The Screening Room: Creep (2014)

In All, Movies by Kyu

At one point during Creep (2014), one of the two men who made this movie, filmmaker and actor Mark Duplass, turns the camera on the other man who made this movie, filmmaker and now actor I guess Patrick Brice, and asks him to relate to the camera his greatest shame. Turns out there’s no truth in cinema, because Brice does not say “this movie.” This is The Screening Room. Welcome.

There will be spoilers, and you will thank me.

I am one of the few stalwart defenders of the found footage movie (most of which are horror movies). I think it’s a fascinating form of expression that can be used to staggering effect in the right hands. Films like [REC], Man Bites Dog, The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, The Sacrament, and The Poughkeepsie Tapes make a virtue of limitations, using the constrictions of documentary realism and constrained perspective storytelling to skirt audiences’ emotional barriers and make cogent points about the nature and ethics of filmmaking, journalism, and/or the modern trend of obsessive documentation and self-documentation. So I’m a little less sympathetic than most to the idea that the style is lazy, played-out, uncinematic, or nonsensical. But Creep is the embodiment of every one of those critiques. It gives the genre a bad name.

The film, such as it is, takes the apparent form of a Craigslist meet-up gone awry. Aaron, played by director Brice, shows up at the home of Joseph (Duplass). Joseph explains that he has a wife, an unborn child, and a ticking clock: doctors have given him two months to live, thanks to a brain tumor. He pays Aaron (some kind of amateur filmmaker? it’s never made clear) a thousand bucks to hang out with him for 8 hours and help him film a video Joseph’s kid can watch when he’s older to know his dad a little bit. The sole bit of redeeming value for the film is that, with the addition of some helpful voice-over or titles, it could work as a PSA about Craigslist warning signs.

For example, if the man you’ve been hired to film keeps scaring you and then laughing about it, you should leave. This is especially true if he has a creepy wolf mask named Peach Fuzz that he puts on before doing a song and dance for you. That is not “weird but amusing,” it is code for, “I am going to murder you and eat your penis.” Other warning signs: getting you both lost in the woods without seeming concerned. Obviously lying about small things, like claiming a breakfast place is his favorite restaurant but when you get there he doesn’t know what’s on the menu. Joking about killing you with the ax in his front yard. Etc. If this happens to you, fuckin’ bail, man.

The movie has a lot of problems, but this is the foundational problem that ruins the film: Joseph is obviously, comically, over-the-top creepy in a way that is weird and uncomfortable and not the least bit endearing. But Aaron, the filmmaker character, doesn’t react to this in any meaningful way. There’s no explanation for why he’s willing to ignore Joseph’s red flags, or forgive him time and again for crossing boundaries or scaring him and laughing it off. There’s no sense that he gets any more or less uncomfortable over the course of the day. Most people would either bail entirely or attempt to set boundaries–“Hey, if you want me to stick around, you have to stop doing this.” Aaron yelps when startled but is otherwise indistinguishable from a robot holding a camera. He even participates in the aforementioned “shame” conversation, telling a long and pointless story about how he used to wet himself as a child to this complete stranger for no apparent reason (in what universe does this guy’s supposed unborn child want to see a video of a guy his father knew for one day talking about the random guy’s childhood incontinence????) This strange behavior from Aaron completely undermines what the movie is trying to do.

So the first half of the film is this repetitive series of incidents, none of them arranged in any particular order of intensity, where Joseph says or does something creepy and Aaron fails to respond. Things come to a head (and by things I mean the movie’s nonsense quotient) when Aaron tells Joseph he’s going to leave now, and Joseph asks if he’d like to come inside for a glass of whiskey. Now, there are only two things that can mean after dark in the yard of a strange man who has paid you money to be his friend:

1) This man is going to kill you
2) This man is shy/closeted and wants to have sex with you

That’s it, right? I’m not crazy, am I? George Costanza agrees:

Whiskey isn’t whiskey, whiskey is sex! So Aaron has no reason to go back in the house that we’re aware of. But he goes anyway.

As the night progresses, we learn that the filmmakers have no idea how the following things work: bestiality, fetishes, Benadryl, horror movies…

First, in a section of the movie that turns into fucking RADIO for ten minutes, Aaron films Joseph confessing to a crime with the lens cap on. Joseph explains that a while ago he discovered his wife’s computer was full of bestiality porn. Rather than confronting her, Joseph says he put on the wolf mask, entered her bedroom one night when he was supposedly out of the house, and raped her. Afterwards, he says, she never brought it up, seemed happy, and stopped looking at bestiality porn. Because that all makes sense.

Aaron’s response is to take some Benadryl he conveniently has in his pocket and dump it into Joseph’s whiskey, where it presumably dissolves instantly and tastelessly. Joseph gets woozy and falls asleep for 10 minutes before waking up with no ill effects. Because that all makes sense.

Some other shit happens and although Aaron now finally fears for his life and is wandering around the house knowing that Joseph is probably stalking him, he still doesn’t just call the police or run away or try and find a weapon. And the film proves it has no interest in honest horror by failing to follow up on the early shot of Joseph’s axe in a stump in the yard with Aaron now looking out to see the stump with no axe. Because fuck this movie.

While the first half of the movie is moronic and repetitive as Aaron fails to react to Joseph, the second half of the movie is repetitive and moronic as Aaron fails to react sensibly to Joseph, Joseph’s character fails to make sense (he’s now trying to portray himself as some kind of erotomaniac stalker type by sending Aaron a series of creepy affectionate videos and gifts, but although the movie positions this as a psychological revelation it doesn’t ring any truer than the brain tumor story), and the movie as a whole jerks our chain back and forth while we wait for either something, anything clever to happen for the sweet release of Aaron’s death.

From time to time I’ve worked reading scripts, and I came across one once that wasn’t that great but had a really neat opening, where a filmmaker is pitching a script to an executive. He goes (paraphrasing), “They say you shouldn’t pick up hitchhikers, because what if he’s a psycho? And they also say you should never hitchhike, because what if you get picked up by a psycho? So here’s your movie: what if a psycho picked up a psycho?” Expecting something clever from Creep, I spent a while wondering if the joke was that Joseph was weird but not dangerous and Aaron made a habit of killing people like Joseph after filming them–or if both men, unbeknownst to the other, had murder on their minds, a psycho-picks-up-a-psycho scenario. But Creep is way, way too dumb to do that. Its idea of a twist is “He killed him! Wait no he didn’t. Haha he’s gonna! No he’s not. Oh he did.”

By the time the movie concludes, it’s impossible to care about anything that happens, because neither character makes sense, feels real, or reacts appropriately to their situation and (non-existent) motivations. And they’re the whole movie! So with no foundation, Creep could go anywhere or do anything and it would seem to have followed from the previous events, because the film is just random noise. If it ended with Joseph raping Aaron, Aaron killing Joseph, Joseph killing himself, Aaron calling the cops, Aaron moving away, Aaron falling in love with Joseph, Joseph’s family showing up, Joseph’s family being fictional, etc etc etc every single one of those would make an equal amount of (non)sense in this movie.

The movie’s other cardinal sin is that it’s the single worst example bar none of the found footage horror movie complaint, “WHY ARE YOU STILL FILMING?!” Every found footage movie needs to deal with this in one way or another. Some do it better than others, sure, but it can be done, and done in ways that add to the film. Blair Witch makes Heather’s desire to keep filming a character revelation. In [REC] the motivations of the person holding the camera shift over time, from recording a routine news program to documenting the truth behind a government cover-up to (in the film’s tense, terrifying climax) using the camera just for its night vision. In The Poughkeepsie Tapes, the fact that killer keeps filming while stalking his victims makes him seem all the more deranged and invulnerable. But Creep‘s only justification for Aaron’s behavior is a throwaway line early on where Joseph tells Aaron upon hiring him not to stop filming–instructions that any sane person would have thrown out the window as soon as the person who gave them turned out to be dangerous. The movie is filled with scenes where Aaron keeps filming in circumstances where that is utterly ludicrous. He keeps the camera going when searching his home for an intruder. He makes video diaries of no apparent origin or point or destination. Also, he calls the police, gets frustrated when they won’t help him for lack of evidence, and then doesn’t think to show them his fucking footage (which at that point features Joseph lying, confessing to a rape, assaulting him, and threatening him). In other words, he’s motivated to film by the movie’s needs, not his own, and when it’s convenient for the movie to forget about the framing perspective, the movie cheerfully ignores it.

Every scene is like that: enraging because it makes no sense on a logical or even cinematic level. Every time I think I’ve gotten to the bottom of how stupid this movie is I find another level. Like the very end. Aaron goes to meet Joseph, presumably to get him to stop stalking him, but takes basically no precautions other than setting a camera so it would film what inevitably turns out to be Aaron’s boring death by ax. Then we see that Joseph is filming himself watching the murder, concluding the “murder tape” for Aaron. As he places the finished tape on a shelf filled with other tapes, we realize he’s done this many times before and will do so again. Ooo creepy.

Think about that, though–this means the whole movie has been edited by Joseph, right? If so, there’s no indication of this in the film proper. And it means that he’s continually editing the footage as he’s taking more of it. He films himself watching the murder on TV, then presumably edits that footage back into the tape, then he puts that tape on the shelf while filming himself putting the tape on the shelf, and then presumably takes the tape back, adds on the footage of him putting the tape on the shelf, and then puts the tape back on the shelf! This way lies madness. It’s like an Ouroboros of inanity.

In conclusion, Creep is a really bad short film drawn out to interminable length by filmmakers who have tricked me into watching a mumblecore movie for the last fucking time. It should come with a warning label that says “DON’T”. Found footage is a medium with a lot of potential, not least because it allows creative filmmakers to make a virtue out of low budgets and minimal production value. Creep makes them into sins, but Brice and Duplass have no shame about it. More’s the pity.