Is there anything creepier than someone who’s just a little too friendly? Think about the stranger who tries to chit-chat on the Tube, the colleague who stands too close, or the friend’s unblinking new partner who tells you about the risen Christ over a carbonara. That frightening line between sociable and sociopath is one that Creep plays with to thrilling effect throughout every second of its 80-minute runtime. It’s short but not sweet.
Filmed in a found footage style that’s mercifully unobtrusive, we see the movie from the perspective of Aaron (Patrick Brice) – a struggling videographer looking for easy money. The payday he’s driven to a creepy house in the woods to find, is the offer of $1,000 to spend the day filming Josef (Mark Duplass), who has terminal cancer and wants to make a video diary for his unborn son before he dies. Josef is an oddball from the word go and we know this because within seconds of meeting Aaron he’s got his arms around him in a tender embrace saying, “Trust me [at the end of the day], that’s not going to be anything weird at all”. It’s enough to make you physically shiver. A hug from the wrong person is somehow much more unsettling than a brandished knife. You know where you are with a blade, a hug could be anything. And it’s this constant uncertainty that makes the film so effective and frightening.
Duplass, who also co-wrote the movie with Brice, has the comfortingly familiar face of a man you shared a house with at university but haven’t seen in 10 years and uses it to continually lull you into a false sense of security that you can’t even be sure is false. It’s a charismatic study in unpredictability. One minute he’s funny and charming, the next he’s making you film him in the bath, and the next he’s taking a practical joke too far. If there was ever a personality trait that’s an indicator of potential psychopathy, it’s an overzealous practical joker. They don’t want you to laugh, they want you to cry.
Aaron never cries but we do share his growing unease as the drip, drip of cumulative dread gradually pools at the base of his mind, insistent but just about ignorable. It’s easy to scoff at Aaron’s apparent naivety for driving into the woods to meet a total stranger and for ignoring what seem like red flags, but when you actually think about it, you start to see how plausible his predicament really is. In real life, if you saw an axe in a tree stump outside a house in the woods, as Aaron does at the beginning, you wouldn’t immediately think a murderer lives inside. When you see a shadow you don’t assume it’s a ghost. And once you’ve met the person and established rapport, it then becomes virtually impossible, even if you have suspicions, to confront them or run away. You might be wrong and the fear of social embarrassment is sometimes a more powerful force than the urge for self-preservation. No one ever really thinks that the weirdo is actually going to kill them. And the chances are, they won’t. There’s one moment, after several more fairly major warning signs, where Josef, silhouette in the darkness, stands ominously at the top of the steep steps leading to his house and tries to persuade Aaron to come inside for “one drink”. You’re screaming at him to say no but no is a hard word to say unless you’re absolutely certain being rude is the only option.
Made by Blumhouse – the company that also produced Paranormal Activity – Creep has their distinctive low-budget minimalist feel that works so well for horror. A lot of genre film-makers lazily assume that violence and gore will scare people the most but it never seems to work that way. Atmosphere, dread and the power of suggestion are much more disturbing and this underseen movie deftly uses all three to palm-sweating effect. It feels grounded in reality by refusing to go over the top. Like in many of Duplass’s movies, the dialogue is in large part improvised and the authenticity this gives it really does make it uncommonly believable. One or two all too easy wrong turns and Aaron could be you. The troubling question that lingers long after the film is: how would I react? Would you really heed the supposed warning signs or would you in fact be polite and go inside for that “one drink”? After all, kindness costs nothing.
Creep is available on Netflix in the US and UK