Film Review: Welcome to Willits

A twisty redneck genre flick that partially thrives on its odd stoner humor, then loses something as it shifts to something far darker.
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Finding the right balance between horror and comedy can often be what ruins any attempted horror-comedy mix. For their first feature, the Ryan Brothers—Tim is the writer, Trevor is the director—have come up with something that’s a twist on the horror sub-genre where a group of young visitors fall prey to deranged locals. Unlike The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and similar films, the Ryans give Welcome to Willits a suitable twist that allows equal time with victims and killers alike, and it at least attempts to be funny while doing so.

Living in the remote town of Willits, “Gateway to the Redwoods,” as in the forest of trees in Northern California, Brock (Bill Sage) and his wife Peggy (Sabina Gadecki) live in a cabin where he’s growing marijuana and cooking a meth hybrid he calls “Emerald Ice” that causes intense hallucinations. Before we even meet the couple, we witness a disturbing montage that turns out to be one of Brock’s harrowing nightmares where aliens are operating on his brain.

When a group of young hikers show up in the area, they pick up a wanderer (Rory Culkin), who warns them of people going missing in the area of the forest known as the “Emerald Triangle.” Of course, the dumbest of the hikers, Zack (Garrett Clayton), goes exploring and comes across Brock’s marijuana garden. Brock is so drunk and high on his own meth, he shoots Zack, thinking he’s an alien invader.

Caught in the middle is Brock’s niece Courtney (Anastasia Baranova), one of the few normal people in town, who Brock believes is actually conspiring with the aliens against him, so he locks her in the closet.

This is the basic set-up for a movie where you never know who to root for, the hikers making dumb decisions or the drugged-out locals who believe in government conspiracies and alien abductions.

As the film keeps cutting back to Brock’s gory nightmares, they become more and more entwined with his reality. (Halfway through the movie, you may suddenly realize that one of the men in a police show that appears in Brock’s hallucinations is actually Dolph Lundgren.) Brock begins to get unhinged from these nightmares and starts killing each of the hikers that venture into range of his cabin. As these kills grow gorier and more frequent, the film shifts away from the earlier humor, losing some of the novelty as it becomes obvious where things are going.

You have to give the Ryans some credit for trying to do something truly original within an overused horror sub-genre, even if it doesn’t always work. The script might not be as good or as funny as it could have been, but the cast do their best to bring out the humor in their situation while they can. This is particularly true of Sage and Gadecki, who give their characters more personality than we normally get in killers. Chris Zylka (“The Leftovers”) and Anastasia Baranova (“Z Nation”) stand out among the younger cast, but it’s always nice to see the far-too-absent Rory Culkin, who previously appeared in the thriller Jack Goes Home, a film by another one of his Willits co-stars, Thomas Dekker.

On the other hand, the alien creatures look pretty bad, a little too low-budget DIY, although that may be intentional. The film’s gore quotient is top-notch, as is the sound design that makes the forest at night even creepier.

While Welcome to Willits is far better than it should be, its few saving graces tend to be fleeting once you realize where the movie is going. Generally, it’s not bad, but by no means a must-see addition to the horror genre.

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