“Creep 2” barely gets to the end of the first act before Mark Duplass stands naked in front of the camera with a dopey grin on his face. It’s not the actor-director’s first rodeo (he also bared all on HBO’s “Togetherness”), but it’s an unusual decision in the context of goofy found footage horror-comedy, not to mention a sequel to one. That should give you an indication of the peculiar ambitions of this microbudget franchise, which takes the familiar mold of privileged white guy problems and turns them into a nightmare.
Patrick Brice’s 2014 Blumhouse-produced “Creep” stood out from the Paranormal Activities of the world in that the monster was essentially a variation on the Duplassian doofus he’s played in countless freewheeling comedies since he and his brother Jay’s breakthrough directorial debut “The Puffy Chair.” In “Creep,” he spent most of the movie as a mysterious character of unknown origins, mugging for the camera of a cinematographer he hired and claiming he needed a record of his life before succumbing to an unspecified disease; as it turned out, his intentions were far more nefarious. This was a slasher film in disguise.
Enter “Creep 2.” Duplass is back, this time going by “Aaron,” the name of his victim in the first installment. A shocking opening sequence, shot from a hidden-camera perspective, shows that nothing has changed: He’s still drawn to generating eerily close relationships with people before murdering them with hidden cameras, but this time, he’s on the brink of 40 and starting to feel the strain of a routine. It’s a delightfully twisted opening number in which the laugh catches in your throat: Here’s the ultimate stereotypical aging hipster, but this time, he’s got a knife.
So the cycle continues. Once again, “Aaron” posts a detail-free online advertisement asking for a freelance cinematographer; this time, he snares Sara (Desiree Akhavan), the star of a failing online video series called “Encounters” in which she mostly just hangs out with lonely guys. A pink-haired goth eager to capture the ultimate subject, she finds that he’s more than eager to offer himself up, going so far as outing himself as a serial killer minutes after they meet. The pitch: Film him for 24 hours, he won’t kill her, and she gets good material. The scant information about Sara makes it hard to buy the ease with which she goes along with this proposition, but the entire scenario is already so absurd that it actively encourages a suspension of disbelief. After all, how could this gentle, well-spoken dude with the tidy ponytail and the juicemaker do the terrible things he claims to have done?
“Creep 2” poses that question far better than its predecessor, which spent the bulk of the movie establishing that Duplass’ character was legitimately crazy. And while the found footage device feels just as tiresome as it did the first time around, the new movie offers an intriguing onscreen chemistry between its two leads. Akhavan, who starred in her phenomenal directorial debut “Appropriate Behavior” and is due for a followup, exudes a kind of edgy, anarchic attitude that proves the ultimate foil for Duplass’ overwhelming cheeriness, and at times it’s hard to tell which of them is actually crazier. (In a nice twist, she’s unfazed by his jump scares, which worked every time in the original outing.)
Ultimately, “Creep 2” settles into a half-baked finale that resurrects the shaky-cam-in-the-woods trope that should’ve been buried after “Blair Witch.” But as a whole, this undeniably gimmicky movie registers as an intriguing doodle about the vanity of the filmmaking process itself. Brice, who went on to direct the decidedly more sophisticated sex comedy “The Overnight” after “Creep,” satirizes the extreme desperation of filmmakers to push boundaries for the sake of elusive creative goals (not for nothing does an early clip from “Desperate Encounters” feature a cameo by filmmaker Caveh Zahedi, the ultimate in on-camera provocations). Throughout the movie, Duplass’ Aaron rambles about Francis Ford Coppola’s desire to keep going in the midst of his artistic decline, and it’s a savvy thumb-in-the-eye to wannabe auteurs everywhere.
After the cult success of “Creep,” it was announced that Brice and Blumhouse would develop a trilogy, because the premise requires virtually no budget so why the hell not? Fortunately, “Creep 2” manages to justify the effort by giving Duplass the opportunity to expand on the persona that gave the first installment an original hook. Duplass has channeled zany thirtysomethings into a zillion more traditional anti-heroes, while “Creep” emphasizes the darker psychological ingredients hiding behind his friendly visage, but the sequel adds another factor to that potent observation. Whereas “Creep” suggested that the annoying man-child is scarier than you think, “Creep 2” shows just how much scarier he gets with age.
“Creep 2” is now available on digital platforms.