Ceci n’est pas une ‘Creep’

Spoilers ahoy for Creep (2014) and Creep 2 (2017).

I’m somewhat of a sucker for Mark Duplass. His status as Mumblecore King aside, Duplass to me has always represented something of a modern day Kubrick, a filmmaker interested in genre hopping as a filmmaking exercise, a different beast to conquer with each new variety. I’ve genuinely enjoyed everything he’s created or starred in, and yes this includes The League, a show that is only funny in the first season and the tiniest of doses, but still. Blue Jay is a tender thing indeed, where Duplass tries his hand at a kind of softness and Sarah Paulson gets to Sarah Paulson all over the place. He’s trying, damnit, and you sure as shit can’t say that about a lot of mainstream filmmakers or producers these days.

When Duplass and writing partner Patrick Brice teamed up to create their version of a found footage film, they turned to Blumhouse’s Jason Blum when they realized the highly-improvised story they were crafting was moving towards horror. As Duplass recalls Blum saying to the duo: “All found-footage movies come to me, and they all suck, and this one doesn’t, and I want to help.” This is a highly respectful way to speak of an entire genre, one you’re profiting off of no less, but I digress.

Creep is the output of this trial towards making The Greatest Found Footage Film of All Time and while The Blair Witch Project is standing in the corner of the room with us, its main success is not in subversion per se, but in doubling down on what makes the genre so intriguing: the person behind the camera capturing all this footage.

Everyone’s favorite question when watching a found footage film is: “But why is the camera person still filming?” It’s an existential pondering of the genre that, when given the proper space, can be an intriguing mechanism. The Blair Witch Project’s Heather is a headstrong director, saddled with a couple of film bros who wilt at the first sign of inconvenience. Doing a certain kind of justice to the story is what fuels her, her raison d’être, and for that she is akin to a witch. “That’s your motivation!” Josh seethes through his teeth at Heather, and it’s films that have lost sight of, or never bothered to establish, that motivation that makes for a weak entry in the genre.

Creep understands this. Now two films deep with Creep and Creep 2, released in 2014 and 2017 respectively, the series is itself a rumination on the motivation of a filmmaker. Creep tells the story of a man named Aaron, who answers a Craigslist ad searching for a videographer in exchange for a day of filming and $1,000. The man who posted the ad (Mark Duplass as Josef) tells Aaron he’ll be helping him to film a video for his unborn son, as Josef is dying of cancer. Aaron bites. He stays to film while fighting feelings of uncertainty as the day’s events become increasingly disturbing. 

Aaron, tagging along for whatever Josef throws at him, is a distinctly visionless filmmaker. He scrounges up a living filming other people’s ideas, never speaking up with much of a directorial vision let alone ideas for his subject-cum-boss. Josef, in contrast, worries over tediously over each frame. The more time we spend with this unlikely duo, the more it comes into focus just how important the filmmaking integrity of the video itself is to Josef, just getting the information communicated to his future son isn’t going to cut it. As we descend into the project alongside our characters, something becomes clearer: Josef, it seems, is not our star, but our Orson Welles.

Mark Duplass in Creep 2 (2017)

Contrast this with Sara in Creep 2. Creator of the web series Encounters, Sara is a filmmaker frustrated with a world that couldn’t care less about her distinct vision, delivering one of my favorite lines from either film as she reflects on her career: “I think I might be deeply untalented.” She’s on the cusp of giving up when a fateful Craigslist ad catches her eye. Josef, who refers to himself as Aaron in the second film, is immediately taken aback by Sara’s fearless approach to his requests. Sara isn’t a production assistant for Josef, she’s a filmmaking contemporary. That Patrick Brice as Aaron and Desiree Akhavan as Sara are both independent filmmakers in their own right is another nod to where the film’s interests lie.

Josef, turns out, is a pretty tough boss. When it comes time to critique the work of his hired help, his cinematic justice is swift. A naive, blank canvas, visionless filmmaker like Aaron has no business making films, he has to die. Sara, on the other hand, is a singular talent. She gets to live. Each of these films depicts a creep preoccupied not with enacting chaos for chaos’ sake, but in expressing his artistic vision. Josef runs his proteges through the ringer, ever on the pursuit for greatness no matter the cost. We’re not playing around here, we’re making art. Really, what’s the difference between the producers of The Blair Witch Project running around the woods at night in full costume scaring their cast to get authentic reactions versus, say, Tubby Time?

For those that have seen the films, did it ever occur to you that Josef might not have actually ever killed anyone? I’m not asking to be a smart ass, I’m genuinely positing this. I guffawed the first time I watched as Sara confesses to her camera that she doesn’t think Josef is a killer after JUST watching a video of him axe murdering a person to death. Or did she? Did we?

We only see Aaron’s death through a recording on a screen. Actually, everything we experience in this film either captured through a lens or playing through a screen. Moments after Josef’s axe connects with Aaron’s skull, we pan out to reveal the scene is being played on a TV as Josef pauses the footage. What I thought was a clever transitional devise in the first film to take us from Murder Lake to Josef’s editing room smacked into focus as I watched Creep 2 : we’re watching a film, not a document of a death. It’s Josef’s storytelling vision unfolding in front of us, not a recorded confession of a kill.

The scene where Josef tells Aaron the story of assaulting his Sisterwife is completely off-camera (did Josef add audio of a preferred spooky story in post?). When my partner watched Creep for the first time he remarked that the person Aaron speaks to on the phone after this confession could be a recording Josef is planting. Josef isn’t trying to creep Aaron out before killing him for fun, he’s directing him. He’s building a lore and a tension and an environment of play and suspense to get the best performance he can from his actor-cum-director of photography. I originally thought Josef/Aaron losing his temper at Sarah when a scene in the woods wasn’t going as planned was just to demonstrate his unpredictable personality. Now I think it might be showing us a director frustrated that they’re not getting The Shot.

Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now killed live animals on-camera, real human corpses were bought from a man who turned out to be a grave-robber, and shooting conditions were hellish. Coppola is considered a cinematic genius. Josef is considered a mad man. Creep asks a question that cuts to the heart of an oft-misunderstood genre: What is the difference between a psychopath and an auteur?

In the words of Josef: “I want to encourage you to embrace your inner wolf, so take the wolf and enjoy it, and more importantly, take the knife, and don’t be afraid to murder it, because when you stick a knife in something, and you gut it and you really dig inside, I don’t know man, there’s all this beautiful stuff.”