Ever hear the one about the guy who gazed into the abyss and found the abyss gazing back into him? That’s the nutshell summary of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s new film, Creepy, a film stuck with an absurd moniker to offset its decidedly somber mood. Like most notorious “hunt for a serial lunatic” films, from Seven to The Silence of the Lambs, Creepy maps out the intersection where good intentions and naive moralizing collide with pure evil, though this description suggests a movie of much greater velocity. Creepy prefers to take it slow and look both ways before setting foot in the crosswalk, all the better to coax our guard down and force us to wonder if its driving mechanism is malice or paranoia.
The film, adapted from a novel by author Yutaka Maekawa, opens as Takakura (Hidetoshi Nishijima), a detective on the police force, pleads for more time to interrogate a serial killer whom he describes as a perfect psychopath, “a sample that comes along once in a lifetime.” His admiration turns to horror when the suspect manages to escape, wound Takakura, and murder a bystander before being riddled with bullets. A year later, we meet Takakura moving into new digs with his wife, Yasuko (Yûko Takeuchi), having left behind his old career and taken a job lecturing university students on the finer merits of criminal psychology. (He’s quick to single out the good ol‘ U.S. of A. for its contributions to the field, though his praise is more than a little backhanded.)
Two things happen as Takakura and Yasuko get settled and acclimate to their surroundings: One, his old colleague calls on him to put a second set of eyes on a case involving a vanished family that’s gone unsolved for six years, and two, their neighbors suck. The neighborhood is populated by shut-ins and other insular types, so the couple rarely get the chance to make meaningful conversation with their fellow residents (and when they do, they get turned away). Creepy’s overarching sense of isolation and abandonment builds as the film progresses. Kurosawa wants us to feel the creeping loneliness Takakura and Yasuko feel, especially as they make contact with Nishino (Teruyuki Kagawa), the neighborhood’s socially inept token eccentric.
Creepy’s title ostensibly is a reference to Nishino himself, and that impression of Kurosawa’s intended meaning only solidifies the more we spend time in Nishino’s company. At first, he reads as a charming oddball. As time goes by, the charm remains, but the flavor of oddball becomes more difficult to discern. Takakura is the kind of guy who, having worked in a dangerous or otherwise treacherous setting for most of his life, can’t meet a new person without wondering if there’s a monster lurking beneath their veneer, and his anxious, suspicious way of engaging with the world around him clouds the viewer’s own perspective. Is Nishino really all that bad? Is consulting on the cold case cranking up Takakura’s natural, untrusting instincts?
Odds are that the average audience member can answer both of these questions pretty easily before getting through the first hour. If not, or if that audience member hates playing guessing games with their visual media, Kurosawa gives away the truth about an hour in, and the film’s momentum changes: Gone is its calm, its quietude, its steady propulsion, replaced by an increased immediacy. That Kurosawa is able to maintain mystery after that tonal shift is quite remarkable, but again, we can credit Creepy’s prevailing uncertainties to Takakura. He isn’t an unreliable narrator, per se, but his vigilant skepticism puts him in the unenviable position of being the man who cried “psycho.”
There’s an intermittent hambone quality to the film’s procedural tension, and that, coupled with occasionally suffocating editing, tilts Kurosawa’s drama ever so slightly off its course. He’s a good enough filmmaker that he’s able to set Creepy back on the rails whenever the dialogue is cranked up too much or a scene ends just a tad too soon, but the film’s minor distractions feel puzzling in light of its careful approach to the deployment of plot and conversation. “It feels exactly like a crime scene,” Takakura’s erstwhile co-worker says as they sneak up on the home of the missing victims. He’s not wrong, either in his conclusions or his intuitions, but he’s speaking the audience’s mind. It’s a lesson right out of a Horror Tropes 101 lecture (and if Creepy isn’t purely “horror,” there’s clear overlap between its various genre sets). Dilapidated buildings are bad news. Everyone knows that, even characters in straight-faced horror movies. It’s just that they shouldn’t be saying so out loud.
It’s a small thing, of course. Creepy lives up to its name courtesy of Kurosawa’s shrewd, calculated filmmaking, his delicate hand at fomenting atmosphere, and the isolating chasm that forms between Takakura and Yasuko as they try to adjust to their new surroundings alongside their personal woes. Takakura slowly comes unwound as he sinks further into his investigation, and his obsession blinds him to Yasuko’s waxing unhappiness. Creepy plays with the rare social fear of the monster living next door, but it’s most recognizable terror is found in domestic and professional unease instead. Perhaps that’s a mundane take, but then again, the mundane is more realistically frightening. The weirdo in the house beside yours is just creepy.
Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Writers: Chihiro Ikeda, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Yutaka Maekawa
Starring: Hidetoshi Nishijima, Yûko Takeuchi, Teruyuki Kagawa
Release Date: Oct. 21, 2016 (Metrograph NYC)
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes for Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65 percent craft beer.