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Review: Willow Creek

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Bobcat Goldthwait fascinates me as a director.  Unburdened by studio influence, the guy seems to make what he wants.  Despite budgetary constraints and the process of distributing his movies (he once stated that his films are less released than they simply escape), he has created a body of work that is varied and daring.  With Willow Creek, Goldthwait visits the world of found footage horror and finds that there’s nothing like the classics…

WillowCreek_Still01Alexie Gilmore and Bryce Johnson are Kelly and Jim, respectively, a young couple vacationing in the Pacific Northwest, where Jim plans to record his semi-documentary about his search for Bigfoot.  Kelly, a skeptic, tags along for the trip more than any innate fascination with the Sasquatch legends, and often serves as the voice of the more level-headed audience members like myself.  While Jim chats with locals about their experiences, some of the interviews turn ominous, suggesting that whatever hides in the deep woods of the region is not always friendly.

We’re also given a glimpse into the relationship between Jim and Kelly, people I found to be worthy of following.  They’re young, but not foolish, and there’s a tension in their relationship that adds a realistic texture to the proceedings.  Unlike most protagonists in these sorts of films, they’re quick to search for help and “get out of Dodge” when their vacation takes a hairy turn.  Sorry, couldn’t help it.

We get a glimpse into the world of these tourist-trap owners and Bigfoot enthusiasts as Jim records them for his film, and Goldthwait mixes interviews with actors and real-world inhabitants of Willow Creek, playing with the notion of fiction in this setting.  While never stopping to mock those who have become obsessed with Bigfoot, there’s plenty of cheeky moments where we see singers belting out odes to the hairy creature or the Patterson-Gimlin film.  The Patterson-Gimlin, for those who don’t know, is the most famous footage of an alleged Sasquatch, the one taken at the creek bed and featuring a figure moving quickly across frame.  It is this film that leads Jim and Kelly into the woods to find the site of the historic footage.

It’s here Goldthwait shifts the tone from playful to the sinister, and the back half of the movie is reminiscent of The Blair Witch willow_creek1Project for its spare use of visuals and sound to create a tense atmosphere.  Without giving too much away, it’s safe to say Willow Creek has far more in common with Blair Witch than [Rec], and those viewers who demand the action that marks modern found footage films are warned to steer clear.  Goldthwait is after a more primal fear here, manipulating sounds in an effective manner to elicit tension.  There is an extended shot that serves as the set piece of the film, which will either terrify you or bore you to tears.  As I watched in the cool dark, I fell into the former camp, finding myself breathless with anticipation the way the characters onscreen were.  Still, I can understand a criticism of the film for being perhaps too subtle in its execution, but after seeing more bombastic entries into the genre, I appreciated the film’s slow build, much like I did with The Blair Witch Project.

I’ll be curious to speak with those who have seen the film, to turn the ending over a little and examine it, to weigh others’ interpretations.  I have my own perspective on what the images we see imply, but I think it’s to Goldthwait’s credit that one could come up with multiple personal narratives to inform the ending.

While not perfect, Willow Creek held me fascinated, and the second half of the film filled me with a creeping dread, despite a less-than-stellar and ambiguous payoff.  This will be a divisive film, no question about it, but I found it to be tense and note-perfect when it came to providing a primitive fear.  But, really, what the hell was with that lady?

Review: Devil’s Due

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Released in the dumping ground of January, Devil’s Due is yet another found footage movie following mysterious goings-on in affluent white people’s lives.  In this case, it’s some business about a pregnancy that shows all the signs of being diabolical in nature.  Or something.  Written by first-time feature writer Lindsay Devlin, whose previous credit was the documentary In So Many Words, and directed by two members of the directing collective known as Radio Silence, Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillet, Devil’s Due feels like a greatest hits album of demonic pregnancy and evil child movies, with a dash of found footage trope thrown in.  The result, not unexpectedly, is a movie so bland it almost makes the movie exceptional.

In defense of Devil’s Due, the affluent white people at the center of the film are charming enough.  Allison Miller and Zach Gilford play Samantha and Zach McCall, newlyweds who honeymoon in exotic Santo Domingo.  They decide early in the film that they want to film as much as possible so they can look back when they are older on even the most muDF-00674.CR2ndane moments of their lives.  It’s as close as we get to an explanation of the camera being ever-present, though the logic falls apart later in the film when Zach is wearing his “adventure cam” while hunting for devil-worshiping midwives, but I get ahead of myself.

While on the honeymoon, a cab driver takes Zach and Allison to an underground club where people look at them all creepy-like.  Fueled by booze, our heroes pass out and Allison gets the old in-and-out from some golden light before the couple wakes up alone in their hotel room.  While they have made a point to film everything so far, it’s not until well into the movie that Zach decides to check out the honeymoon footage to see how they got back to their hotel room.  Whatever.

Back home, Allison discovers she is pregnant and Devil’s Due starts trotting out the classics.  Mother acting creepy?  Check.  Belly gets distended like THERE’S SOMETHING INSIDE HER?!  Check.  Previously vegetarian mom starts craving red meat?  Sure thing.  Strangers staring at Allison and their upper-middle-class house?  You betcha.  Disoriented father realizing that maybe, just maybe, his wife is carrying a #devilbaby?  Yup.  How about a scene ata  baptism where things get weird?  Absolutely.  Or a vague explanation about antichrists?  It’s all here.

To suggest that this movie is by-the-numbers is an understatement.  If you have seen The Omen or Rosemary’s Baby, or any of the countless knock-offs of those movies, you’ve seen every move this film has in its repertoire.  The greatest crime of the movie isn’t that it’s bad, it simply feels cribbed together from far better movies.  While Rosemary’s Baby is an amazing study of the powerlessness of its central character and the manipulation of the younger generation by the aged and wealthy, Devil’s Due never rises above the level of an assemblage of cheap scares and routine set pieces.

My heart aches when I see a movie like this, a rote exercise in lazy filmmaking.  Perhaps the creators thought they were doing ddscarysomething fresh, but it’s hard to imagine the pitch went much beyond, “We’re doing Rosemary’s Baby, only found footage and dumber.”  Maybe they didn’t pitch it with the word ‘dumb’ in the mix, but I filled that in for them.  I can imagine a scenario where an individual who had never seen a horror film before being potentially affected by this movie, but, for the rest of us who remember that other horror films happened before January of 2014, this falls flat and, worse, bores the #devilbaby right out of you.

Devil’s Due is, ultimately, a painfully derivative and uninspired film that serves as ammunition for those who think the found footage subgenre is repetitive and uninteresting.  I sincerely wish the movie held loftier ambitions, or had failed more spectacularly.  Anything would have been better than the generic malaise this movie inspires.

New Review: The Sacrament

Ti West is an interesting filmmaker.  His first real splash came with the release of The House of the Devil, a film that apes the devil/cult thrillers of the late ’70s and early ’80s to masterful effect, and that movie is widely regarded as one of the great horror releases of the 2000s.  With The Innkeepers, West explored the haunted house film and, I believe, succeeded once more.  Subsequent viewings have only cemented my earlier impressions of the film as a fine example of the subgenre.  There have been missteps, however.  From the producer-meddling result of Cabin Fever 2 to his largely dismissed work in V/H/S and The ABCs of Death, West has been consistently producing work that is, at least, noteworthy for the past five years.

His most recent film, The Sacrament, explores another type of horror, eschewing the supernatural terrors of The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers for a tale that is all-too-familiar for those of us born in the early-to-mid-’70s.  Using the found-footage style he explored in the anthology films, West attempts to recreate one of the most horrifying real-life stories in a fictional setting. The result is strangely ambiguous.

Our heroes are reporters for the outlet VICE, journalists who practice “subjective honesty” with regard to their subjects.  In this case, one of the reporters, Patrick (Kentucker Audley, an incredible name) regales his peers with the story of his sister Caroline (Amy Seimetz, You’re Next), a recovering drug addict who has fled the country with a religious group, that could easily be viewed as a cult.  Inspired by his story, cameraman Jake (Joe Swanberg, A Horrible Way to Die) and reporter Sam (AJ Bowen, The House of the Devil) organize a visit with Patrick to document the reunion and capture footage of the compound where Caroline resides.

After being met by gunmen, the trio venture through the jungle to a clearing, christened “Eden Parish” by the residents.  While the initial impressions are of a commune for the outcasts of society, a sinister cloud gathers as Jake and Sam explore the grounds prior to their meeting with the charismatic and mysterious Father, played with equal parts dread and folksy charm by Gene Jones.

Of course things go wrong, and the film descends into a roller coaster ride of shocks as Father gathers his flock to execute one final act of defiance to the outside world.  Along the way, the film suffers from the usual “Why are they filming all of this?” problems most of these films have, leaning on the old chestnut, “We have to let the world know what happened.”  It’s a thin excuse, and many of the later shots bend the logic to the point of breaking, but it’s not the most egregious offender of this type of filmmaking.

The biggest problem with the film is a subjective one, and one perhaps elusive to a younger generation.  The Sacrament exists in an odd uncanny valley, where the fictional and the real collide in a jarring way.   There is no way to view the final act of this film without conjuring tales of Jim Jones and the Guyana tragedy.  If you aren’t familiar with this bloody historical footnote, perhaps The Sacrament will play better, but I could never shake the feeling that I was watching a very well-done dramatization on one of the murder-porn cable channels.  As soon as Father begins his final speech to his congregation, echoes of Jim Jones demand to be considered, and I am unable to discern if West wants the comparison to be so naked, or if he could not tell the true tale of Guyana due to copyright.  What remains is a film that feels part documentary, part horror film, and neither component meshes well with the other.

That’s not to say the movie isn’t compelling.  There are thrills to be had here, and even some playfulness with expectations of found-footage films like this one.   The performances range from capable to astounding (Jones really is remarkable here), and the few visual effects used in the film are graphic and visceral. The characters, likewise, are relatable and push the story forward in a number of intriguing ways.  In particular, the relationship between the estranged Caroline and Patrick results in the most chilling and heartbreaking moment of the movie.

As I reflect on the film, my lingering sense is one of confusion rather than satisfaction.  I will be curious to hear West speak about it on the director’s commentary, and I dare to repeat that those unfamiliar with Jim Jones and Jonestown may find a new well of terror to draw from.  For me, it was a reminder of the real-world horrors we visit on ourselves and how no fiction can surpass the true evil that men do.