A found-footage mumblecore horror film basically sounds like the last thing I would want to watch. One of my goals at this year’s SXSW, though, is to leave my comfort zone a bit and see films contra what my gut tells me. So I went and saw Patrick Brice’s Creep, and I’m quite glad I did.
The film stars its two creative fathers: director Brice as Aaron, a videographer, and Mark Duplass as Josef, who, I think it’s fair to say based on the film’s own promotional material’s, fulfills the role of the film’s title.1 At the film’s opening we see Aaron heading to a cabin in the mountains where he has been hired (via Craigslist) to shoot an undisclosed subject for Josef for $1000. Two guys, a cabin, a camera and a mystery. Go.
So, here’s my problem with found footage films: they’re (often) based on the false premise that the camera and the eye are in equal standing when it comes to perspective. Of course, they are not. The eye can’t zoom or rack focus, has peripheral vision and works in conjunction with the brain and the rest of the body to scan an area so our field of vision is, ideally, extremely wide. We can’t see behind us, but we know how to look. The camera doesn’t.
Brice’s camera offers us an extremely limited perspective in order to heighten tension. This is no sin, but it also feels inorganic. We learn a bit about Aaron, over time, starting with the fact that he uses his video camera as a diary. Aaron and his camera are very much a character in the film, but there is a disconnect between the two. Why, for example, does he use only one camera both for professional filming and self-diarizing? Who is he documenting his life for? As far as we know he is a loner; no family, no friends. Does he put his diaries online? Save all the tapes in his apartment? The answer to these questions is probably “Who cares?” because Aaron’s camera is a creative conceit to move the found footage premise forward.
Duplass, as Josef, is a delight. He commits to the role to an incredible degree. There is no wink-wink cleverness to his performance. He rises to the challenge of presenting us with a compassionate, charismatic creep. He manipulates Aaron and the audience in equal measure. It is a deft performance from him that, frankly, makes the whole project watchable (as it should since he’s the only person on camera some 80-90% of the film). The same, I should mention, cannot be said for Brice. It would have been nice for Duplass to play off of a more seasoned actor, but the film works despite Brice’s forced and stilted performance.
For about the first half to two-thirds of Creep I basically tolerated it. The narrow perspective of Brice’s camera is used to pull off a few too many simple horror parlor tricks (actually just “Boo!” sometimes). The dialogue sort of circles around aimlessly2 and somewhat predictably. After all, we know that Josef is a creep; we assume he will get creepier.
I won’t give anything away, but at the aforementioned halfway/two-thirds marker the film takes a turn with a rather clever plot device that pulled me back in and elevated the whole story. To Brice and Duplass’s credit, this turn would not function the same without the groundwork they had already laid. And so one must take the good with the bad, but the good is, in fact, so good that it changes the entire experience.
Creep is basically a backlot horror picture. The story is simple and the execution even a little sloppy, but it all comes together, eventually, as a great, chilling little yarn. Duplass’s performance is a career milestone. The complexity he brings to Josef makes the film almost a master class in lunatic charisma. If you see it for no other reason, see it for him.