We’ve all been there. Up late perusing Craigslist you come across a request for something you’re pretty sure you can do for the money being offered, but when you actually get there you realize that “eating spotted dick” isn’t always a reference to pudding. The point is the internet is a scary place and in need of better regulation.
Aaron (Patrick Brice) appears to be learning this the hard way when he responds to an ad looking for a videographer for a day’s shoot at a semi-remote cabin. He arrives and meets the man who hired him, Josef (Mark Duplass), who proceeds to explain the job. Josef has cancer, and with a baby on the way (and inspired by Michael Keaton in My Life) he wants to record a day with himself that can be shared with the child after he’s gone. Seems easy enough, but Aaron immediately senses something is a bit off with Josef. And you will too.
Creep is a miraculous mash-up of found footage and mumblecore that by all rights should be the most unappealing thing caught on video since, well, pick just about anything involving a Kardashian. Instead it’s a smart and charismatic film that walks a fine line between thriller and comedy by constantly shifting and subverting expectations. Our experience with the genre tells us the film is about to zig but Duplass and Brice zag instead. It’s a wonderfully unsettling experience, and you can’t help but smile throughout.
“Did I freak you out with my rape story?”
Josef’s first action towards Aaron is to scare him, and his second is to embrace him in a hug. His fourth or fifth is to strip naked in front of him and slip into the tub where he proceeds to simulate bathing his unborn child in a scene that manages to be both sweet and disturbing. (But mostly disturbing.) Josef explains his time with Aaron as “a journey into the heart” as opposed to a simple business partnership, and it soon becomes clear that he’s after more than a videographer. He wants a friend. Of sorts?
But that’s far from reassuring for Aaron, especially when he receives a gift from Josef days later.
That initial dichotomy – a scare and a hug – is a sixty second microcosm of the film itself. A look from Josef that’s held too long or a disquieting dialogue exchange work to build tension and set us on edge, but then something happens or is said that lessens the pressure in the room and makes us (and Aaron) feel silly for even worrying. We’re terrified by the man in the wolf mask, but then he rubs his ass on the door and we’re giggling again.
Both intermingling halves succeed because Duplass and Brice (both of whom operated the cameras and co-crafted the story, while Brice directed) avoid almost all of the found footage format’s known pitfalls and because their improvised dialogue is rich in character and creation. A couple midpoint bumps aside – filmmakers seem to forget the camera is the audience’s POV, not the characters’ – the camera use consistently feels essential and believably captures the scenes we’re seeing. There’s even an incredibly fun touch involving the pause button. Seriously, it’s an ingenious moment.
Duplass’ experience with unscripted films is a benefit here as he and Brice are able to talk naturally, feeling each other out the way two strangers would. It also allows the conversations to swing wildly towards delightfully unexpected places of both mirth and misgiving. These guys could very well be in a more typical mumblecore drama, but here their weight and depth serves to make the moments of terror and apprehension that much stronger.
Creep is an exercise in the kind of unease we’ve all experienced. No, not the spotted dick thing, but the experience of meeting someone for the first time and immediately being put off by their oddly dismaying demeanor. The film pulls us into one such awkward and progressively unsettling experience, but it has us smiling much of the way through from laughter, from surprise and from the realization that these two filmmakers have succeeded so brilliantly on their first stab at a genre film. The creeps.
The Upside: Fantastic balance of (and back ’n’ forth between) laughs and tension; frequently goes against the expected and conventional; handily avoids most of the usual found footage issues; perfect running time
The Downside: Some found footage problems still arise around the halfway mark
On the Side: Producer Jason Blum (Paranormal Activity, Insidious) was brought on well into production when Duplass and Brice realized their quirky relationship drama actually wanted to be a horror film.