Written by: Mark Duplass & Patrick Brice
Directed by: Patrick Brice
Starring: Mark Duplass and Patrick Brice
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"I love wolves. Because they love deeply, but they don't know how to express it, and they're often very violent and, quite frankly, murder the things that they love, and inside of the wolf is this beautiful heart."
The word “unnerving” gets tossed around a lot with horror movies, but Creep earns the label in a way few efforts do. Where many films attempt to unnerve through twists, turns, or graphic imagery, Creep relies on very little of this. In fact, it has no use for a serpentine plot: I suspect any adept viewer will know exactly where it’s headed the moment its protagonist arrives at a woodsy retreat, glances at an axe, and then meets up with the weirdo whose summoned him there under strange pretenses. All of this happens within a few minutes, which is to say Creep reveals its hand as early as possible, yet still remains absolutely gripping and horrifying, like a train-wreck unfolding over 75 minutes that you can’t help but gawk at.
The weirdo in question is Josef (indie darling Mark Duplass), an outgoing oddball who’s put out a call for a videographer to record his daily exploits. When Aaron (director Patrick Brice) answers, he’s immediately struck by the desolate surroundings, if not a little nervous about what he may have gotten himself into. After all, there’s an axe. But when Josef proves to be a charmer with a sob story (having been diagnosed with cancer, he wants to make a video for his unborn son), Aaron feels compelled to stick around. A trip to the woods in search of a local healing legend seems like the worst idea possible, but Aaron soon finds himself bonding with Josef in a spring. Then, pancakes. And then, finally, the dark turn you’ve been expecting, even after Josef and Aaron have shared a laugh about that axe.
Saying more would reveal too much, and, even though I’ve harped on its predictability, the particulars of Creep still hold some disturbing moments best left to be experienced. Imagine The Cable Guy reimagined as a straight-up horror movie, where the stalker suddenly becomes supremely, genuinely dangerous. All the nervous energy from the first 30 minutes suddenly coils into genuine tension, some of which hits on a primal level: Brice may telegraph his destination, but the journey there isn’t any less suspenseful, nor is it bereft of an abundance of unsettling imagery. Working within the confines of found footage, Brice reminds us why the well-worn technique resonated in the first place: when done well, it is goddamn terrifying. He especially hones in on the authenticity of its invasiveness: Creep actually looks and feels like someone’s home movies, only there’s a maniac peeking in the backdoor.
One shot in particular is meticulously staged game of peekaboo, sort of like a When You See It internet meme committed to film. While Creep does rely on some cheap jumps (Josef is fond of hiding and popping out of nowhere, much to Aaron’s annoyance), the best bits see Brice simply hanging back and allowing creepy stuff to linger in the background. There’s something especially frightening about its lone act of explicit violence, which plays out in a disturbing, clinical long shot that keeps an audience at a remove, held captive by dramatic irony—if Creep played in theaters, I imagine this would be the point where everyone would be losing their mind and yelling at the protagonist to turn around.
Without many overt developments (much less overt violence), Brice has to lean heavily on Duplass’s performance to create most of the suspense, especially early on. His Josef has a sort of boundless, almost childish energy—he’s so gregarious that he immediately puts you on edge. No one could possibly be this friendly, you’re telling yourself. And when he quickly invites Aaron to film him in the bathtub, your brain is practically screaming “this is bad news.” But there’s also something sad about Josef that keeps him just pitiful enough that neither Aaron nor the audience can just ditch him. Sure, maybe he’s a little strange, but Duplass—with perpetually ruffled hair and hound dog eyes—seems harmless. Naturally, this makes him much more terrifying when he proves otherwise, and he does so in sneaky, disarming fashion; rather than reveal his sociable persona to be a fraud, he plunges headlong into it to the point where you want to believe he’s being genuine. It’s one of the great sociopathic performances in recent memory because you like this guy and wish he weren’t so disturbed.
He is, of course, and his proclivity for screwing with his prey extends to the wry script. Co-written by Duplass and Brice, the screenplay is playful (and funny) without being tricky. It operates with a keen awareness that its audience knows where it’s headed but enjoys stringing them along for the ride with some clever gags and one great scene transition. The question isn’t if Josef is going to get Aaron—it’s a matter of when, and Creep fiendishly leads viewers to the answer with the barest of essentials.
This is astounding, minimalist filmmaking at its finest, where two guys have simply burrowed into the darkest impulses of a damaged brain and put them before a camera. It’s so compelling that it justifies so much that has rankled me in recent years, from found footage to the Blumhouse model; here, the latter (under its Tilt label) seems to have returned to its roots with a super microbudget project that works so well that there’s almost no excuse for lazy, formulaic exercises in shoestring filmmaking—including those Blumhouse often releases to theaters.
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