On the face of it, Creep (which premieres Tuesday on Netflix) looks like any number of low-budget horror movies. It’s shot in the handheld “found footage” style, which turns the limitations of lo-fi equipment into a storytelling tool; it has, true to that style, no musical score; it only features two speaking roles of note; the bulk of the action takes place in two (home) locations. But Creep has a more robust pedigree than your average Netflix horror streamer — it’s produced by Jason Blum, the prolific horror impresario behind the The Purge, Insidious, and (a-ha) Paranormal Activity franchises, and Mark Duplass, the equally busy actor/director/producer/indie mascot. Duplass co-stars in the film and shares a story credit with director Patrick Brice, who also helmed this summer’s indie comedy The Overnight. So what the hell are they doing making a straight-to-Netflix movie?
The most succinct answer would presumably be: “Money, lots and lots of money.” But the question is also loaded; though Creep wasn’t initially intended for Netflix (it played last year at SXSW), it’s become part of the streaming service’s ongoing relationship with Duplass and his brother Jay, which culminated earlier this year in a four-picture deal. But more importantly, “straight-to-Netflix” is a classification that doesn’t have the same stink as, say, “direct-to-video” does; they’re clearly investing in an effort to disrupt the move industry in the same way they’ve shaken up TV.
And good for them. Both Netflix and Amazon have made ambitious plans to spend their considerable resources on the kind of auteur-driven, adult-targeted features that studios have largely abandoned, and are increasingly difficult to finance independently. And sure, they’re covering their bases with big names and sellable concepts; Creep , again, falls into that most venerable and profitable of subgenres, the low-budget found-footage horror movie. But within that commercial framework, they’re taking real chances — and Creep is, in many ways, a puzzling character study in a found-footage horror movie’s clothing.
Director Brice plays Aaron, a freelance videographer whom we meet on his way to a one-day gig. His employer is Josef (Duplass), immediately grinning and ingratiating — perhaps a bit too much, too quickly — and he has a sad story to tell. He’s been diagnosed with cancer, with only two or three months to live, not long enough to meet the son his wife is carrying, so he’d like to leave him a video, and no sooner are you thinking, “Hey, like My Life,” than he’s asking Aaron, “Have you seen the film My Life?”
The first third or so consists of Aaron’s footage of their day together, which Josef deems “a partnership” and “a journey of the heart,” while an aloof Aaron clearly sees it as a job, and a fairly uncomfortable one at that. Josef spouts New Age-y wisdom — when they get lost on a nature trail, he beams, “We can’t find a miracle if we’ve got a rope attached to us!” — but there’s also a question of how much of his story and his persona are bullshit, especially when he’s caught in odd, inexplicable lies, or when he says sinister-sounding things like, “That’s what it feels like when you feel like you’re gonna die.”
Such dialogue, and later inquiries like, “Have you seen my keys?” and “That didn’t taste weird to you?” function as cues for an audience that’s seen enough horror movies not to trust much of anything; Bryce (and Duplass, whose shared story credit in the place of a credited screenplay indicates that much of the dialogue was improvised) is wise enough to know that lines like that are a wink to us — and we know that they’re winking, whether they’re setting up the big reveal or throwing in the deliberately placed jump scares that Josef dismisses with a chuckle and an, “I keep doing that!” They’re almost parodying the requirements of the genre, while still respectfully adhering to them.
Long about the 30-minute mark, Josef tells Aaron, “I need to get something off my chest,” and the film begins to bend in the direction we’re expecting. What happens after that I will not say, except to note that Duplass’ performance is genuinely unnerving — the swiftness of his shifts from threatening to faux-vulnerable to genial is pretty impressive — and while Brice occasionally battles the dilemma of many found footage filmmakers (the “why is the camera still on” question), his compositions are off-the-cuff inventive, the stylistic flourishes work (particularly the “off-camera” confession), and the climactic scene, played in a long, distant, single shot, is chilling.
Overall, Creep is sometimes funny, sometimes scary, and entirely clever. And it has found its appropriate home — it’s not a big event, but the kind of movie you stumble on while scrolling through Netflix late at night, hitting play, and switching off the lights. Duplass, Blum, and their ilk aren’t dummies; they seem more attuned to how people discover and watch movies now than people in much more powerful positions, and are creating and distributing their work accordingly. And in this marketplace, you can’t just be an artist — you have to be savvy enough to get eyeballs in front of your work. Duplass and Blum are filmmakers, yes, but they’re also salesmen; one can’t help but notice that, among the literally dozens of projects their IMDb pages list as “in development,” are the titles Creep 2 and Creep 3. And that’s why it’s called show business.