Trust is a valuable commodity online. Though the connective power of the Internet has made our world smaller, believing in what you can’t see is risky business. That gal, or guy, you meet in World of Warcraft could actually be a guy, or gal, who regularly falls asleep covered in Cheetos debris. The sweet Groupon deal you found for a beer and bacon tasting class could just be a bullshit scam. And that charming eccentric who remotely entices you with a mysterious Craigslist ad could really be a charming sociopath, but how could you possibly know that? All you see is the charm. You don’t see the danger until it’s too late.
In Creep, Patrick Brice makes a mercurial study of these fears through the veneer of found footage. As genre niches go, the found footage conceit wore out its welcome in a deluge of Paranormal Activity imitators over the span of the past eight years. In Brice’s hands, the technique works: Unlike its low-fi kin, Creep is made with attention to detail and a dedicated consideration of motive. There’s a reason the camera stays on from scene to scene. If the web invites harm, Brice’s lens almost acts like a shield. Nothing bad can happen while we’re rolling, at least until it does. Even a casual horror fan knows the destination on Creep’s narrative itinerary, but Brice has a knack for making us second-guess ourselves at almost every juncture. You know where’s going, but you might not guess the roads he takes to get there.
The film stars Brice as Aaron and his comrade, mumblecore guru supreme Mark Duplass, as Josef. Aaron is down on his luck and looking for fast, easy cash. Josef is a vibrating ball of pent-up, charismatic energy. He’s also slowly dying, the victim of an aggressive, untreatable brain tumor. Hence Aaron, whom Josef has hired as his personal videographer. Josef wants to record a single day in his life for his unborn son, whom he may never get to meet. So the two men strike out on an adventure through hill and dale, which sounds fine and dandy except that Josef is weird. Really weird, in fact, and not the quirky, precious kind of weird that indie audiences find endlessly endearing. He takes every available chance to scare Aaron, whether feigning drowning or psyching the guy out with a grotesque wolf mask.
And he does it all for shits and grins, which is probably the biggest telltale sign that Josef’s a few pills short of a full medicine cabinet. It becomes apparent later in the film that he may not actually be who he says he is, and that he’s probably a threat to Aaron. By that point we’ve caught onto Brice’s cat and mouse game, but Creep toys with our preconceptions by leaning on Duplass’s personality as an entertainer. Whether you’re fed up with the Duplass industrial complex or a dedicated patron of his output, the man has affable magnetism to spare. Those qualities serve Creep well. Casting someone else in the role would call the film’s dramatic mechanisms into question. We know why Aaron answers the Craigslist ad—he’s desperate—but he sticks around with Josef because of Duplass’s persuasive amicability. He might act like a dick on occasion, but he’s so good at getting his hooks into Aaron, and into us, that together we’re easily gulled into swallowing his storied assurances.
Brice has a deft hand at fostering sustained terror. He’s equally as good at coaxing a chuckle out of us at the right moment to subvert our expectations. Creep is as intensely frightening as it is humorous, but Brice doesn’t use gags to let the air out of the room. Rather, he treats them as bait, and anticipation as a red herring, executing his many misdirections brilliantly. Even when the film ticks down to its final minutes, we can’t help but hope for a happy ending.
Which is precisely how Brice wants us to react. He blinds us with our own guffaws while Duplass plays a lunatic for the ages. Creep clocks in at under an hour and a half, but less is more here, and Brice uses every frame to establish himself as a new, brilliantly economical voice in horror filmmaking. The film moves quickly and ends quicker, but we’re caught in its jaws for its entirety. This is found footage at its best: so effective, you may prefer it had stayed lost.
Director: Patrick Brice
Writer: Patrick Brice, Mark Duplass
Starring: Patrick Brice, Mark Duplass
Release Date: June 23, 2015 (iTunes); July 14, 2015 (Netflix)
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing online about film since 2009, and has been scribbling for Paste Magazine since 2013. He also contributes to Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine, and Badass Digest. You can follow him on Twitter. He is composed of roughly 65% Vermont craft brews.