The bloom is not yet off the rose with producer Jason Blum (Paranormal Activity, Insidious, The Purge, Sinister), as he’s usually spot-on in trusting the right directors’ micro-budgeted projects for his Blumhouse Productions. Yet another found-footage horror item, Creep finds a secret weapon in mumblecore auteur Mark Duplass (also known to give little indie movies a push from behind the camera as a producer when he’s not directing or acting in them himself). For Patrick Brice’s first film (his second, the slight but very amusing and surprising The Overnight, saw its official release just prior to this), the filmmaker takes a foray into a tired template, but with limited resources and an effective creep factor from the casting of Duplass, the result is a solid character study of a scarily ingratiating psychopath.
In March 2012, freelance videographer Aaron (Patrick Brice) answers a Craigslist ad for a video gig that promises $1,000 for the day and appreciates discretion. His road trip leads him to a lakeside cabin in Crestline, California and a huggy man named Josef (Mark Duplass). Josef has hired Aaron to make a video diary for he and his pregnant wife’s unborn son. He’s a cancer survivor, but two months ago, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Josef openly admits that he now has two to three months to live. Inspired by the 1993 Michael Keaton film My Life, Josef wants Aaron to keep the camera rolling at his family vacation home in order to document the man he was. Eventually, Aaron begins to question Josef’s motives. When he realizes Josef isn’t telling him the whole story, he tries to bail but Josef invites him in for one celebratory drink before sending him on his way. Might Josef just be an oddball loner or is he, indeed, a creep?
Tightly developed by writer-director Brice and actor Duplass, with plenty of room left for improvisation, the oddball Creep maintains an intimate air of unease through the dynamic of the two men and a digital camera. Brice is our point-of-view, and his strange chemistry with Josef is deeply uncomfortable and increasingly tense. At first, Josef seems like a sensitive, loving man. He has Aaron record him in the bathtub, as he imagines giving his son his first “tubby time.” It’s moments like these that feel so awkward and personal, giving viewers the sensation that we’re eavesdropping on something we shouldn’t. This is heightened by Josef’s offbeat humor, like jumping into frame to give Aaron a fright or pretending he’s about to end his life earlier than his 2-3 month expiration date by holding his breath under the water in the tub.
Though Aaron making the face-palming decision to go outside on the patio when Josef goes missing is mined for suspense and gasps, more compelling are the earlier two-hander scenes when clues are dropped that Josef might not be whom he says he is. In one jarring, not to mention unsettling, touch, Josef divulges a disturbing story to Aaron only on the request that the camera be turned off, which Aaron willfully ignores. With the camera still on, the entire monologue is captured on a blank screen, but as soon as Josef’s twisted anecdote is over, he seamlessly transitions back to recording his unborn son’s diary video, nonplussed by the events he just recounted. Also, the use of a wolf mask that Josef calls “Peachfuzz,” supposedly from his childhood, quickly evolves from darkly funny to frightening; the whole “wolf in sheep’s clothing” idea isn’t the most subtle of metaphors, but it works here.
Creep is occasionally too beholden to the found-footage conceit’s gimmicks, like the number of times Josef jumps out to scare Aaron and—by proxy—us. Brice and Duplass could have just cooked up a “fatal attraction” scenario between two men, but develop it beyond just the one day they share together. Josef is a menacing enigma of many faces, and judging by the follow-up projects listed in development as Creep 2 and Creep 3, perhaps there will be even deeper ground to cover. Even as a one-off film in the found-footage format, Creep lives up to its moniker by subverting expectations just enough to shock with its nastily uncompromising conclusion. Think of it as a darker What About Bob? with even more screws loose.
Creep is now available on iTunes to buy and will be streaming on Netflix come July 14th.