Striking the right balance of tone and genres in a horror comedy can be a tricky proposition. Writer Tim Ryan and director Trevor Ryan manage to pull this off with their alien-thriller-comedy splatterfest Welcome to Willits (Nevermore Film Festival 2017). The film, which played at the Nevermore Film Festival in Durham, North Carolina on the weekend of February 24 – 26, 2017, recounts the tale of California marijuana farmer who has been having problems with aliens (“UFO” not “illegal”) and has taken up arms against the invaders. Into this mix blunders a group of young campers who disregard the locals’ warning about the rash of disappearances in the area. Utilizing primarily practical effects, the film takes it time building to suitably gory results. A mostly strong cast creates characters with whom the audience sympathizes and in whose fates they are invested. The filmmakers mix just the right amount of comedy into their horror without going overboard in either direction.
The small town of Willits is in the heart of the Emerald Triangle, a region in Northern California known for its prolific crops of marijuana. Brock (Bill Sage) and his wife Peggy (Sabina Gadecki) are residents of Willits and participate in its agricultural community, i.e. they are pot farmers. Unfortunately, in addition to having to protect their crops from poachers, they also seem to be having problems with UFO aliens. Brock has memories and flashbacks to being abducted by aliens and being experimented upon by them in their ships. Needless to say, he and Peggy are upset by this and have determined that they will take up arms against the aliens to keep themselves from being further experimented upon. Brock’s niece Courtney (Anastasia Baranova) is visiting and is a bit disturbed by what she perceives as her uncle’s paranoid behavior. Complicating matters, a group of young twenty-somethings heads to the woods around Willits to go camping. A local shopkeeper (John D. Hickman) warns them that there have been a number of unexplained disappearances in the area as of late. He suspects that the missing hikers may have been abducted by Sasquatch. The campers ignore his warnings, as young people are wont to do. Unfortunately for them, something is indeed causing disappearances in the woods around Willits. Is that something Sasquatch, an alien, or something altogether different?
Welcome to Willits features excellent effects throughout. They appear to be primarily practical with some digital enhancements. At first, the filmmakers dole out the effects slowly, only giving the audience distorted glimpses of Brock’s alien tormentors. As the story progresses, the alien creatures are shown in increasing detail, which lets the audience appreciate their rather nasty and menacing design. Bodies, both alien and human, literally begin to pile up over course of the proceedings, providing plenty of grue for gorehounds. The only notable exception comes during the climactic showdown. It looks like it is setup for a grand gore showpiece, but when the time comes, the camera angle cuts away from what should have been the money shot. There is a quick shot of the aftermath, but it seems like a bit of letdown. One wonders if an effects shot just did not turn out as the filmmakers planned so they refilmed it and/or edited out the offending shot.
Bill Sage, as Uncle Brock, leads a primarily strong cast in Welcome to Willits. He gives Brock a humanity and sense of tragedy that helps keep the audience sympathetic to him even when his actions begin to go off of the rails. He has a nice sense of comic timing that provides for humor without making Brock a total buffoon. At the same time, he gives off a strong sense of menace and paranoia when the script calls for it. Sabina Gadecki gives an equally strong and balanced performance as Peggy. There is a sadness to Gadecki’s Peggy. She loves, believes, and fully supports Brock, but she is concerned for him. Peggy could easily have been played as a completely comic character, which would lose the audience’s empathy, but Gadecki makes her feel like a real character and not just a comic foil. The real breakout performance comes from Rory Culkin as the stoned and strange hitchhiker Possum. Culkin, the youngest of the Culkin clan, has fantastic comic timing and gets some of the biggest laughs of the picture. His performance alone is worth the price of admission.
Horror comedies have a long tradition in filmmaking. Most tend to be primarily comedies with horror trappings. Getting the balance correct takes some doing. In Welcome to Willits, writer Tim Ryan and director Trevor Ryan seem to have gotten this mix just right. While Welcome to Willits is indeed quite funny, it gives equal time to the horror. The humor endears the characters to the audience so that when the characters are in jeopardy, the audience is fully invested in their fates. This increases the tension in these scenes and makes it so character deaths are felt strongly by the audience. Even the douchiest characters are served by this setup. The film is quite frightening because the audience actually cares who lives or dies. Some viewers may disagree with this balance, feeling the film should have either gone fully horror or over-the-top comedy. This misses the point, though. Without the comedy, there would be no connection with many of the characters for the audience. If the film had gone fully toward the comedic side, then the deaths would have little to no impact. Instead, it would be similar to Tucker and Dale vs Evil (2010), where the deaths are played simply for laughs and the audience looks forward to the creative ways in which the characters are dispatched. This is not to say that Tucker and Dale vs Evil is not a good film. On the contrary, it is quite fun and worth watching. It is just that it is not scary. In contrast, Welcome to Willits manages to be both hilarious and frightening by skillfully balancing its laughs with its chills.
Filmmaker Tim Ryan and Trevor Ryan have crafted a well-balanced horror comedy in Welcome to Willits. Utilizing practical effects with digital enhancements, they provide plenty of blood and gore as well as showcasing some genuinely creepy alien designs. Strong performances by the cast, especially Bill Sage as Brock and Sabina Gadecki as Peggy, make all the characters sympathetic, even those that traditionally would not garner audience sympathy. The film has just the right mix of horror and comedy, managing to be both truly scare and quite funny at the same time. Fans who like their horror comedies to give them both laughs and chills should be sure to check out Welcome to Willits.
Welcome to Willits (Nevermore Film Festival 2017) (4 / 5)