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July 10, 2015

After going off on a rant against The Gallows that indicted it as among the worst examples of the usually bad found-footage subgenre, I want to make something clear: found-footage horror movies don’t have to be awful. True, most of the obvious examples stink out loud, but it’s entirely possible to use the narrative and stylistic conventions for good. And a fine example of a movie that gets it right is available streaming right now: Patrick Brice and Mark Duplass’ Creep.

Duplass also collaborated with Brice in producing his recent film The Overnight, and Creep spends a lot of its time in a similarly uncomfortable place. But while Schwartzman and Scott’s dynamic kept their creepy dynamic within the realm of the humorously awkward, Duplass and Brice’s interactions turn distinctly towards the menacing and dangerous.

Creep continues the established pattern of filmmakers specializing in ultra-low budget non-genre fare crossing over into horror with excellent results. Maybe it’s the way that working on “mumblecore” projects trains writers, directors, and actors into specialists in developing character and plot, since they have nothing else to fall back on. And indeed the two characters we meet are spare, but distinctive and far more memorable than the bare sketches we get in most found-footage offerings.

Aaron (Brice) is a freelance cameraman working in Southern California. He answers an ad offering to pay him $1,000 for a day’s work shooting at a house up in the mountains north of San Bernadino, where he meets Josef (Duplass). Josef tells Aaron he’s dying of cancer, and he wants to shoot a video for his unborn son, like Michael Keaton did in My Life. But as the day goes by, it quickly becomes apparent that something isn’t right with Josef, and even after he leaves the next morning Aaron still feels like he might be in danger.

Making Aaron a professional cameraman solves two of the biggest problems with found-footage. Firstly, it answers why Aaron is meticulously filming everything: at first it’s what he’s being paid to do, and later it becomes the only defense he can think of against Josef. Secondly, the images are clear and bright, and Brice shoots them with a steady hand. He isn’t relying on nauseatingly shaky camera work to cover anything up.

That shaky camera work is so endemic to found-footage that some people even try suggesting it’s a feature rather than a flaw. But Creep uses Aaron’s steady shots to deliver something better than random chaos: the claustrophobia of a first-person viewpoint. Everything we don’t see, we know Aaron doesn’t see either. The scenes play out in long, uninterrupted takes with no cuts to offer alternate views that might fill in our concept of the space. Duplass’ performance is excruciatingly tense, but it’s the first-person camera that really ramps it up.

That’s what makes all these awful found-footage horror movies so frustrating. The conventions of the subgenre can be used to produce truly great and unsettling stories, but only if the filmmakers care enough to try. When they use found-footage as an excuse to get cheap and lazy with their work, they show their contempt for an audience that will shell out for anything. It’s an insult.

But that’s not Creep. Creep loves you, and Duplass and Brice care about you, buddy. Just come and let them show you, and they’ll never do you any harm.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.
This review also appears at Punch Drunk Critics.

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