Producer Jason Blum has made a name for himself (and built a very successful company) from the success of the “Paranormal Activity” franchise, a series of films largely built around grainy home video footage of doors slowly opening and closing. A number of his films that followed “Paranormal Activity” adapted this formula, with varying degrees of success. The found footage genre has a ceiling, one that Blum and his confederates constantly bump up against. But with his newest found footage concoction “Creep,” he seems to be going for something altogether different and far stranger — a funny/sad horror comedy that feels like the unholy union of “What About Bob” and “Fatal Attraction.” Blum has broken through that ceiling and has found something very weird on the other side.
Like most found footage horror movies, it starts out innocently enough: cheery but down-on-his-luck filmmaker Aaron (Patrick Brice, who also co-wrote and directed “Creep”) answers an online ad that requires him to film someone for an entire day. The pay is decent ($1,000) but the entire thing seems decidedly off from the get-go. His subject, Josef (Mark Duplass, also co-writer), is a goofy, animated eccentric. Josef explains that, after a prolonged battle with cancer, he seemed to be in remission, until the doctors found a golf ball-sized tumor in his brain. He’s only got a few months to live, and his wife is pregnant with their first son, so he wants Aaron to help him film something that can eventually be given to his child. “Have you ever seen that movie ‘My Life?'” Josef amiably asks. (Aaron has not.) The gig seems simple enough and Aaron sticks around, filming around Josef’s family cabin in Northern California.
The first part of “Creep” has an oddly hypnotic quality as something akin to a performance art piece, with Duplass doing things like pantomiming what it would be like to give his young son a bath (he calls it “Tubby Time”). Duplass got his name on the low budget movies he and his brother directed, but his real gift is as a performer. Here he channels his feel good, New Age-y doctor character from “The Mindy Project” into something darker and more sinister, and even these relatively straightforward early scenes are laced with an unspoken malevolence.
At one point, Josef has Aaron accompany him deep into the woods, saying that there are local reports of a heart-shaped spring whose waters are supposed to contain healing properties. Eventually, after a lot of idle, “Blair Witch Project“-in-the-sun-style wandering around, they come across the spring. Yes, the spring looks like a heart, but if you look at the larger rock formation, a picture becomes clearer: the heart-spring is like the nose of a giant skull. To the left of the spring is a hollow that looks like an ocular cavity and the entire formation has a skull shape. The movie works in a similar way: on a micro level it’s gonzo, and sometimes outrageously hilarious, but take a step back and you see that it’s bathed in skeletal grimness.
Tellingly, as their day together goes on, the dynamic between Aaron and Josef gradually mutates and becomes more imbalanced, until, later that night at the cabin, Josef makes a startling revelation and things become downright, well, creepy, and Aaron has to flee.
This is probably all that you want or need to know about “Creep,” and the trailer for the film will undoubtedly be cut from sequences from this section of the movie. Arguably, the stuff at the cabin is the best part of the movie, and the most consistent, in terms of establishing a mood and tone. After the cabin, the movie becomes more awkwardly paced and uneven, but it’s also where the movie’s true personality comes through. The cabin stuff could have been done by anybody, basically. It’s totally competent and unnerving, but it’s the rest of the movie that could have only been achieved by Duplass and Brice, and is what makes “Creep” so special and odd. If you don’t want to know any more about the movie, then please head back now. Intermittent spoilers, for whatever it’s worth, follow.
After Aaron flees Josef’s capture, the movie shifts to his point of view at home. While he escaped safe and sound, Josef is not done with him. Not yet. He sends him creepy packages and DVDs, some of them relating to the scary wolf mask Josef showed him back at the cabin. Josef called the wolf mask “Peach Fuzz” (the original name for the movie) and so he sends Aaron a stuffed wolf cub and a knife. Um, thanks. Aaron has been having increasingly gruesome dreams, and these packages certainly don’t help. It’s here that the movie really takes on the vibe of “What About Bob” mixed with “Fatal Attraction.”
What’s really incredible (and is a testament to Duplass’ performance) is that Josef is, even after showing himself to be a world-class nightmare, still a somewhat likable, engaging, and sympathetic character. Aaron watches the videos that Josef sends and, even after an insanely terrifying sequence where Josef breaks into Aaron’s Los Angeles apartment, feels like he should help the guy out. It’s a really interesting dynamic to introduce into a movie like this, and adds to the overwhelming uncomfortable atmosphere. Some will complain that the movie derails when the focus shifts to Aaron, but Brice is another talented comedic performer, able to deliver a wide range of emotions in the context of the movie’s horror-comic framework. While the pacing isn’t quite as relentlessly unsettling, it is still very much a part of the greater whole.
Found footage horror movies have, thus far, documented spooky ghosts, super scary missions to the moon, and whatever the hell goes on in the “V/H/S” movies, but none of them have been this dedicated to character — and they have never, ever been this weird. “Creep” is a tiny movie whose uniqueness feels positively seismic. If there’s one thing “Creep” has, it’s an abundance of personality, and that cannot be understated. If producer Jason Blum made the found footage horror movie commonplace in the multiplex, then this is a thankful return to art house strangeness and announces, in Brice, a bold new voice in the horror genre; he’s scary good. [B+]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2014 SXSW Film Festival.