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Maybe I’m an eternal optimist, or maybe I’m just stubborn, but the idea of a “found footage” horror flick set in abandoned mental hospital that was notorious for its brutal methods of “therapy” is something I found too —- what’s the word I’m looking for here, appealing? — for me to just give up on no matter how badly Sean Stone’s Greystone Park (which we reviewed here the other day as part of our “Netflix Halloween” series) sucked. And frankly, it sucked in more ways than I can count. It sucked so bad, in fact, that I probably shouldn’t have bothered when I noticed that elsewhere in the Netflix instant streaming queue right now is a little indie number from 2011 called Grave Encounters that has more or less exactly the same premise, and it seems reasonable enough to assume that  I could could especially be forgiven for giving this one a pass given that it was written and directed by a pseudonymous gestalt entity that goes by the ultra-lame handle of The Vicious Brothers (in reality Stuart Ortiz and Colin Minihan). Still,  I think you know where I’m headed here —

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Yup, I watched it anyway. Why? Well, as I said, I find the basic premise to be at the very least intriguing, and hey, this one came out first, beating Greystone Park to the punch by a full year. A quick glance at the IMDB also showed it to have received at least a handful of good reviews by armchair critics/contributors to that site who I generally find myself in agreement with, so — what the hell, right? Why not give it a go?

Right off the bat, Grave Encounters has a bit more personality than Stone’s celluloid abortion, as we’re introduced to “reality” TV mogul Jerry Hartfield (Ben Wilkinson), who informs us that the film we’re about to see is “assembled from  raw footage” captured on camera by the crew of a supposedly-ahead-of-its-time paranormal “ghost hunter” show called — you guessed it — Grave Encounters , and that said individuals have  dropped off the face of the Earth after paying a visit to the sprawling grounds of a multi-building facility formerly known as the Collingwood Psychiatric Hospital. Cliched, sure, but a decent enough introduction to the proceedings.

Next up we meet the principal players themselves, host Lance Preston (Sean Rogerson), camera operators T.C. Gibson (Merwin Mondesir) and Sasha Parker (Ashleigh Gryzko), tech and sound guy Matt White (Juan Riedinger) and, a short while later, “famed psychic” Houston Gray (Mackenzie Gray). The Vicious Brothers waste little time in exposing the fact that the show is — as all of things are, sorry to burst your bubble — a complete fraud, with Preston and Gray, especially, being nothing but jive Hollywood phonies, but  tonight is the night when — after locking themselves into the facility — all that paranormal shit they’re supposedly going after but never actually find comes back to bite them all in the asses with a vengeance. Their show may not be real, but shit’s about to get real anyway.

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What follows isn’t necessarily the greatest horror movie you’ve ever seen — or even the greatest “found footage” horror movie you’ve ever seen — but Ortiz and Minihan go about their task with a clearly visible degree of style and know-how, and are helped along the way by reasonably strong performances from their cast, a genuinely creepy location, and a solid script that keeps upping the ante as things progress. No, it’s nothing super extraordinary by any means, but it’s at least competent, and provides a few genuine chills along the way as we venture fairly firmly into Twilight Zone territory with time getting screwed up, corridors that lead nowhere, walled-off exits, etc. Oh, yeah — there are ghosts, too, and they’re plenty vicious and actually even kinda scary.

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So, hey, guess I was right after all — the idea of a horror “mockumentary” set in an old lunatic asylum isn’t such a bad one, if the right people are both behind and in front of the camera, and I’m obviously not alone in that opinion given that Grave Encounters spawned a sequel just over a year later that is — surprise! — also available on Netflx, as well, so ya know what? I think I’ll give that one a whirl this evening, and  unless it’s a complete cluster-fuck disaster — or maybe even if it is —ten to one you already know what the next movie I’ll be reviewing here is going to be.

Before we get into the “meat” of discussing one of the most provocative micro-budgeters I’ve seen in some time, let’s take care of a little bit of housekeeping first : thanks to the fine folks over at  The Movie And Music Network , you, dear reader, are now able to watch any flick I review from their  site either completely free (with commercials), or at an extremely low cost (if you choose to watch it without commercials). Plus, the deal’s retroactive, so even though I already reviewed Hate Crime , which is available via their “terror channel” , a couple of weeks back, they still hooked me up with a link whereby you can check it out —  so, should you so desire, the link for that one is available right underneath the poster art reproduced above. . All in all not a bad deal, huh? These guys n’ gals are proving to be very “good peeps” to work with, indeed, so I humbly suggest you check out what they’ve got going on as they continue to build their online library.

And speaking of The Movie And Music Network, that’s where I came by today’s admittedly ugly, but also admittedly gripping, little number , director Michael Fredianelli’s 2009 shot-in-California-and-Arizona-but-supposedly-taking-place-in-Texas “modern exploitationer,” Blackface Killer — which, in true drive-in style, was also released under the alternate handle of The Minstrel Killer. I admit to not being terribly familiar with Fredianelli’s other work, but he’s obviously concocted a true labor of love (albeit a hateful one) here, as he basically hits every note in the exploitation playbook seamlessly and remorselessly, and furthermore manages to do so in a comfortable stride that never seems forced or phony. In short, this flick is the real deal — andapparently made for under $100,000, to boot.

Not that it’s for everyone, mind you : to call the subject matter “tasteless” would be an understatement in the extreme, given that our story here revolves around a racist cop named Tex Holland (played by the director himself, who also co-wrote the screenplay with David Brashear — is there anything this guy doesn’t do?) who’s struggling to come to terms with the fact that his wife, Carol (Vanessa Celso) cheated on him with a black guy at the very same time than he and “local yokel” sheriff Pike McGraw (Eric Andersen) have been tasked with finding a killer ( Michael Nose, listed in the credits only as “The Shape,” which is very plainly a nod to John Carpenter) who goes around in blackface, or “minstrel,” make-up,  and is, for reasons unknown, meting out  various forms of torture upon his seemingly random victims  that were,  sadly, fairly  commonplace back in the days of slavery .

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If you’re looking for reasons as to exactly why he’s doing this — or even hope to eventually find out who this sick (and sickening) character is — well, you’re watching the wrong movie. Adhering strictly to the ethos of the grindhouse, things aren’t very well thought-through here, and the main goal is just to shock and appall in the most crass and efficient manner possible — which, of course, this movie does, and when the idea of a killer in blackface starts to lose some of its nauseating power, Fredianelli isn’t afraid to stir the pot by mixing in overtly un-PC discussions of racial issues, or to throw a spanner into the works by assigning Holland (okay, himself) a new partner, Tyrell Jones (Anthony Spears) who’s not only black, but also clearly the only semi-competent cop working the case, or even change to change things up altogether , as when,  in a lengthy digression,  Holland (again, say it with me, himself) ends up  at the mercy of a clan of inbred hillbilly cannibals.

Whew! That covers pretty much the entire checklist of items commonly found in sleazy regionally-lensed-and-distributed “B”-movies of years gone by, does it not? And that’s precisely  what Blackface Killer is aiming to do — throw everything plus the kitchen sink at you, and dare you to keep on watching. I can’t blame you if you choose to opt out somewhere along the way, but if you stick it out, you’ll be offered one less-than-healthy reminder after another of exactly why you love these types of films — and why you hate yourself for doing so.

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Obviously, I’d have to be downright certifiable to give this flick anything other than an extremely guarded recommendation — but if, like me, you enjoy pushing the limits of how much you can stand to see, and are able to appreciate heart-felt homages to a style of movie-making that’s long since gone by the wayside, then  you can’t do much better than this. Also available on DVD (not that I can comment on the specifics of said release since I didn’t see it that way), Blackface Killer will be made freely available to readers of this site via our friends at The Movie And Music Network in the very near future, so please keep an eye on this page for the link if you’re interested. Which you certainly should be. Even if you shouldn’t be. And on that note, I’ll cut this off now before I  stop making any sense altogether — or is it already too late for that?

 

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At first glance — and second, and third, and fourth — it’s tempting to simply dismiss director/writer Michael A. Nickles’ 2012 indie horror Playback (now available, as per our rules for this month, on Netflix instant streaming) as another RinguThe Ring knock-off because — well, it is. That’s undeniable. But at least it has the fact that it’s an ambitious knock-off going for it, and that’s worth more than a little something around these parts.

Which isn’t to say that it’s necessarily a good one, mind you — but hey,  at least its chief flaw is in wanting to do more than it realistically can or should rather than in resting on its laurels and being satisfied with doing too little. Confused yet?  Fear not — so’s the movie.

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Here’s what you need to know, summed up in the most succinct terms : a high school kid named Julian (Johnny Pacar) is doing a report for his journalism class, together with his girlfriend Riley (Ambyr Childers),  on an infamous family massacre in his hometown that saw an adopted son kill his parents and sister, but all is not as cut-and-dried as it appears : it turns out, you see, that the unhappy adoptee was, in reality, a direct descendant of the guy who made the very first motion picture (yes, even before Edison), and that great-grandpa believed he could capture a person’s soul with his magical new invention, the movie camera. There’s  a string of suspicious deaths involving the  people attached to his film that seems to bear this at-first-glance-outlandish view out, as well as some scuttlebutt about a curse in the family being passed down from generation to generation. Julian seems strangely immersed in the project, and has even taken to spending a fair amount of time out at the farmhouse where the crime took place — but if you think he’s taking too personal an interest in the matter, wait until you meet his buddy, Quinn (Toby Hemingway), who seems downright possessed by the old film and, frankly, ins’t looking so healthy these days.

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Of course, that may have something to do with the fact that Quinn spends a bit too much time in front of screens in general. He works at a local TV station as a video archiver of some sort, and has a semi-lucrative side gig going hustling off hidden-camera footage he gets from teenage girls’ bedrooms, showers, locker rooms, etc. to a perverted middle-aged sheriff’s deputy (played by Christian Slater — who probably would have been a legend if he’d just had the decency to die young like James Dean and River Phoenix, but now finds himself stuck in second-fiddle roles like this one). To further complicate matters, our dirty-in-more-ways-than-one cop’s lieutenant (funny, I want aware that sheriff’s departments had lieutenants as a general rule — but then, I do try to keep my dealings with any and all law enforcement personnel to a minimum) just so happens to be Julian’s mom — and she’s been keeping one heck of a big secret about something else that happened when she was called to the scene of that family slaughter all those years ago.

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Throw in the fact that said slaughter was also committed to film, and that watching it seems to have a strange effect on viewers, and yeah — like I said, there’s a lot going on here. It’s all reasonably interesting in and of itself, but when combined into one story, it really does seem like a thick stew with maybe a few too many ingredients. The various individual storylines are each fairly compelling, the acting is fairly solid all the way around for a low-budget flick of this nature, and unlike (too) many of the films we’ve looked at so far in this little “Netflix Halloween” round-up there’s a nice amount of blood and guts in this one and it’s uniformly well-realized, but Playback allows itself to be pulled in too many different directions without firmly committing itself to any of them. It’s far from dull and hey, that’s a good thing, but shedding a couple of extraneous sub-plots would’ve resulted in a tighter, more focused movie.

I applaud director Nickles for giving it his all — but he should’ve stopped there, rather than going for too much.

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Four years may not seem a tremendous amount of time to you or I — unless you’re stuck in line at the DMV or something for that long — but it can be an eternity in Hollywood.

Think about it : if M. Night Shyamalan came to Universal Studios with a pitch to essentially franchise his name for a horror anthology series today, he’d get laughed out of the room. And while he had a pretty steady string of celluloid critical and commercial disasters under his belt already in 2010, when The Night Chronicles made its debut (and, to date, only) appearance with Devil, he was still considered to be at least something of a bankable commodity prior to the Ishtar-like debacle that was After Earth.

Yeah, okay, even by then it had been over a decade since The Sixth Sense took the movie-going public by storm — to the point where Time  magazine proclaimed, on its cover no less, Shyamalan to be “the next Spielberg” — but shit, that afterglow lasted a good long while.

These days, the bloom is definitely off the rose, and methinks the second installment of The Night Chronicles is probably never gonna happen.

Which is sort of a drag (but only sort of) because, for a modestly-budgeted PG-13 horror, Devil (which I’d been studiously avoiding for a long time but finally watched on a lark last night when I noticed it was streaming on Netflix) really isn’t all that bad.

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You’ll notice I didn’t say it was great or anything — because it’s most certainly not — but it was better than I’d been expecting for a flick that rests upon a belief in Satan/Beelzebub/Lucifer/whatever in order to be considered even remotely scary, and the idea of one great cosmic “good guy” and one great cosmic “bad guy” is something I put absolutely zero stock in. Shit, Hollywood would laugh at a script idea as lame as that, and yet one of the world’s major religions is founded on that very notion. But I guess I’ve gone “off the reservation” a bit (hey, it’s my blog, I get to do that once in awhile, don’t I?) with all this open mocking of Christianity (much as it richly deserves it), so let’s get back to the business at hand, shall we?

Maybe the reason Devil doesn’t actively suck all that much is because Shyamalan’s influence on it is minimal at best, only being credited with its “story” rather than its actual screenplay, and hogging a “producer” credit that probably doesn’t amount to a hill of beans, while the film itself is directed by my fellow Minnesota native (and, it should be pointed out, Catholic school graduate) John Erick Dowdle, who’s best known for his “found footage” efforts done in collaboration with his brother, Drew, like The Poughkeepsie TapesQuarantine, and the recently-released As Above, So Below. No Drew this time, and no shaky, hand-held cam antics, either. Maybe you can’t have one without the other, I dunno.

In any case, Devil plays is pretty straight, telling the tale of five strangers (played by Logan Marshall-Green, Jenny O’Hara, Bojana Novakovic, Bokeem Woodbine, and Geoffrey Arend) trapped in a stalled-out elevator halfway up a downtown Philadelphia skyscraper who all have mysterious pasts, tenuous-at-best presents, and highly uncertain futures, and as their nerves start fraying, it’s up to troubled police detective Bowden (Chris Messina) to keep them all from killing each other from the safety of the building’s security HQ. He’s not doing a very good job of it, truth be told, given that they one-by-one start dropping like flies, but never fear, offensively stereotypical superstitious rent-a-cop Ramirez (Jacob Vargas) might have the answer as to what’s really going on : he doesn’t need no fancy book-learnin’, just his humble, good-hearted, Mexican, Catholic upbringing to know that one of the passengers is — you guessed it — the devil.

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I keep on bad-mouthing the inane religious underpinnings of this film, which are admittedly an easy target, but honestly, until we get blasted with a heavy dose of of the Roman catechism at the end, this is a fairly involving, at times even gripping, little movie. The character revelations come fast and furious without ever feeling terribly forced, the claustrophobic setting really works, the performances are, by and large, pretty solid,  and plenty of different, and entirely plausible, “whodunnit?” possibilities are laid out to keep us on our toes at all times. I even found myself not wanting at least one of the characters to die, and that’s a better batting average that plenty of other contemporary horrors are able to muster up. All in all, I was digging it — right up to the final act.

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I won’t dwell on that too much (okay, too much more), except to say that if you don’t buy into Catholic teachings on the existence of Satan and how he fucks with people just essentially out of boredom, it will leave you feeling pretty flat. And even if you do buy into Catholic teachings on the power of forgiveness,  the way it comes into play in the story, with a totally out-of-left-field (damn, what’s with the baseball analogies tonight?) crash-landing, will seem sudden and forced because — well, it just is.

Still, all that aside, I enjoyed the first 70 or so of Devil‘s brisk,  scant 80 minutes a lot more than I figured I would going in, and I’d give this one a qualified recommendation. It at least takes the time to build a reasonably solid foundation before hammering us over the head with  its dull message of religious conservatism, and  I kinda doubt that, for instance, the new Left Behind flick (or the old one, for that matter) bothers with doing that much, as it more than likely just starts pummeling its warped ideology into your head right from the outset.

Not that I’ve seen it — or intend to. But, yeah, I did finally watch Devil, after swearing it off ever since it came out, and I’m not nearly as pissed off any myself for doing so as I assumed I would be.

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Ah, good old Hollywood nepotism. It landed Sean Stone, Oliver’s boy, a gig as part of the “investigative team” on Jesse Ventura’s since-cancelled “reality”  TV show Conspiracy Theory, and when that didn’t pan out, it got him a job directing the atrociously lame 2012 “found footage” horror flick we’re here to take a look at today, Greystone Park (now playing on Netflix instant streaming, as per my self-imposed — and already broken once or twice, sorry — rules for this month).

Certainly the younger Stone’s ostensible “talent” alone didn’t win him this less-than-plum assignment, as none seems to be in evidence, but the premise — a film crew decides to spend a night in an abandoned mental institution (the titular Greystone Park) known for its radical — and radically inhumane — treatments like electroshock “therapy,” lobotomy, sensory deprivation, all that jazz, is at least mildly promising. These days the place is, of course, rumored to be haunted.

Surprise! Those rumors prove to be fact, and as  faux-shaky hand-held camerawork documents this entire series of purportedly “true” events, you won’t jump or squirm or shudder even once, because you’ve seen all this stuff before.

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Speaking of been there and done that, in tried and true “mocukmentary”  fashion our intrepid cast consists of Pete Antico as Pete, Zana Markelson as Zana, John Schramm as John, Monique Zordan as Monique, Monique van Vooren as another Monique, Coralie Charrriol Paul as Coralie, Antonella Lentini as Antonella, Stone and his co-writer, Alex Wraith, as Sean and Alex, respectively, and even daddy Oliver stops in for a turn as, you guessed it, Oliver. Gosh, it all seems so real, doesn’t it?

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Anyway, into the old asylum (this flick has also been released under the alternate title of The Asylum Tapes overseas, but it doesn’t really matter what you call it — shit is shit, after all) they all (well, okay, most, since not everyone hung around for the entire shoot, and who could blame them?) go , and the standard questions begin swirling,  most notably who will live?, who will die?  — you get the picture.

The best question of all, though, is who will care ? Certainly not you, if you have any sense.

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If it sounds like I’m being pretty hard on,  or even outright dismissive of,  Greystone Park, well — guilty as charged. This is a movie with absolutely nothing going for it, and while a fair number of flicks we’ve reviewed around these parts lately — Willow CreekThe DenAbsenceThe Conspiracy — ably demonstrate that “found footage” horror hasn’t completely shot its wad yet, this is one that makes you think that all the naysayers ought to bury this particular subgenre might be right after all.

Rancid, boring, predictable, and tedious, if this is the best Sean Stone can do, it’s well past time for him to consider selling power tools or digging ditches for a living. I’m sure a phone call from dad will be more than enough to get him hired at any hardware store or assigned to any manual labor crew. There’s nothing more for you behind a camera, pal —  go on out there and hustle up an honest living.

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Writer/director Mike Flanagan is currently the “hot name” in horror these days thanks in large part to the critical and commercial success of this year’s Oculus, and what the heck? Despite my contrarian streak I admit I enjoyed that flick quite a bit myself, so when I noticed that his debut feature, 2011’s  Absentia, was available on Netflix instant streaming, I decided to give it a go. Might as well see how genre’s new “golden boy” got his start before his big-budget adaptation of Stephen King’s Gerald’s Game comes out, right? What I found was nothing like what I was expecting — in point of fact, it was quite a bit better than that.

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Unlike the supernaturally-based “haunted object” storyline at  the heart of Oculus, Flanagan’s first film is equal parts slow-burn character study, moody and atmospheric urban horror, and Lovecraftian “ancient elemental evil” mindfuck, and he transitions between the ought-to-be-conflicting subgenres smoothly and seamlessly as we follow the doomed trajectories of our principal characters, sisters Tricia (Courtney Bell) and Callie (Katie Parker). Tricia’s about-to-pop pregnant, and Callie’s arrived in the seedy, run-down part of LA her sis really should get the hell out of in order to settle down and play aunt for awhile after years of aimless drifting and hard-core substance abuse. There’s just one little wrinkle — Tricia’s husband has been missing for seven years, and she’s struggling with having him declared “dead in absentia.”

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Did I say one wrinkle? Sorry, there’s more. The two sisters are following different spiritual paths, with Callie on a Christian trip while Tricia dabbles in Buddhism, but neither seems to be working in terms of quelling their inner demons entirely. Tricia is haunted by images of Daniel, her aforementioned presumed-dead husband (played by Morgan Peter Brown) and is unable to give herself fully to her new quasi-boyfriend, a police detective named Ryan Mallory (Dave Levine),  even though she’s about to have his kid, while Callie, for her part, still keeps a box of heroin-injecting “hardware” under her bed. Plus,  she seems oddly drawn to the decrepit, heavily-graffiti’d tunnel near their apartment, despite the fact that she keeps hearing plaintive cries for help and ominous insectoid scurrying echoing along its cavernous concrete walls.

Tricia eventually starts making some progress — she makes plans to finally relocate to a better part of town and goes on a proper “date” with her cop boyfriend — but then Daniel shows up again, near death, babbling on and on about something that “lives underneath,” and all bets are off. That’s as much as you’re gonna get from me as far as plot specifics go.

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Admittedly, it takes awhile for Absentia to really get rolling, and if you’re not one for detailed surveys of the emotional wreckage that loss leaves on the human soul, this may not be for you. Me? I’m a bit of a sucker for understated melodrama, so I was digging it. And once the shit really does start hitting the fan, well — does it ever. Flanagan knows how to play his audience like a fish on a line, and he hooks you on his bait, reels you in slowly, and then yanks that line good and hard at precisely the right time. It’s not terribly clever or unique, to be sure, and you know you’re being played — but it’s extremely effective nevertheless.

So, yeah — I guess it’s pretty easy to see why horror aficionados feel that our guy Mike is somebody with big things ahead of him. He’s got a fairly impressive, if short, track record behind him already.

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If you’d have told me, say, ten years ago that the annoying comedian best known for doing the voice of that stupid rabbit puppet on a third-rate Married With Children knock-off sitcom would develop into one of the most eclectic, incisive, and provocative independent filmmakers to come down the pipeline in some time — and that he’d be in his fifties when said entirely unexpected career transformation took place — well, I’m sure I’d have laughed. And yet here we are, in 2014, and it’s the inimitable Bobcat Goldthwait who’s having the last laugh on all of us. Funny how life works, ain’t it?

Here’s the thing, though — having surprised us already by coming out of nowhere and delivering two very funny, but also painfully human,  robustly scathing critiques of  dysfunctional American family life and consumer/media “culture” with World’s Greatest Dad and God Bless America, Goldthwait has opted to eschew easy pigeon-holing and take his writing/directing career down yet another road none of us saw coming, scaling things back tremendously for his latest, Willow Creek, a low-budget flick shot in 2013 and released this year (now available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Dark Sky Films — on the technical front both widescreen picture and 5.1 sound are superb, and extras include a deleted scene, a brief “behind-the-scenes” vignette, and a full-length commentary track featuring Goldthwait and his two principal actors that’s actually pretty engrossing and informative),  that breathes some much welcome new life into not just one, but two sub-genres — the Bigfoot movie and the “found footage” or “mockumentary”-style horror,  both of which are considered by many to be well past their sell-by dates.

First let’s talk Sasquatch, shall we? He’s never really gone away, but let’s face it — you’re just not likely to get away with a movie like The Legend Of Boggy Creek or Night Of The Demon (my personal favorite of the bunch, best known for being “the one where Bigfoot rips a guy’s dick off”) these days. Audiences are too sophisticated, apparently, for good old-fashioned cheesy fun and we’re more interested, so we’re told, in angst and gravitas and all that. Yet there definitely remains a hard-core group of “Bigfooters” out there, as evidenced by the sheer number of websites devoted to “proving” the creature’s existence  and the fact that the venerable late-night radio show Coast To Coast probably still has at least one or two segments devoted to “Squatchers” every week, and with Willow Creek we have a film that not only acknowledges, but actively embraces, this sub-culture —  to the point where Goldthwait even dedicates his work to Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin, the two guys who shot what remains the most-famous Sasquatch footage ever back in 1967. More on them in a minute.

As for “found footage” horror — well, it’s really not going away, even if it’s been pretty thoroughly played out in the eyes of many. We’re probably never going to see this particular genre regain the staggering heights of effectiveness it achieved when first utilized by Ruggero Deodato in his notorious (and, in my book at any rate, legendary) 1980 film Cannibal Holocaust, nor will it ever enjoy the kind of commercial success it did when first revived, after a long hibernation, with The Blair Witch Project, but it has staying power for a couple of reasons : one, it’s economical, so indie horror auteurs on a tight budget can always turn to it out of practicality/necessity, and two, the old adages of “the scariest stuff is what you don’t see” and “the creepiest explanations are the ones you have to provide for yourself” are woven right into its celluloid DNA automatically, since we almost never get a clear picture of what’s actually happening, either physically or conceptually, with a shaky, hand-held, purportedly-operated-by-an-amateur camera.

The sheer number of these “mockumentary” horror flicks available on Netflix instant streaming alone is proof that this conceit is very much alive, but whether or not it’s alive and well — shit, I guess that’s open for debate. I’m not as bone-tired of it as many of my fellow wannabe-critics out there, as evidenced by the healthy amount of digital “ink” I’ve devoted to reviewing some of these movies demonstrates, but it does need to be handled right, and too many filmmakers have taken too many liberties with it that often strain credulity. “I assembled this footage later, added a musical score, and edited the sequence of events to play out like a traditional narrative” not only doesn’t cut it logically, but rather defeats the whole purpose by taking away the two things that the genre should, at least, always have going for it — namely immediacy and authenticity. Here again, Goldthwait comes up trumps by making sure that his supposedly “raw” and “amateur” footage does, indeed, feel both “raw” and “amateur.”  It takes a seasoned pro to make something that has all the airs of something this unseasoned and unprofessional.

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Now, getting back to Patterson and Gimlin, as promised — coming in at a brisk 77 minutes, Willow Creek follows the trials and travails of neophyte “Squatcher” Jim (Bryce Johnson) and his “struggling actress” girlfriend, Kelly (Alexie Gilmore), as they venture into the northern California wilderness to re-trace the steps the fathers of modern “Bigfooting” first took way back in ’67. They spend an enjoyable day and night in the titular town of, ya know, Willow Creek, before heading off into the woods for a night of camping and finding — well, pretty much exactly what they were expecting to find (or what he was expecting to find, at any rate — she’s a bit more agnostic on the whole matter going in). Along the way we get a few tried-and-true horror tropes thrown at us — locals warning them off, etc. — but even those don’t feel too hackneyed and cliched when delivered with the proper air of genuine menace. In due course, though, it becomes plainly obvious that, in the tradition of celebrated horror fare like Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes and the aforementioned Cannibal Holocaust and The Blair Witch Project, these city slickers have no fucking idea what they’re doing and can barely pitch a tent much less hope to survive a night in the inhospitable wilderness, so it’s fairly obvious from the word go that things aren’t going to end well for our young lovers.

Mind you, that’s not a complaint on my part. No one’s out to reinvent the wheel here, and like most horror fans, all I ask for is that the filmmakers do a reasonable enough job telling a variation on a story I already know. Goldthwait definitely delivers on that score by keeping things nice and tight — his small (okay, very small) cast of, let’s face it, complete unknowns do a terrific job,  andthey’re stuck in a very tense and confined situation, thus allowing the chills to really hit home. In stark contrast to so many other horror films these days, the people in this one are actually quite likable and we don’t want anything bad to happen to them, even though we know it both will and, frankly, must.

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How tense and confined is this situation they’re stuck in, you ask? Well, it’s no exaggeration to say that the film’s most harrowing scene involves nothing but the two of them in a tent, whispering in the dark, for a good 15 minutes or so while they hear strange noises outside. In the wrong hands that could get pretty tedious pretty quickly, but in Goldthwait’s, it’s almost unbearably gripping. With no special effects, not much by way of a set, and only two characters, he gives an absolute clinic on how to make “things that go bump in the night” work. It’s the most bare-bones, stripped-down tour-de-force I’ve seen in quite some time, oozing with more power and drama than 100 million dollars’ worth of robots or super-heroes battling it out while the city burns behind them could ever hope to achieve.

Which brings us to one more — and final — thing that sets Willow Creek apart : not only does it lack the soulless bluster and bombast of the big-budget blockbusters, unlike most of its genre contemporaries, it’s also a fairly bloodless and gore-free affair. Don’t get me wrong — I love a good splatter-fest as much as anybody, and appreciate the efforts of most horror directors to flat-out sicken and repulse me, but Goldthwait manages to frighten the bejeezus out of me here without showing so much as a drop of the red stuff on screen. That’s an impressive feat in and of itself, even if it isn’t exactly what many of my fellow “gorehounds”  are usually in the mood for.

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At the end of the day, then, I have to say that I hope Willow Creek — which was never released theatrically, to my knowledge — finds an audience on home video, and that said audience includes plenty of aspiring horror filmmakers. Bobcat Goldthwait, who has never made a horror movie before, is teaching some valuable lessons here that future generations can learn from — give us good characters worth caring about, a believable and easy-to-relate-to premise, and scenes that play out best late at night with all the lights off, and it doesn’t matter if we don’t see heads getting ripped off or bridges blowing up, a rustle against a tent can be more effective than all the special effects in the world. I like being “shocked and awed” as much anyone, but ya know what? I like being scared even more.