Permanent Midnight is a weekly Complex Pop Culture column where senior staff writer, and resident genre fiction fanatic, Matt Barone will put the spotlight on the best new indie horror/sci-fi/weirdo cinema, twisted novels, and other below-the-radar oddities.
Bobcat Goldthwait isn't one for derivativeness. After decades of edgy comedy and volatile, Sam-Kinison-meets-the-Tasmanian-Devil performances in funny movies (One Crazy Summer, Scrooged), Goldthwait’s transitioned nicely into independent cinema, and his entries into the writer-director pantheon have been impressively bold and singular.
His 1991 debut, Shakes the Clown, is about a kids’ party clown who’s a depressed alcoholic framed for murder. His 2006 follow-up, Sleeping Dogs Lie, is a charming relationship drama that manages to endear while including a scene where its protagonist indulges in some dog-on-man bestiality. World’s Greatest Dad (2009) achieves a similar tenderness despite star Robin Williams' patriarchal main character’s need to bury the fact that his son died from auto-erotic asphyxiation. In the pop-culture-skewering God Bless America (2011), a disgruntled man and a trigger-happy teenybopper go on a cross-country murder spree to eradicate reality TV participants and the civilians who idolize them—and it’s a raucous comedy.
So when word spread that Goldthwait’s next movie would be in the horror genre, folks who’d seen any of his previous work surely imagined something left-of-center. Something like Ankle Biters, the zombie film he’d spoken about in interviews, which, per Goldthwait, would show what happens when aborted fetuses turned into miniature flesh-eating ghouls. Now that’s a horror story you’d expect from the guy whose acclaimed filmography includes men having sexual relations with canines. But that’s not what Goldthwait has made.
Instead of the overly ambitious Ankle Biters, Goldthwait has gone lo-fi with Willow Creek, a film that, on paper, sounds frustratingly uninspired, and, yes, derivative: two people armed with a video camera head off into the woods in search of Bigfoot, creepy shit happens, and then they finally meet the elusive Sasquatch, a journey presented as found-footage.
And, yes, Willow Creek plays out almost identically like The Blair Witch Project, the financial grandaddy of all first-person POV horror (the overall grandaddy is, of course, Cannibal Holocaust). Goldthwait’s characters, Jim (Bryce Johnson) and his girlfriend Kelly (Alexie Gilmore), follow the Heather/Mike/Josh route of investigation, playfully interrogating locals, ignoring all warning signs, gradually becoming shook as noises echo throughout the woods, and, ultimately, getting what their foolishly curious hearts deserve.
Except that Goldthwait’s too strong a filmmaker to let Willow Creek fold under the weight of its narrative’s familiarity. Before the creepy moments start happening, he gives the film a character-driven impact. Naturally funny and believably in love, Jim and Kelly buck the found-footage trend of insufferable leads and quickly win you over; a bit where they do some improv insult comedy on a large, laughably ornate Bigfoot mural is small piece of comedic excellence, and when Jim attempts to take their relationship to the next level, Kelly’s unexpected yet genuinely emotional reaction is sneaky little gut-punch. Johnson and Gilmore form an easy, lovable chemistry that’s the best of its found-footage-movie kind, more similar to the surprisingly appealing best friend characters in Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones than the grating, whiny Blair Witch trio.
And there’s a big reason why Goldthwait’s film depends on its actors—in Willow Creek, you don’t see much of anything. Showing atypical restraint (remember, Sleeping Dogs Lie and its guy/pooch sexual intercourse), Goldthwait uses Johnson’s and Gilmore’s facial reactions and mounting paranoia to generate the scares. Willow Creek’s centerpiece is a 19-minute nighttime sequence, minus any cuts, in which Jim and Kelly cling to one another inside their tent as the sounds of approaching menace beyond the tent’s zipped-close entrance increase in volume. The camera is stationery, the exterior noises are simplistic threats (footsteps, thrown rocks, inaudible voices), and the terror is legitimately heightened.
Nothing that comes after Willow Creek’s knockout tent moment matches its ingenuity or tension, and, barely clocking in at 80 minutes, the film reaches an abrupt conclusion that’s almost disappointing. It’s not a deal-breaker, though, thanks to more creativity from Goldthwait’s end, specifically a tracking shot where the camera is violently dragged across the ground by an unseen force. With so many horror filmmakers bringing zero progressiveness to found-footage horror these days, watching Bobcat Goldthwait take his perfunctory concept and deliver such a refreshing genre treat is a cause for celebration. As they say, no idea’s original, but the best artists know how to subvert slavishness and reconfigure the wheel.
Willow Creek opens in limited theatrical release and hits VOD today, via Dark Sky Films.
Besides, there’s more than enough one-of-a-kind strangeness in Dutch writer-director Alex van Warmerdam’s Borgman to suffice this weekend. Depending on your tolerance for the weird, Borgman will either become your new favorite movie or an impenetrable source of anger. Though, if given subsequent viewings, van Warmerdam’s unclassifiable film will grow on you like a fungus, albeit one you’ll want to spread to open-minded friends and family members like a virus.
As someone who's Borgman three times now, each two-hour block spent in van Warmerdam’s surreal world is more enjoyable than the last. There’s really nothing else like it out there.
To encapsulate this bizarrely unnerving and fascinating movie in a way that’s easily digestible, let’s say that Borgman falls into the same “home invasion” sub-genre populated by Wait Until Dark (1967), The Strangers (2008), and You’re Next (2013), among other entries. Fortunately, Borgman’s antagonists don’t wear any silly masks. Rather, they’re dressed in suits, seem friendly, and meticulously ingratiate themselves into their targets’ domestic life.
The infiltration begins when Camiel Borgman (Jan Bijvoet), a disheveled nomad with a long, scraggly beard and a confident disposition, rings the doorbell of a home occupied by the humorless Richard (Jeroen Perceval), his doormat of a wife, Marina (Hadewych Minis), their three children, and the kids’ beautiful nanny, Stine (Sara Hjort Ditlevsen). Borgman, introducing himself as “Anton Breskins,” requests a shower, and then says some odd things about Marina. Richard, naturally, kicks the snot out of him. Undeterred, Borgman calls upon his home-invading colleagues, eliminates the family’s gardener in a brilliantly convoluted manner, and returns clean-shaven and under his real name. Richard, unaware that Camiel Borgman had just posed as Anton Breskins, likes what he sees, hires him, and allows Borgman’s associates to live in his guesthouse.
The rest, though, is best left for you to discover. It’s impossible to describe Borgman’s general unpredictability here without losing the film’s otherworldly mood and uncomfortably compelling pace. Quite effectively, van Warmerdam jumps right into the subdued madness, kicking Borgman off with one of the strongest opening sequences in years. With no dialogue, three men, including a priest, arm themselves with guns and spears, march into a forest, and wake up Borgman and his buddies, all of whom are sleeping in underground bunkers covered by dirt and nearly captured with the help of smoke bombs and one seriously agitated dog. It’s an exceptional first impression, establishing Borgman’s permeating sense of dread and intrigue while explaining nada. You’re just dropped into van Warmerdam’s fictional, what-the-fuck universe and expected to settle into its offbeat rhythm.
One’s ultimate pleasure with Borgman crucially relies on that settlement, too. If its opening scene doesn’t work for you, chances are none of van Warmerdam’s film will. Treating the audience with respect, van Warmerdam never fills in any blanks or answers questions. He gives clues here and there about Camiel Borgman’s motivations and end-game, but even when those revelations come, there’s still ambiguity. There’s also a wealth of unsettling visuals to keep you on edge, most notably the sight of dead bodies floating upside-down underwater, their heads cemented into buckets after a macabre procedure that’s shown in its entirety.
Borgman is more than just a showcase of superficial eccentricities. Hidden within its subtext is a middle-finger aimed at the upper class, with Camiel Borgman and his goons representing the have-nots who are ready to usurp the have-it-alls. Maybe after my fifth or sixth viewing, I’ll feel urged to write more about that side of van Warmerdam’s film. For now, I’m still entranced by the quietly sinister ways in which Borgman remixes everything I’ve known about home-invasion movies.
That whole “no idea’s original” theory? As Borgman proves, it’s not set in stone.
Borgman opens in New York City today, via Drafthouse Films, with a national rollout planned throughout June.