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creep-2014.36370

Suppose that you’re a freelance videographer and you’ve just stumbled upon one of those “too-good-to-be-true”-type Craigslist ads: you know, the ones that promise lots of money for what seems like a surprisingly small amount of work? In this case, the job offers a cool grand for just a few hour’s work…not too shabby, eh? When you get to the address, you find out that it’s in a really picturesque, isolated mountain town, at the top of a long, wending hill. Once there, you discover that your prospective employer is the dictionary definition of a meek, unassuming guy…basically, the kind of guy that no one would cross the street to avoid, although they might do so to steal his lunch money.

This guy, he seems like a nice enough dude but he has a few quirks: he really likes to hug, for one thing, and he has a rather unsettling propensity for jumping out from around corners and trying (and succeeding) to startle you. He also keeps a wolf Halloween mask in his closet, which he’s named “Peachfuzz” and written a jaunty tune about. No biggie, though: the guy’s house is really nice, modern, well-lit and comfy…no piles of bodies, bone chandeliers or Sawyer-approved home decor to be found here, doncha know! In every way, shape and form, this guy is the poster-boy for middle-of-the-road, plain-ol’-vanilla normalcy.

After talking to this friendly, unassuming fella, he makes a pretty good case for needing your services: turns out that he’s been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor and he wants you to make a “My Life (1993)-esque” video document for his unborn son. He may not be around to raise him, but this dedicated soon-to-be-dad wants to leave his child with as much of his wisdom and attention as he can: get the life lessons out of the way right now, while he’s still around to give them, and leave his son a legacy for the future.

All well and good, no alarm bells whatsoever…if anything, this guy might be in the running for “Father of the Year,” unborn child or not. After paying you upfront (talk about a totally upstanding dude!), your humble host decides that it’s time to get down to business: you were paid to film, so film you will. The first thing on the agenda? This totally normal, average guy wants to walk his son through the mechanics of “tubby time,” so he strips naked and jumps in the bathtub, all while you keep filming. And then things get really weird.

This, in a nutshell, is Patrick Brice and Mark Duplass’ intensely awkward, genuinely disturbing Creep (2014), a two-person, found-footage examination of obsession, insanity, loneliness and the often terrifying “real faces” that supposedly normal folks hide from the world at large. Despite the inherent simplicity of the set-up and format (Brice and Duplass co-write the film, as well as starring in it, while Brice also served as the director…at no point do we ever get another actor on-screen aside from these two), Creep is endlessly engaging and so tightly plotted that it’s almost seamless. Creep is not only a first-rate found-footage film, it’s also one of the best, most unsettling films of the year.

The secret weapon here, as in many other indie productions, is wunderkind Mark Duplass. Although perhaps best known for his pioneering work in mumblecore and for his role on the relentlessly hilarious TV show The League, Duplass and his brother, Jay, have been involved with an almost dizzying variety of projects, either as writer, director, actor or all three: The Puffy Chair (2005), Baghead (2008), Cyrus (2010), Greenberg (2010), Jeff, Who Lives at Home (2011), Your Sister’s Sister (2011), Safety Not Guaranteed (2012), Zero Dark Thirty (2012) and Mercy (2014), to name but a few.

In this case, Duplass has teamed with Patrick Brice, whose follow-up to Creep, The Overnight (2015), made big waves at various film festivals this year. Described as the first in a trilogy, Creep is as low-budget and bare-bones as it gets: in essence, the entire film consists of Duplass’ Josef creeping out Brice’s Aaron in every way imaginable, with the tension slowly ratcheting up until the entire film threatens to explode like a busted water heater. To make things even odder and more uncomfortable, Creep is also full of pitch-black, deadpan humor, much of which walks an incredibly thin line between making one burst out laughing (Josef’s “Charlie Day-worthy” Peachfuzz song is an easy highlight) and making one cringe down in their seat, attempting vainly to become invisible.

Perhaps the greatest triumph, here, above and beyond the masterfully economic production (“anyone” can do this…provided, of course, that they’re as talented as Brice and Duplass) is the way that the film sinks its hooks into us and refuses to let go. Unless you’re a complete horror neophyte, you’ll probably be able to predict where the film eventually ends up. The route to get there, however, is a particularly thorny one, full of red herrings, dead ends, misplaced assumptions and cinematic slight of hand: at one point, we seem to be witnessing the natural progression of what we assume will happen, only to have it be revealed as recorded footage from earlier. Brice and Duplass don’t engage in the same sort of meta-mind-fuckery that Haneke did in Funny Games (1997) but they’ve managed to set up show just one door down, which is a pretty neat trick all by itself.

Creep is a strange film, no two ways about it. It’s a surprisingly complex narrative for such a short, deceptively simple film: Brice and Duplass seem to be telling a pretty straight-forward genre story about a creepy guy (think Psycho (1960) stripped down to a two-person drama) but constantly throw in allusions, asides and nods to much bigger, darker things happening in the background. The film could be about the hidden dangers lurking behind any potentially smiling face but it could also be about the very nature of truth and perception, sort of a Schrodinger test to see if “absolute truth” exists outside of our individual understandings. It could be about loneliness and mental illness but it could also be about the horrifying randomness of the universe, the howlingly unknowable cosmic coin toss that puts some folks on the road to happiness while others end up mulch.

There are moments in the film (the harrowing bit involving Josef’s ringing cell phone, that amazing final long shot) that are as classically “horror” as the genre gets, while other scenes (tubby time, the unpleasant Peachfuzz story, the visit to the healing spring) would be odd fits in any film, regardless of the generic focus. Creep is such an amazing piece of work because it somehow makes all these disparate elements fit together in a wholly organic way: Brice and Duplass’ film could be about any or all of these things or it could be about none of them.

While Brice has a few off moments, acting-wise (some of his close-up asides to the camera feel more like delivering lines than just “being”), Duplass has such a singular focus that it’s difficult to see where the actor stops and the character begins. At times, I was reminded of Duplass’ archly awesome asshole from The League, a totally cool dude who fucks with people just to watch their reactions. At other times, however, that odd combo of sweetly goofy happiness and reptilian, dispassionate reserve would chill me straight to my blood cells: it’s always difficult to get under a lifelong horror fanatic’s skin, especially where more modern horrors are concerned…Creep makes it seem distressingly easy.

As the first film in a proposed trilogy, I’m deathly curious to see where Brice and Duplass go from here: while the film ends in a way that seems to “pan back” and give us a wider overview of the evil we’ve witnessed, I’d hate to think that Brice and Duplass might get lazy and just give us more of the same in future installments. As it stands, Creep was one of the most uncomfortable, unpleasant, powerful and astounding little films I managed to see this year: I’d love to be able to say the same thing about the next two, whenever Brice and Duplass decide to unleash them upon the world.

For now, however, I’m going to double-down on my long-standing paranoia regarding other people: the world might be full of totally nice, cool individuals, but as long as there are Josefs out there, I think I’ll be a little more comfortable behind my locked door, thank you very much. As for answering Craigslist ads? Fuggedaboudit.

 

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