Bobcat Goldthwait’s improbable but long-lasting filmmaking career started in 1991 with Shakes the Clown, a comedy about a clown. With harsh satires and dark comedies that look at the seamier side of contemporary Americana and the nation’s whirlpool of fractured subcultures, Goldthwait has essentially expanded his scabrous, elegantly crazy image from stage and cinema into an aesthetic sensibility. Willow Creek, as a horror picture, seems to be a break from the norm, eschewing outré conceits. This isn’t totally accurate, since he annexes a contemporary mythology to expose other personal stories, as well as societal and gender differences, myth and reality, that fascinate him. He accomplishes this through a remake-cum-burlesque of The Blair Witch Project (1999), in which he adopts the over-used and over-abused “found footage” style, spinning minimalist tension in presenting footage allegedly shot by would-be documentary filmmaker Jim (Bryce Johnson) and his actress girlfriend Kelly (Alexie Gilmore). Jim’s determined journey to the location of the famous Patterson-Gimlin Bigfoot film in the deep woods of northern California, to work through his own fascination with the legendary beast, and Kelly’s equal determination to humour Jim’s venturesome projects and posturings for the sake of coupledom, are depicted in this faux-relic. The very mention of the term “found footage” makes us cringe at this point, yet Goldthwait honors the conventions of the genre in Willow Creek, which isn’t precisely a parody. However, Goldthwait injects humour and impudent élan into the endeavor, mostly by casting his core couple as a pair of smart-alecks who create their own stream of drollery, and so provide their own commentary track for the video. Jim and Kelly’s joking humour, which is unmistakably their main link as a pair, is turned on the situations and people they meet with casual snark that isn’t mean-spirited but does present a very typical kind of carelessly self-justifying ridicule. That mocking is gradually twisted and directed back at Jim and Kelly, especially when Kelly’s gags — posing for her own “missing person” picture and trying to perform sex acts on a Sasquatch monument — turn out to be cruel and brilliant foreshadowing. Goldthwait never has any doubts about how to use the pseudo-amateurish camerawork to maintain dramatic engagement, with Jim and Kelly’s semi-professionalism justifying a reasonable level of camera proficiency, and how to weave in substantive characterisation, where most found-footage films appear to be designed to hide the filmmakers’ lack of ideas in this regard. Jim and Kelly leave their world in stages, as horror fans have come to expect from the genre. Early shots of the pair driving rapidly reveal the intricacies of their relationship, with their shared sense of humour and appeal as a good-looking entertainer and would-be artist on display. Jim’s combination of attentive inquiry and unthinkingly entitled boorishness, like a former frat guy who’s outgrown adolescent antics but isn’t quite the sensitive artiste he believes he is, is also on show, while Kelly half-consciously dims her strong senses for the purpose of being with Jim. When Jim makes Kelly hold a microphone he’s testing while navigating them over a twisting, vertiginous route, we get a disturbing sight of this. Goldthwait, via Jim and Kelly, observes the swirl of all-American commercialisation that has grown up around a charming myth: the eponymous town has completely branded itself with Sasquatch mystique, complete with a massive fresco depicting the Bigfoot, image of the threat and mystery of nature, as a placidly tamed helper in the great American project of colonialism. Importantly, Goldthwait blurs the lines between documentary and fiction filmmaking in a way that few other found-footage films have, partly to document the strange and entertaining little subculture that has sprung up around the legend, and implicitly to study its place in the modern American cultural landscape. He includes segments of Johnson in character as Jim interviewing some real-life colorful characters and regional oddballs, such as Tom Yamarone, the “Bob Dylan of the Bigfoot community,” who happily participates in the mystique, and Nita Rowley, who works at the Willow Creek Visitor Centre and amusingly denies any belief in the creature on which her job depends. Jim, like them, seeks to mold the straw of rural folklore into personally rewarding business, but with more slickly knowing presumptions and obliviousness to genuine difficulties, like when the couple fail to notice the significance of a missing woman’s poster. The idealisation of Bigfoot for commercial interests has a special, communally generated warmth to it, a face painted on the woods that gives it a value it may not otherwise have. However, the Willow Creek mythology may conceal a distinct combination of these two drives, since the pair is warned of the perils of redneck cannabis producers using the rough terrain for their own goals. An alarming encounter with a quickly enraged man (the aptly named Bucky Sinister) on the way to the film location raises the possibility that they’ve stumbled into a place that’s genuinely dangerous beyond the immediate threat of unforgiving terrain, in ways we know Jim and Kelly aren’t prepared for. Jim’s fascination with the Bigfoot, on the other hand, is clearly founded in his image as a frustrated manly-man and explorer into the unknown, constantly hindered by Kelly’s mordant humour and the approaching professional necessity of going to Los Angeles. That’s a move cold Jim professes he can’t tolerate, but instead of accepting full defeat in her subtle rejection of his marriage proposal and replacement offer of cohabitation, he capitulates. Nonetheless, by the film’s climactic scenes, the couple has gone through all of the stages of their relationship at breakneck speed, including what Jim may have hoped for, as Kelly is reduced to quivering and clutching his arm, before devolving to mutual, frantic berating and disillusionment as circumstances close in, and finally becoming a besieged, mutually reliant duo surrounded by dark and monsters, standing back to back, armed and ready. Willow Creek has the potential to be one of the year’s most subtly insightful romantic comedies. Officially, though, Goldthwait’s picture belongs to a current school of horror filmmaking. Willow Creek harkens back to the tiny but entertaining flood of regionally-made, low-budget US horror films from the 1970s, some of which included Bigfoot, such as The Legend of Boggy Creek (1972), Creature From Black Lake (1976), and Sasquatch (1977). (1978). Once Jim and Kelly arrive in the forest, the film’s lengthy, deceptively relaxed lead-in, with its ambling, funny feel and pseudo-authenticity, proves to be excellent training for a more typically emotional final act. “What’s one of my socks doing in the tree?” they wonder as they set up camp then divert for some skinny-dipping before returning to discover their tent trashed. As they return, Jim interrogates them, a brilliant humor that also serves as a warning sign that this lovers’ outing is going to become dangerous. And so it is, in an epic passage filmed purely in static shots, which just shows Jim and Kelly straining their ears and cringing as something seems to stalk their camp outside their tent, which Jim only records to maintain a record of the bizarre and terrible event. A slew of unusual noises, ranging from wild cries to branches being slammed together, seem to herald the arrival of the beast they’ve been looking for but haven’t really believed in, or at least haven’t given any thought to how it may behave and what it might desire. What, on the other hand, is creating the noises of a lady sobbing? The acting of Johnson and Gilmore is obviously crucial to the sequence’s slow-building power, but Goldthwait’s conceit is matched here by his cunning, his ability to force the viewer to share only the extremely limited viewpoint and paranoia of his characters, using only the bare minimum of cinematic devices, far removed from the barrage of camera and special effects that so many recent horror films offer. Goldthwait takes care to convey a variety of interpretations for the events that occur, and although he does supply a weight of evidence that ultimately favors one, he doesn’t fully explain everything and undermine his dichotomy. The final twenty minutes are a condensed version of the sort of herky-jerky, impressionistic survival flight that most found-footage movies offer at length, but Goldthwait has an actual, coherent, very dark punch-line to offer without ever departing from the entirely suggestive approach he’s taken, and also ensures that his mordant final note works regardless of how one interprets the circumstances leading up to it. Kelly, who has so far managed to avoid succumbing to her chosen mate’s self-created mythology, seems to be on the verge of succumbing to much less gentlemanly attentions, whether from cryptid ape-man or redneck man-ape.