Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Review of Bobcat Goldthwait's "Willow Creek"

Bobcat Goldthwait may still be best known as "that crazy comic" from the 1980s, but he has carved out a pretty decent new career as a director over the past few years.  Last night (April 29, 2013) I was lucky enough to be in attendance at the world premiere of his latest film, "Willow Creek" (2013).  It was showing at the Somerville Theatre in Somerville, MA.  The screening was part of the 2013 Independent Film Festival of Boston.  While getting  chance to see a film's world premiere is reason enough to get excited, what made this night extremely interesting for me was that "Willow Creek" just happens to be a horror movie about...Bigfoot!  It was a good night and a very good movie.  Bobcat Goldthwait himself introduced the movie before it started, and then did a Q&A session with the stars of the film after it ended.

I had listened to a podcast interview from The Bigfoot Report with Bobcat Goldthwait about the movie which gave me a lot of information going into the film.  It seems that Bobcat is actually a pretty big Bigfoot enthusiast himself.  That certainly bodes well for the film.  His knowledge of and respect for the subject could only be a plus.

Here's the podcast from The Bigfoot Report:

Over the past decade or so there has been a huge explosion of new Bigfoot and Abominable Snowman movies.  With the popularity of the show "Finding Bigfoot" this trend will probably continue.  When I first started noticing that new Bigfoot movies were appearing I was excited to see the genre return to the big (and small) screen.  But when I sat down and watched these movies I realized that they were almost exclusively simply trashy horror/slasher movies that just happened to feature (a generally crappy-looking) Bigfoot as the murderous "monster" doing all the gruesome killing.  To make things worse, it was obvious that the accessibility of computers and cheap, easily made CGI effects made most of these creatures possible.  A terrible gorilla suit is bad enough, but really crappy CGI Bigfoot monsters and gore effects make for practically unwatchable crap.  This will all tie in with the review of the movie, trust me.

Back to "Willow Creek".  The most important things I learned from the podcast were that Bobcat was an actual fan (if that's the right word) of Bigfoot, and that this movie wasn't meant to be "snarky" about Bigfoot or the people who believe in the creature.  Not really knowing much more about the movie, I was excited to see it.  I guess the only other important thing to know is that this is a "Found Footage" movie (a la "The Blair Witch Project" (1999) and "Cloverfield" (2008).  I know a lot of people are tired of this format and automatically hate anything done in the style without even having to watch it.  While I agree that the unexpected popularity of "Blair Witch" was responsible for the gimmick being overused, I still think it's possible to do good things with it.

When we got to the Somerville Theatre about an hour before the 9:30 showtime there were already a handful of people lining up to get in.  Apparently they wanted to get the best seats and were willing to wait an hour to do so.  We went for a drink and returned around 9:20 to see very long line snaking around to the back of the theater building.

It was nice to see such a large and enthusiastic turnout for a Bigfoot movie--even if 95% of the people were actually there mainly to see Bobcat Goldthwait.  We got our seats and enjoyed an introduction to the movie from Bobcat himself.  He had recently had spinal surgery and was all hopped up on painkillers, so it was impressive that he made the effort to be there at all in the first place.  He managed to be funny and talk coherently about the movie and why he made it.

After the film ended Bobcat returned to the stage to talk some more about "Willow Creek", introduce the stars of the movie and answer some questions from the audience.  I had never been to a world premiere of a movie (small-time independent or major studio release).  Having the chance to attend one at a wonderful place like the Somerville Theatre,  and getting to see the director talk about his movie was very cool.  Bobcat and the stars answered quite a few questions and gave the audience a good idea of what the making of "Willow Creek" was like.

But what about the movie itself?

"Willow Creek" tells the story--through found film footage--of Jim and Kelly, a couple who are trying to make a documentary about Bigfoot by traveling to the Pacific Northwest, visiting some of the tourist traps of Bigfoot Country and camping out at the site of the most famous Bigfoot sighting of all-time, Bluff Creek.  This was where, in 1967,  Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin took the famous footage of a large bipedal creature walking off into the woods that yielded the most well-known image of Bigfoot ever taken--an iconic image familiar with both Bigfoot enthusiasts and people who don't even know anything about the subject.

Still from the 1967 Patterson-Gimlin film

The trip starts out with the couple driving toward their destination.  We get to know them through their personal moments "unwittingly" caught on film as they record the first somewhat awkward scenes of their film.  Jim is a believer in the subject and very excited to be making the pilgrimage to Bigfoot Country.  His girlfriend Kelly doesn't believe there is anything to the Bigfoot myth, but is happy to accompany Jim on the adventure and help him out with his film.  The first thing I liked about the movie was that this section showed the couple visiting a number of actual Bigfoot tourism sites and a number of real Bigfoot "personalities" are featured.  It's a pretty fun look at an area that I've always wanted to visit myself, but probably never will.  While this is definitely not a comedy, there are quite a few nice bits of humor in this "introductory" segment of the film.  All the while the couple is preparing for the ultimate voyage to the Patterson-Gimlin film site.  To set up some conflict there are local people who warn the couple that they shouldn't take the trip.  From telling them that it isn't something to joke about, to warning them that it could be dangerous, to actually threatening them, people seem to think that the excursion isn't a great idea.

When they finally do take off for the film site we get an idea of just how remote the area is.  Paved roads lead to dirt roads of increasingly poor quality.  This is where they meet a creepy hillbilly who gives them a very clear and direct threat that they should turn back.  Of course they don't listen.  They finally have to hike in the last few miles when the road eventually ends altogether.  As it gets close to nightfall they decide to make camp before finishing the journey in the morning.  This is where the main action of the film happens.  They wander away from their tent to check out the scenery (and take a dip in a stream) and return to find the campsite trashed.  Trashed by what or whom we don't know.  Was it a bear?  Was it the hillbillies messing with them?  Was it Bigfoot?

The next scenes are in and around the tent at night.  After an awkward marriage proposal from Bob we see the couple wakened from sleep by strange sounds in the woods.  This is the part of a movie that provides the greatest challenge for a "Found Footage" film.  Suspense and mood need to be established and maintained without using many cuts and/or edits in the film.  It's also necessary to make it believable that the characters would be filming what we're seeing.  I thought Bobcat did a fine job on all fronts during this stretch.  The centerpiece is an approximately nineteen-minute shot of Jim and Kelly in the tent listening to the sounds around them and becoming increasingly creeped out as they try to figure out what they are hearing.  The camera is on a tripod (or something that keeps it steady) and doesn't move during this whole scene.  At first Jim hears "knocking", which is an actual method of knocking pieces of wood together that is supposedly used by Bigfoot creatures to communicate in some way.  The sounds are coming from far off and aren't frequent.  It could certainly just be natural sounds of the forest--as Kelly tries to convince herself.  Later they start hearing strange whooping sounds that Jim refers to as "vocalization", another noted Bigfoot communication method.  The yelps don't sound particularly threatening, but are unnerving.  And the noises seem to be moving around the campsite and getting closer.  Next come deeper moaning sounds that are much more creepy, and what sounds like a child or a woman crying.  They start to hear something walking around the campsite, rocks are thrown at the tent, and finally something or someone pushes down on the tent before retreating when Kelly screams.  Throughout this long scene Kelly is transformed from a skeptic into a true believer (even if she's most likely not sure exactly what it is that she now believes in).  This whole scene is the centerpiece, and the most effective part, of the whole movie.

We next see the couple at dawn as they break camp and announce that they are abandoning the project, heading out of the woods and going home.  But first they have to find their way back to their car.  Along the way Jim finds and collects a hair sample and they get the feeling (with increasing certainty) they are being followed.  Naturally they don't find their way back to the car.  As nightfall nears they realize they had been spending hours walking in circles.  The film closes out with the couple's ultimate journey into fear as they finally encounter what has been following them and messing with them since they entered the deep forest.  Without giving away the ending I will say that we find out in a few quick and loud minutes just why the story is being told solely through some "found footage".

I thought "Willow Creek" was an excellent movie.  At least excellent in terms of a Bigfoot film anyway.  I grew up in the 1970s and saw movies like "Creature from Black Lake" (1976), "Sasquatch: The Legend of Bigfoot" (1977) and the documentary "The Mysterious Monsters" (1975).  To this day these remain my favorite Bigfoot films of all time.  They probably wouldn't be considered of very high quality today, but because of what they meant to me as a terrified kid they remain the best of the best.  "Harry and the Hendersons" (1987) was a fine bigger-budget Hollywood film, and probably the "best" Bigfoot movie ever made, quality-wise, but I don't really think of it a true Bigfoot film so much as a nice family movie that just happens to be about Bigfoot.  I have also seen most of the slew of newer Bigfoot horror movies I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, and pretty much dislike the vast majority of them.  I think "Willow Creek" is (to me at least) one of the best Bigfoot movies ever made, and probably the best since the heyday of the 1970s.  It gave me genuine chills during the inside-the-tent scenes, and I can honestly say that, for me,  it was genuinely scary in places (something that most modern horror films can't say).  To be honest, I was a bit disappointed with the ending.  It had to have an ending, and this one certainly finished things up in a major (but still mysterious) way and let you know just what or who was responsible for the action outside the tent the night before.  It even included a big surprise element that was foreshadowed earlier in the movie.  It gets you thinking and wondering, but in the end it was just a touch too much for me.  In fact, it felt almost like a shot-for-shot re-creation of the ending of "The Blair Witch Project", with Bigfoot inserted in place of a witch.  I can't say exactly what was wrong with it, or how I'd recommend improving it, but it just felt a bit forced.  Otherwise (and even with this issue) I really did think that it was a very good movie.  It's certainly something that Bigfoot buffs should enjoy.


If you plan on watching the movie and want to be surprised going into it,
please don't read any further...

What might be the best thing about "Willow Creek" is the fact that it's pretty obvious that there is indeed a Bigfoot creature (many of them in fact), but we never see it onscreen.  The worst part of most of the new wave of Bigfoot horror films is the onscreen appearances of the Bigfoot creatures themselves.  Whether it's a guy in a suit or a CGI creature (and especially when it's a CGI creature) the monsters always seem to disappoint big time.  Some of the filmmakers seem to put a decent amount of effort into the costumes, but the low-budget nature of the direct-to-video market limits what they can do.  The easy alternative is to go the increasingly accessible CGI route.  These monsters always end up being overblown and move too quickly and unrealistically to be believed.  Bobcat saved the money of creating a creature and left that part to the imagination of the viewer.  We all have a pretty good idea of what Bigfoot is supposed to look like and using our imaginations ends up being a much cheaper and more effective special effect.  Bobcat did a great job of building the suspense, and by the time it all ends you don't really feel you need to actually see the thing that's doing all this stuff to feel satisfied.

As I mentioned, the ending was very derivative of "The Blair Witch Project".  The whole movie was of a similar framework, but that's to be expected in a "Found Footage" movie.  I wasn't bothered by the similarity until the end.  The surprise element, mentioned above, concerns what can only be described as a "forest bride", who was alluded to earlier in the film while the couple were touring Bigfoot Country.  It's adds a disturbing element to what was already a disturbing ending as our main characters meet their horrifying demise.  Since this is a horror movie there's nothing wrong with it having a gruesome and disturbing ending (and the gore, like the creature, is never explicitly shown).  I'm not even sure exactly why I was put off by the ending.  Maybe Bobcat just did too good of a job making me like these people and I simply didn't want it to end the way I knew it had to end.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Happy Birthday Newbury Comics!

Newbury Comics is the name of a chain of retail stores in New England.  The chain currently has 28 stores in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut and Maine.  They do indeed sell lots of comic books and graphic novels and the like, but they offer a LOT more too: books, magazines, CDs, DVDs, Blu-rays, video games, t-shirts, posters and lots of toys, action figures and other goodies from all corners of pop culture: superheroes, Star Wars, Doctor Who (old and new), The Walking Dead, Star Trek, and all your favorite bands (just to name a few).

I just found out a couple days ago that Newbury Comics was celebrating its 35th anniversary on April 6, 2013.  To commemorate the occasion they had a giant one-day sale where nearly everything in the stores was 35% off (even sale items)!  I was never a very dedicated comic book reader, but always loved taking a trip to Newbury Comics to check out my favorite movies, music and other neat stuff.  A giant 35% off sale was a great excuse to make a trip to Newbury Street in Boston (the flagship store for the chain).

It seems hard to believe that Newbury Comics has been around for thirty-five years.  The store's not as old as me (I was eight when it opened, and didn't start patronizing it until my teenage years), but it's still hard to imagine.  In 1978 vinyl records weren't a neat and hip option for music--they were the main format for music.  When I first started going to the store the big format was cassette tapes.  Later on CDs came along.  Now the CDs (and the vinyl selection for that matter) have to duel with virtual adversaries like mp3s and iTunes.  Newbury Comics has also weathered the home entertainment revolution spurred by the video cassette recorder (VCR).  VHS (and Beta) tapes were eventually replaced by DVDs and Blu-ray (which have their own virtual adversaries online).

Despite being such a New England institution for so long and having 28 outlets, Newbury Comics still manages to feel like an independent local store rather than some giant cookie-cutter chain store.  Speaking of the big chains, when my friends and I used to travel into Boston to cruise Newbury street--and Newbury Comics--back in the 1980s this now-vacant building used to house a gigantic multi-floor Tower Records store.

Back to the sale.  I got to the store a few minutes before the doors opened at 10:00 AM.  There was a modest line of people waiting to get in.  Obviously word of the big sale had gotten around.  It was kind of funny watching the other Newbury Street shoppers walking by and trying to figure out why people were lined up in front of the store.

Waiting for the doors to open
Time to spend (and save) some money!

When the store opened the crowd moved inside.  It was relatively quiet at first, but in the approximately hour-and-a-half that I spent there, the store filled up with bargain hunters pretty quickly.  People congregated around their areas of interest (comic books, jazz CDs, t-shirts and other clothing, DVDs and Blu-rays...).  The most interesting group (to me at least) was the crowd of eager vinyl fans pouring over the record section.

Vinyl collectors (right), with posters and Doctor Who merchandise nearby
T-shirts and racks of CDs

Some of the comic books for sale in the store
a selection of superhero banks

It was hard to resist these Han Solo in carbonite ice cube molds!

While I spent most of my time browsing, I did manage to find a few things (four to be exact) that I just couldn't resist.  It felt odd not buying any music (or even a few comic books), but I still think I ended up with a pretty good representation of what Newbury Comics is about.  The first thing was a Ghostbusters t-shirt (that glows in the dark!), which I've been planning on buying since last October to replace an old one I have that has a hole in it.  I'm always looking for a bargain and find it hard to shell out $19.99 for a t-shirt.  With the 35% discount the Ghostbusters shirt only cost $12.99!  Guess it was worth the wait.

I also got a wind-up Doctor Who Dalek toy for The Little Monsters (and, yes, for me too I suppose).  This one had a price on it of $9.99, but with the 35% off deal it only cost me $6.49.

The last two items I bought were movies sets on DVD.  As it turns out they were both very appropriate choices for the day.  It just so happens that both of them were originally released in 1978--the same year that Newbury Comics opened!  First up is the four disc Special Edition set of "Superman: The Movie" (1978).  I have a bare-bones set of all four of the Christopher Reeve "Superman" movies, but couldn't resist what was probably the bargain of the day.  The price tag on this one was a more-than-reasonable $6.99.  But it was already on sale for only $3.99.  With the anniversary discount added it only cost $2.59!  That's well under a dollar per disc!

And finally, I also got the Ultimate Edition four disc set of "Dawn of the Dead" (1978).  This is a movie I already have on a single DVD, but to get this set for a ridiculously low price was a no-brainer (no zombie pun intended).In addition to the U.S. theatrical release (that I have on my older DVD) this set also includes the Extended Version and the European Version of the film along with a bunch of extras.

The funny thing about this set was that the store had two copies of it on the shelf.  One was a used copy that had a price of $14.99.  Right below that one was a brand new copy for...$13.99.  Yes, I paid a buck less for a new copy!  Actually I paid quite a bit less, because with the discount added in it only cost $9.09.

Hmmm.  $14.99 used or $13.99 new?  Tough choice!

These four items would have cost me a total of $50.96 (without Massachusetts tax added) according to the price tags (and not counting the sale on the "Superman" set.  With the 35% anniversary discount it really felt a bit like time was rolled back and I was paying 1978 prices.  The whole mess, including tax cost only $32.30!

Here's a video I made about the Newbury Comics haul:

Happy Anniversary Newbury Comics!

And here's to the next thirty-five years!