exactly.

Now, there's a compliment embedded in my accusation of theft, because Willow Creek is indeed scary at times. There's a long take at about the film's three-quarter mark where the tension and fear build to an almost unbearable crescendo, based only on some unusual noises outside a tent.

But the terror of unplaceable sounds in the woods was one of the key elements that made Blair Witch so unbearable. Goldthwait's approach is nothing new, or if so, it's only new in the sense that the movie's most squirm-inducing shot goes on for something like ten minutes. That actual tingle of fear over the sound of the unknown? That's all Blair Witch.

And the climax of the film? It's so Blair Witch that it hurts. You get a momentary glimpse of something shocking/new, then the camera ceases to have a living operator. And then the credits roll.

What's so irritating about Willow Creek, though, is that its half-hour plus of setup is so frightfully dull that it seems like an intentional choice by Goldthwait. You get our protagonists interviewing some locals to set the scene, and you get some warnings by other locals not to stick their nose in where it doesn't belong, all shot at an amateur distance of more than 15 feet way, enhancing the idea that these people are not professionals (but decreasing the tension). Pretty typical stuff, but it's so incredibly bland that it felt willful, almost spiteful. More generously, it felt like a necessary anti build-up that would make Goldthwait''s eventual act of pulling the rug out from under us all the more shocking.

Nope. It's just bad technique. It's just bad filmmaking.

The idea of someone copying Blair Witch, of maybe introducing it to a new generation of teenagers, doesn't surprise me in the least. When nearly everything is getting remade these days, a movie that only steals the same basic premise of another movie seems fair game.

No, the shocking part is that it's this director doing this. Shall we examine some of the movies he's made previously? (Warning: Bob Goldthwait career spoilers to follow.)

Shakes the Clown is about an alcoholic clown framed for murder.

Sleeping Dogs Lie is about a woman dealing with the aftermath of an impulsive act of bestiality.

World's Greatest Dad is about a father who ghost writes his son's suicide note and other material after his son dies of auto-erotic asphyxiation.

God Bless America is about a middle-aged man and a teenage girl who go on a killing spree of people who behave annoyingly.

In short, Bobcat Goldthwait does not have a conventional bone in his body. So where did this act of utter conventionality come from?

One can only guess.

Willow Creek is not an inept movie. It has moments that will send chills up your spine, and it knows how to milk those moments into a string of moments, even a sustained period of dread. Not just any hack can do that.

And Willow Creek might in fact have been the most frightening time at the movies in 1999, if it had come out a few months before Blair Witch and stolen that movie's thunder. But Willow Creek arrived at a time when found footage is a completely moribund genre, especially those movies where documentary filmmakers go missing during the course of their own investigations.

Bobcat Goldthwait usually feels 15 years ahead of his time. Then how did he get so far behind?

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