Mark Duplass’s character Josef in Creep (streaming now on Netflix,) is a nice guy with a suspicious, tear-jerking story. He’s got an manipulatively sincere twinkle in his big brown eyes that should send his Craigslist-hired videographer running down the hill, but, thankfully for the audience, Aaron (Patrick Brice) wants to take Josef at his word. He wants to believe that everything is going to be ok, and when he really starts to get a glimpse at how off everything is, he still just wants to help Josef, to see him as a broken person who needs saving.
Duplass and Brice started making the film without a script, just improvising a creepy relationship inspired by three hours Duplass once spent in uncomfortable intimacy with a very intense man. He was disassembling an IKEA bed he bought that was supposed to already have been taken apart. “This guy talked about his divorce, how ‘Star Wars’ was evolving,” Duplass says. “He had no sense of personal space, made intense eye contact. I was terrified for my life. It stuck with me.”
Josef likes to toy with Aaron, giving him innocent enough spooks by just surprising him. Once he’s startled Aaron in his car, Josef then rolls right through all sense of boundaries by giving him a hug. He says their time together is going to be a “journey into the heart.” Of course, by the end of the film we know that Josef (or Bill, or maybe more correctly, Mr. Peachfuzz,) has had quite a few journeys. He’s well practiced by the time he meets Aaron, but that doesn’t mean he always goes by the same script.
This theme of “heart” and goodness tears through out Aaron’s terrifying time, but it seems that he’s special in that regard. His DVD is the only one with a heart drawn on it. It’s also clear that not all of Mr. Peachfuzz’s playthings even have the dignity of having a name. Aaron’s DVD gets put directly in front of a film labeled “Haircut.”
Josef’s story is that he’s dying of cancer and wants to record a bit of his life for his unborn child, like the 1993 Micheal Keaton film My Life. His story, though over-the-top, is not unbelievable. Still, Josef isn’t content to stick with conventional saccharine. He immediately ups the weird factor by saying the first thing they have to film in is film him taking a bath. If Aaron’s willing to follow Josef to the bathroom for “Tubby Time,” it seems he’s willing to go along with just about everything.
Josef is preying on the hopes of aspiring filmmakers who troll for jobs online, hoping to find a way to break in to the industry. Everyone has access to a camera these days, but very few people get paid to use them, so as far as victim-luring goes, Josef’s got perfect bait. As practiced as he is, though, it’s a bit strange that he immediately comes off so weird. It’s unclear if anyone has ever been scared off by his initial antics, if anyone has survived his mad trap.
The fact that he gives over cash for the day right away may help keep the aspiring filmmakers around longer than they would like to be around, a sense of obligation and emotional pull asking them to linger. This film plays with how much we are able to trust, to forgive, to believe what another person is telling us. Emotional manipulation is so sinister because it prods at that little ball of self inside us that feels like a “good” person. Most of us desperately want to do the right thing, to have compassion for others, and to respond appropriately to emotionally difficult things. It’s insidious to prey on another person’s heart.
Josef is a serial killer, sure, but he doesn’t just kill: he mostly plays. That’s his game, and it’s a bit worse than just stone-cold murder. Creep is a pretty fresh take on our fear of being tortured and manipulated. We love psychological thrillers because we love stories that excite some of our worst fears, and our worst fears aren’t just being killed, but being controlled, confined, and betrayed. We fear having our own sense of reality messed with to the point where our experiences seem delusional and crazy and no will listen to us enough to save us from a sadistic new world.
The film ends with Josef, who’s now going by Bill, up to the same old tricks, and it turns out that we’re going to get to see where that leads. Creep will be a trilogy, with the second and third installments rolling out within a year. Maybe one of them will be a sequel, and we’ll get to find out what happened with “Haircut.”