In most “In Defense of” pieces, I pose three reasons why a film with poor or little critical reception should be viewed; however, in a recent article I discussed reasons I think horror films are often overlooked or underappreciated. One of those reasons connected to subgenres, specifically, when a certain subgenre takes over as the horror du jour, many people who do not like that particular subgenre state an overall distaste for horror films. With a few new horror films receiving positive reviews and large followings of fans early on (so many horror films have to wait years to achieve cult status if they want any shot at being loved), I decided I would highlight some recent horror treasures. The focus of this article is a film that so closely connects to the horror subgenre problem, I feel it is best to write this as one piece, rather than section my reasoning into three separate pieces. It was hard for me to decide which recent (and when I say recent, I am limiting to 2005 and on) horror film to focus on first, and I almost went with Late Phases, but while outlining that piece I started thinking more and more about another recent horror film, and those thoughts quickly spilled into whole paragraphs of discussion, so while I cannot wait to champion Late Phases I will wait, just a bit longer, so that I can tell you why Creep is a recent horror film worth your time.
Found footage films and horror seem to go hand-in-hand. While The Blair Witch Project is certainly a major force behind the trend, it didn’t seem to become a go-to style of horror until the success of Paranormal Activity. Perhaps once Blair Witch had been out for a while and more people got word that it had such a phenomenal marketing campaign, made to suggest that the film’s events were not a fictional film but were truly found footage, the only remains of the three filmmakers, there was the idea that lightning couldn’t strike twice. After all, it could be argued that one reason for the film being so successful and even generally well-received (though there were and still remain plenty of criticisms of the film) was the whole gimmick. Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick could be seen as modern day William Castles, creating a strong marketing campaign that was more frightening than the film it promoted. But once you know that the film is a work of fiction (which even if you didn’t read a lot about the film, you probably figured out once you saw one of its stars, Heather Donahue, in the popular “Workaurant” commercials for Steak-N-Shake) the gimmick wears off and potentially spoils the success of further found footage films.
That’s probably why the found footage trend didn’t catch on right after Blair’s success. Even the film’s sequel eschewed the found footage style for a more traditional one (and didn’t come near the original’s success). But when Paranormal Activity arrived on the scene eight years after The Blair Witch Project and became a hit, it seemed that found footage could succeed as a subgenre even if the audience knew the footage was not real (though at least with the first Paranormal Activity it seemed that many still thought it was real—I remember walking out of the theater and a girl in front of me was in tears and asking her friend if she thought the footage was the authentic case footage or if it was a recreation of the actual events—to which my lovely sister responded in her most condescending tone, “It was all just a movie.”). There are now at least six Paranormal Activity films (although, I can’t honestly keep track of which films are considered part of the PA series, and which aren’t officially), along with a slew of other found footage films.
The overabundance of found footage horror created two outspoken groups: the group that never really liked found footage films and used the trend as evidence that horror was dead or dying, and the group that didn’t mind, maybe liked, maybe even loved found footage films until it felt like that was all that was being released and eventually turned against the style. While I fall in neither faction when it comes to found footage horror (and I am sure a number of other horror fans can claim the same), I do completely understand both group’s concerns. I love both Tim Burton Batman films, and I enjoyed the first two Sam Raimi Spiderman films. When Iron Man debuted, I went to the theatre expecting to be entertained and left the theatre entertained. When I learned that there would be some new comic book movies that would eventually connect through an Avengers film, I was intrigued, and when Avengers came out, I claimed it was one of the most entertaining films that year. But two of the Avengers lead up films, Thor and Captain America, didn’t entertain me as much. Fast forward to 2016 where even hearing the phrase comic book adaptation has me vomiting, and I feel for those who hated the influx of found footage films. What was once an entertaining concept seemed to spiral out of control. I started seeing comic book films as nothing more than merchandising opportunities, and I am sure many haters of found footage horror had similar feelings, tying the barrage of films to uninspired cash grabs rather than compelling and carefully plotted films.
That found footage films were repopulating faster than a Mogwai in a hurricane meant that a large portion of the movie-going population was at the point of ignoring anything labeled found footage, and the population not turned off by the style were sifting through so many of these films that it was easy to overlook some quality movies. And that’s what happened with Creep. I have actually heard some positive reviews from the few people I know who saw the film, but most of them include the fact that they were surprised they liked it. We have come to expect the worst from found footage films, which is too bad, because Creep and the films listed at the end of this article are what happens when found footage is done correctly.
One of the keys to the quality of Creep connects back to a key strength of Blair Witch. While many found footage films fill the shaky camera screen with enough characters to satisfy a decent body count, Creep focuses only on two characters. One of the scariest things about Blair Witch was the fact that once Heather, Mike, and Josh finished their first round of in-town interviews and made their way deep into the Burkittsville woods, there was no wiggle room for who could be a victim. There weren’t 10 crew members attempting to find the Blair Witch, only three. Stranding three in the woods upped the tension early on, and when Josh went missing, the sense of dread was heightened. The three were also not always running from danger. Much of the fear came from the very realistic moments that the group experienced while in the woods. Being lost and feeling like you keep circling back to a starting point doesn’t really require a supernatural element. It is an entirely plausible occurrence. The conversations that started off as light and increased to panic created a horror that was real.
Creep’s focus on two characters, Aaron and Josef, also creates a sense of panic from the start. After all, if it is a horror/suspense film, and there are only two people, something has to happen to one of them eventually, right? But because there are only two, the audience knows that the something cannot happen right away. The overwhelming sense of dread hangs over nearly every scene.
The plot of the film is simple. Aaron is supposed to film Josef for a documentary. The documentary will chronicle Josef, including his daily habits, some family stories, and personal anecdotes, all for the benefit of his son. Josef informs Aaron that he is dying, and he wants his son to have memories of his father beyond photographs. It is a job that seems noble, most certainly more important than Aaron probably imagined when responding to the ad. Yet right off the bat, there is just something odd about Josef. This could be easily rationalized by Aaron and the audience. If Josef is really dying, especially from a brain tumor, it is not a stretch that his actions might seem strange, even alarming at times.
A small cast of any film doesn’t necessarily spell success. When there are two actors whose interactions form 95% of a movie, those two actors better be good, and they certainly have to work well together. The relationship between Josef and Aaron is successful because of how well Mark Duplass and Patrick Brice played those characters. Their conversations feel natural. Their hesitations, body language, laughter (especially the nervous kind) all make the audience feel like we are truly watching a documentary. And that is where a lot of post-Blair Witch found footage films fail. They have all the elements of a found footage film, yet still feel very much like a traditional narrative.
Another strength of Creep that isn’t seen in many found footage films is that it allows the camera to act as a quiet voyeur rather than a panicked participant. There are some found footage films that really work until the climax. It is at this time that the character holding the camera (not always the original cameraperson) is usually running like wild, trying to escape their likely doomed fate. The camera usually falls multiple times. It cuts in and out. The camera holder runs through numerous dark areas, meaning that the audience sees cuts of nothing but darkness. Creep is not a chase film. It is a psychological horror that focuses on just who Josef really is. So many times you almost forget that it is found footage style because you are just watching Josef, just as Aaron is, trying to figure out what he’s lying about and his real motivations for inviting Aaron to film his life. It is this mystery and the character of Josef that create the fear, not a shaky camera or jumbled footage.
In fact, much of Creep finds terror in the quieter or more unexpected moments. Two scenes from the film, both using completely different strategies, exemplify just how terrifying psychological horror can be. The first scene occurs when Aaron is startled by a wolf mask. Josef then tells the brief story of Peachfuzz, which is nothing more than a childhood memory with its own silly song. The scene itself is simple. Josef is just singing and dancing to an absurd song. But because his character has already been established as suspicious, and because there is something incredibly uncanny about a man wearing a wolf mask, the scene is one of the most unsettling of the film. The scene manages to be funny, weird, and deeply unsettling all at once. I cannot emphasize enough what an amazing horror character Josef is. Mark Duplass gave a performance that should not be ignored.
The other scene comes shortly after one of the most uncomfortable nature walks ever. At this point, there have already been enough twists in the plot, particularly the characterization of Josef, that the audience is on edge. And then the two leads are seen in a diner. The incredible amount of relief I felt during this scene speaks volumes of how well the suspenseful horror worked up to that point. There has long been a horror trope that nothing bad can happen in the daytime, but Creep is certainly happy to break a trope if needed. The audience is really given a false sense of relief. We begin to think that maybe Aaron will be OK, maybe even that we jumped the gun when judging Josef. But the diner scene only offers the briefest amount of relief before we become suspicious and nervous again, especially when we learn a new story about Peachfuzz.
Creep terrifies until the very end. It is a film that is not only worth watching, but re-watching. Perhaps even more importantly, it is proof that found footage as a concept can absolutely work, as long as there is substance to the stylistic choice.
Some other recent films that fit at least in some way into the found footage subgenre worth watching are: Area 407; The Taking of Deborah Logan; and As Above, So Below.