Film snobbery. That high-and-mighty feeling one gets when those pathetic plebeians discuss the latest groundbreaking film from such-and-such cookie-cutter, assembly-line music video hack while you sit in the corner, sipping your Triple Venti Soy No-Foam Latte, basking in your superior and, quite frankly, impressive knowledge that it’s been done before, and it’s been done better, damnit. You don’t need love. You’ve got the cinema and that half-melted pack of Junior Mints you bought at the Dollar Tree next door.
In 1999, The Blair Witch Project exploded onto the scene. Forget the spoofs (The Blair Thumb), the parodies (The Bogus Witch Project), and the seemingly endless references in popular culture. The movie was a massive hit, thanks to a brilliant marketing campaign. Utilizing a silly little resource only used by nerds for Star Trek discussions known as the Internet, the film spun a mysterious and quite convincing tale. Three missing kids. Hours of never-before-seen footage. A terrifying evil lurking in the woods.
Still being relatively new to the information superhighway, all I had heard was that this was one scary flick. And it worked on me. Sure, if I had dug a little deeper, it would’ve become clear that this was all phony, but at the time, movies didn’t look like this. Reports of people vomiting and getting headaches from the shaky-cam permeated the media. The idea that this was real footage became legitimately plausible, although it also begged the question: Why would anyone make these images commercially available? I went to a packed screening at the legendary Rialto Theatre with Ira David Wood IV, a fine actor/director whose sister Evan would later go on to great success on HBO’s Westworld. As we left the theatre, there was a loud bang nearby and he literally grabbed my arm. Later, as I walked along the short path to my house, I found my pace quickening as I passed along the massive, prickly bushes; their sharp ends transforming into grasping talons just waiting for some poor victim to wander too close. Considering my current appetite for extreme horror, it’s likely that I was just not well-educated enough to realize that this was all malarkey. Suffice to say, The Blair Witch Project was effective.
But, why was it so effective? And how come this had never been done before? Here is a movie, made with unknown actors, rudimentary equipment, and a budget that would barely cover catering costs for a week on a Marvel set, that captured lightning in a bottle. The secret was in the execution. If the viewer believes the proceedings are real, then the lack of a polished sheen is not only forgiven, but actually beneficial. Sure, there were a handful of more-recent precursors: the delightfully nasty Man Bites Dog (1993) and Forgotten Silver (1995), Peter Jackson’s great mockumentary that finally received widespread attention after his Lord of the Rings success, and of course, The Last Broadcast (1998) which both suffered and benefited from comparisons to it’s much more successful sibling the following year. The Blair Witch Project has been hailed as the beginning of the found footage craze, but as Yoda once said, “There is another.”
The film snobs chuckle to themselves, secure in the knowledge that the real granddaddy of found footage films is Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (1980). Although not the first cannibal film by a long shot, the controversy around the film, including reports that the actors involved had actually been killed and eaten, garnered much press and skyrocketed the film into mainstream chatter. The film isn’t strictly a found footage movie as far as the current definition of the genre goes. The movie consists of a b-plot in which executives view the footage to decide whether they will broadcast it for television. The “found” footage shows a rescue team venturing into the Amazon rain forest and, after committing atrocities which effectively muddy the waters of the white people “good” and brown people “bad” stereotypes; they are chased, slaughtered, and eaten. This part of the film is shot like a documentary and the footage was literally discovered, hence, found footage. This aspect of the film is quite brilliant, but sadly, it’s a difficult movie to defend or even enjoy. Footage of animal murder and mutilation is downright disgusting and very upsetting. The Blair Witch Project, however, does not contain animal murder...which is nice.
Box office number don’t lie and when something makes money, Hollywood is quick to replicate it, often to diminishing returns. The fact of the matter is, these movies could be made for practically nothing. No-name actors were actually preferable. Shoddy production value? A must. It felt like a huge return on a very meager investment. The first wave of “found footage” movies came and went, producing mostly forgettable dreck but occasionally ambitious or amusing work like Incident at Loch Ness, the August Underground series, The Poughkeepsie Tapes, and the devastating Zero Day. As the genre began to fade in 2007, it got a shot in the arm with Paranormal Activity, another ultra-low-budget, night vision-filled opus (filmed in the director’s home) that had a fantastic marketing campaign. Commercials would direct viewers to call their local theatres and demand they play Paranormal Activity. To which the theatre owner would reply: “Demand? Who are you to demand anything? You’re just a bunch of low-income nobodies!”
Paranormal Activity had five sequels and kicked off the second wave that has held steady for over ten years, likely due to the budget-friendly loophole tactic and the fact that pretty much no one needs to be a movie star when they make one. There’s been a glut of these movies, most of which, again, have not been great, but there have been some bright spots, even important ones that actually elevated the genre to an artform. Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza’s ferocious REC (2007) may be the best of the bunch, ironically released only a short time after Paranormal Activity. Cloverfield (2008) was certainly one of the most lucrative, but I prefer The Last Exorcism (2010, featuring some outstanding performances), Trollhunter (2010), V/H/S (2012), patchy, but enjoyable, and its superior sequel V/H/S/2 (2013). And then, in 2014, Creep was released, first on VOD, then Netflix.
Creep takes a different approach to an already tired genre. Ostensibly the punchline for that joke about answering a sketchy Craigslist ad, Creep manages to avoid the problems most of these films face by making very clever and unexpected choices. The set-up could not be simpler: A man puts out an ad for a videographer to film him all day. They’ve never met and the pay is very good. The mystery man, at first, comes across as a very friendly, affable, if a little quirky and overtly sentimental type, but little by little, this gives way to much more disturbing behavior.
Running at a brisk 77 minutes and turning out to be a two-hander, Creep stars Mark Duplass as Josef and Patrick Brice as Aaron. What works first and foremost is that both characters are likeable. As in most other films including non-found footage flicks, you’re expected to like the main characters and follow their journey, but if these people aren’t compelling, the movie won’t work. You sympathize with Josef’s plight. He is a soon-to-be father who’s been diagnosed with a brain tumor and wants to show his unborn son what kind of man his daddy was. Aaron is a nice guy, hustling his way through life with small video gigs like this one.
Josef’s abrupt and jarring first appearance is not meant to put the viewer on edge so much as it’s an indicator of this guy’s lack of personal space or social decorum. He’s very affectionate and Aaron, by contrast, doesn’t seem like a big hugger. Since Aaron is operating the camera, you can’t see it, but you can feel his discomfort every time Josef goes in for a hug. Upon Aaron’s arrival, Josef is nowhere to be seen. The tension, though still at low-level, is already being slowly ratcheted up as we wonder how and if this Josef guy is going to show up.
Any film is at a disadvantage if it belongs in a genre, especially horror, but wants the proceedings to remain mysterious or ambiguous. You know something bad is going to happen, it’s just a matter of when. To Creep’s credit and thanks to Mark Duplass’ committed performance, that question is thankfully changed from ‘when’ to ‘if.’ Even when a mask, the accessory of choice for many a serial killer, is introduced, it’s impact is minimized. Nicknamed ‘Peachfuzz,’ this wolf mask bears a passing resemblance to Fluffy in Creepshow (1982) and even the 1991 film Mom, and yet, thanks to a little song-and-dance number by Josef, it’s reduced to nothing more than a child’s game.
Aaron follows Josef throughout the day, starting with an uncomfortable scene in the bathtub and moving on to a hike in the woods. Josef runs along with a boundless energy while Aaron huffs and puffs, lugging his camera around, likely already annoyed by this guy and waiting for the day to end. Jump scares are an over-used cliché in horror movies, but this one hilariously turns that tired old trope on its head with Josef constantly scaring Aaron for his own amusement, then immediately apologizing, only to do it again a short time later. There’s a sweet moment when they come upon a brook near a heart-shaped rock formation and bathe in its supposedly healing water. Following a pancake lunch in which Josef gets Aaron to reveal, on-camera, an embarrassing memory, they return to the cabin. Aaron, obviously losing his patience but trying to remain professional, announces that he’s done for the day, prompting Josef to stand mournfully at the top of the steps, silhouetted by a single porch light and providing the film with its cover art, coaxing and prodding him to have one last drink with him.
What follows may be the funniest and most bizarre scene in the film. With the audio still recording, the screen goes black and Josef tells a story involving the Peachfuzz mask, his wife, and animal pornography. I suppose my statements regarding Creep’s lack of animals in compromising positions may have been premature. An element that I think adds a level of realism which grounds the proceedings is Josef’s constant apologies for unnerving and upsetting Aaron. It’s a very human response and keeps viewers off-balance as they try to ascertain what Josef’s intentions are. Josef can’t seem to help himself and even offers to help Aaron financially. In a slightly uncharacteristic and technically improbable move, Aaron doses Josef’s drink with Benadryl when he discovers his keys are missing. As someone with allergies, I know that Benadryl doesn’t kick in quite so fast, but so be it. After Josef passes out, Aaron intercepts a phone call from Angela, Josef’s supposed wife, who is, in fact, his sister. She warns Aaron that Josef has mental issues and should leave the cabin immediately. A weak but understandable choice by the film to not allow Aaron to give Angela the address to the cabin is slightly annoying, but the movie would be less than an hour otherwise. There are only a few contrivances like these in the film, although none is always more preferable. Sometimes credulity needs to be strained in order to move on to the next scene. Josef is confronted by this revelation and bolts out of the room. In a very tense long take, realistically framed as the camera appears to be held at waist level, Aaron makes his way to the front door. Many of these kinds of movies, as mentioned prior, must strain credulity in order for the film to actually move along. More often than not, you find yourself asking: Why are you still filming? Put the camera down! Turn it off! When Aaron reaches the front door, Josef has donned the Peachfuzz mask and will not move, nor speak. He only communicates through head gestures, upping the creep factor. Aaron finally rushes the door and the footage breaks down.
A hard cut to a static shot. Josef is lugging trash bags and digging a hole, presumably to bury Aaron’s no doubt dismembered body. Again, through no fault of the film, the impact is slightly lessened because you know there’s at least a half hour left in the running time. It’s still effective and chilling, but you know it must be a fake-out. It turns out, this is a dvd that Josef has sent to Aaron who was obviously able to escape. He’s now documenting Josef’s correspondence, including the arrival of a package containing another dvd, a knife, and a baby wolf mask containing a locket with pictures Josef secretly took on day they met. Aaron attempts to get the police involved, which proves fruitless. It’s smart that he’s recording his findings as he now fears for his life and this is his only way of proving what’s going on. In a gasp-inducing scene, Aaron is woken up in the middle of the night by a noise, and as he searches his apartment, armed, ironically enough, with the knife he was sent, Josef appears at the front door, way in the background, peering inside.
The final dvd arrives and Josef apologizes profusely for his actions. It’s a well-spoken, compassionate and obviously emotional confession by Josef where he acknowledges his psychological illness. He wants to properly make amends with Aaron by meeting him in a public place. In almost any other movie, this ploy would be met with scoffs and incredulity, but Josef is so convincing, so heartfelt, that Aaron to make the fateful trek. What follows is a shocking scene followed by a darkly hilarious ending that I won’t give away but actually turns slightly meta in a knowing fashion.
The film was co-written by Duplass and Brice, mostly consisting of an outline through which a majority of the film’s dialogue was improvised. Brice is credited as the director and although he is not a particularly skilled actor, it’s a serviceable performance that is strong enough to hold together the illusion that he’s just some nobody videographer. Looking at his imdb credits, he clearly seems more comfortable behind the camera. The real deal here is Mark Duplass. His performance here is extraordinary. Spouting off a mountain of dialogue and making every correct move to keep his motivations unclear, it’s a role that must be played perfectly in order to work. By making the character sympathetic but also annoying and slightly ridiculous, he plays Josef as an optimistic, practically hippy dippy goofball. It isn’t until the very final moments of the film when you realize that this is how he truly is, the only difference being that he is fully in control of who, and what, he is.
The few gripes that can be made about the film are forgivable. Jump cuts, particularly in the opening scene with Josef, are slightly distracting. The fact that the film is clearly editing and tightening some of the dialogue scenes reduce the realistic nature of the raw footage quality the film is going for. Once the movie leaves the cabin, there is a slight dip in the momentum. Without Duplass’ high energy performance, Brice alone doesn’t make as compelling a protagonist. It’s regained when the stalking element is stepped up a notch and the movie recovers relatively quickly.
Thanks to an outstanding performance by Mark Duplass and a few clever twists, Creep excels where other found footage films have failed. By creating characters you want to spend time with, no matter how shaky the camera or how weird the circumstances.