What is it that makes a horror movie great? Is it masked villains and gallons of blood, like the Texas Chainsaw Massacre? Is it crafty allegorical storytelling, like It Follows or The Babadook? Is it shocking twists that hide in plain sight, like The Others or The Sixth Sense? While all of these have their merits in the genre, for me, there is one device that sets a horror movie apart from the rest. The insidious overwhelming feeling of dread.
Two of my favorite horror movies are Rosemary’s Baby and The Blair Witch Project. What those two films masterfully create is the relatable, yet horrifying, feeling that something is very, very wrong. While jump scares, ghosts, and monsters do their part in the moment, for me it’s the slow-burning psychological horror that gets under my skin and keeps me up at night. Creep, directed by Patrick Brice, proves that once again, great acting and an undeniable sense of dread are a recipe for a successful thriller.
Creep has a simple enough plot. Aaron (Patrick Brice), a videographer responds to a Craigslist ad offering $1,000 for one day’s work, with the caveat of discretion. Aaron meets the ad’s poster, Josef (Mark Duplass), in a remote cabin, where he explains the video project. The idea is that Josef has been diagnosed with some kind of terminal cancer and is making a video to leave behind to his unborn son.
From our very first encounter with Josef it is clear that something is off. Rather than meeting Aaron at the door, Josef sneaks around and pops up suddenly outside of his car window. Throughout the day, Josef keeps pulling these little ‘run away and then jump out and say boo’ stunts. What you might be thinking is, “didn’t he just say this movie wasn’t about jump scares?”, but here’s why it works.
Director Patrick Brice, uses all the horror movie advantages that come with found footage (the narrow perspective, the breathless shaky camera work, the immersive feeling of being in the scene), but it’s not the manipulative camera work that make the jump scares uniquely successful. It’s the self-awareness and believability of the character. It’s not the film scaring the audience, it’s Josef scaring Aaron. We know why a film would want you to jump when it says boo, but why does Josef?
As the plot unfolds, Josef’s behavior becomes increasingly more bizarre and unsettling. This includes, but is not limited to, pretending to take a bath with his unborn child on camera, donning a wildly creepy wolf-mask, named Peach Fuzz, and drastically and disturbingly overselling the two men’s friendship in a stalker/stage-five clinger, sort of a way.
I won’t delve into the details of the plot too much, but the main tension in the film is whether Josef is simply a strange, lonely man awkwardly and desperately trying to find a friend, or if he’s something much more sinister. The film deftly balances this tension right up until the very last scene.
Creep is as much a character study as it is a thriller. With only two actors, it has a small and personal feel, and is able to pull off a lot with what appears to be a limited budget. My only complaint with the film is the protagonist Aaron (Brice), seems to be somewhat of an incomplete character, who has only a few moments where he comes to life. In fact, everything interesting about the character is bluntly pointed out by Josef in the film’s final minutes. Fortunately, Duplass (The League, Safety Not Guaranteed) is able to carry the load.
Duplass gives the performance of his career (so far) by taking your typical horror-movie-creep, and turning the character into someone as complex and interesting as Norman Bates. Josef, if that is his real name, is a character as outlandish as he is duplicitous, as he is sympathetic. A performance you won’t soon forget.
Will Creep go down in history as one of the greats in the horror genre? I doubt it. But, it offers the unique experience of being darkly humorous, strangely relatable, and deeply disturbing, and had me nervously laughing while I watched through splayed fingers, through all 77 minutes.
Creep is currently available to stream on Netflix.