According to a lecture given early in “Creepy,” serial killers are broken down into three categories: organized, disorganized, and mixed characteristic. The first two are relatively easy to define, and thus simpler to track down. Mixed-characteristic killers, meanwhile, exhibit no discernible patterns. They’re puzzles, anomalies. You can probably guess which class of killer this detective story from Kiyoshi Kurosawa follows.
The director, whose genre mastery is most evident in the likes of “Pulse” and “Cure,” more recently delved into this territory in “Daguerreotype.” That old-fashioned haunt took him outside Japan with the help of Tahar Rahim, Olivier Gourmet, and Mathieu Amalric; “Creepy” is both a return home and a return to form. Here he’s woven a procedural yarn from a novel by Yutaka Maekawa that was either loosely adapted or strikingly aligned with the director’s long-established sensibilities.
Dual mysteries are at the heart of the film, and it’s no spoiler to say that one eventually bleeds into the other: a cold case involving the disappearance of an entire family save for the daughter; a strange man (Teruyuki Kagawa) living next door to our protagonists. That would be Koichi and Yasuka Takakura (Hidetoshi Nishijima and Yūko Takeuchi, respectively), who relocate to the suburbs when he takes a job as a professor following years as a detective. Also not a spoiler: His retirement wasn’t a happy one.
Were it not for the title, you’d be as trusting of these new surroundings as the happy couple initially seems to be. At one point Koichi even jokes that, since criminals are so often described as having been nice by those who lived among them, the offbeat fellow next door must be harmless. He’s awkward at best, standoffish at worst, but some people just aren’t the borrow-a-cup-of-sugar type. We know there’s more to it than that, of course, and Kurosawa knows we do. In not even bothering to subvert genre conventions, however, he’s able to make the most of them — little that happens in “Creepy” is surprising, but even less is unsatisfying.
Against Koichi’s wishes — and, perhaps, her own better judgment — Yasuko does some amateur sleuthing to find out what exactly is going on in the house next door. The need to know has motivated many a movie detective before, usually at their own peril; Yasuka almost becomes a sort of Lovecraftian figure while snooping around, the kind who catches a glimpse of something that should never have been and is forever altered by the experience.
Kurosawa wants us to feel that way, too, and he’s successful more often than not. Much of that is owed to Kagawa, who previously starred in Kurosawa’s “Tokyo Sonata” and whose wide, expressive eyes suggest a latter-day Peter Lorre. But his character isn’t as pitiable or contemptuous as Hans Beckert of “M,” nor is he the neighbor from hell — he’s the abyss into which Koichi and Yasuka gaze.
He’s happy to return that gaze, and perhaps even make them more like him in the process: “How can you be so inhuman?” one potential witness asks Koichi as he loses himself in the case that’s taken up all his waking hours. Call it the domesticity of evil: Home may be where the heart is, but that isn’t always a good thing.
“Creepy” premiered at the 2016 Berlinale. It’s available to stream on Mubi on August 5.