Of all film genres, the one that has simultaneously seized the day and arguably been most negatively impacted by the massive shifts in film production, distribution and consumption caused by digital technologies has been the horror film.
Horror has always been a genre with a disreputable reputation, eternally profitable it is also a bit like a mutant child for the major studios. Something to be locked up in the cellar during the Oscar parties in case it pees on the carpet and insults an astronaut.
Horror traditionally attracts a young audience looking for thrills (although I’m forty five and still watching them). Equally it is attractive to young writers and directors looking to make a break into film making. Throughout the history of film, there have been hothouses of low budget horror production where so long as certain requirements are met, creatives can find a certain amount of freedom. Roger Corman would let his directors do pretty much whatever they wanted so long as it was cheap, he could use the sets for multiple shows, and there was either an exploding helicopter or a flash of boob in there (often both).
The current equivalent is producer Jason Blum’s outfit Blumhouse (the production company behind Creep). Blum makes films with a strict budget ceiling. He rarely uses first time directors but targets relatively fresh talent with a proven track record (but perhaps some studio mishaps on their CVs), and has a packed slate of genre films that consistently turn a profit.
Not unlike the ‘obstructions’ of Lars Von Trier’s Dogme95 movement, horror can limit writers and directors in ways that demand creativity to overcome. While of course the vast majority of horror films are anything but creative – witness the dull box ticking exercises of the SyFy creature feature or the Asylum mock buster – the films that break out and leave lasting scars on the soft underbelly of cinema are those that either innovate (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Halloween, The Blair Witch Project), shock (Herschel Gordon Lewis’ experiments in goresploitation, Italian cannibal films and spaghetti zombie flicks), or dazzle with style and storytelling skill (The Descent, It Follows).
The success of the found footage style (it is not in my opinion a sub-genre, for example one of my favourites is Josh Trank and Max Landis’ Chronicle, a superhero/SF/teen movie hybrid not horror) from Deodato’s notorious Cannibal Holocaust in 1980, through 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, reached its commercial zenith with Paranormal Activity in 2007. The massive commercial success of the Paranormal Activity films relative to their small production budgets really kick started this maligned phase in horror.
It is a pattern that has repeated throughout the history of horror. When a low budget exploitation film breaks through, everyone wants a slice of the foetid pizza. 1978’s Halloween remains one of the most profitable films of all time. It ushered in the slasher boom that ran through the late 70s and early 80s. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (also 1978) launched an invasion fleet of zombie knock offs from Italy, and later inspired a trio of films (2002’s 28 Days Later, 2004s Shaun of the Dead and Zak Snyder’s great remake Dawn of the Dead) that reinvigorated the zombie movie leading to a multitude of shitty movies and TV’s not shit The Walking Dead. 2004’s Saw (unfairly) and 2005’s Hostel (extremely fair) are held responsible for the ‘torture porn’ cycle of the naughties.
Found footage is perhaps the most derided movement in horror cinema to date, while the (largely unconnected) films that fall into the ‘video nasty’ category that created moral panic and UK legislation in the 1980s and the ‘torture porn’ cycle were in general films derided from outside the horror community, found footage has become a focal point for dissatisfaction from within (horror fandom’s body horror?). And yes, in all honesty most of the films are poor and often simply unimaginative retreads of Blair Witch and Paranormal Activity, in which some goons run around in the woods being terrorised (sadly the very worst of these have been made in the British Isles, the unbelievably awful The Tapes from 2011and Ireland’s The Inside from 2012 which is marginally worse in the sense that Ebola is marginally worse than Cholera).
But, horror is littered with the desiccated corpses of bad films. Comparably bad movies Basement (2010) and The Watermen (2012) are just as shit without being found footage. Along with the high water-mark examples already mentioned, fan favourites [Rec] (2007) and [Rec] 2 (2009) are also found footage. Dismissing a film solely because it is an examples of a style is as daft and luddite as dismissing a film because it was shot digitally rather than on film.
Which preamble brings me to Patrick Brice’s remarkable lo-fi horror comedy Creep which has just received a wide release on Netflix. If you are among the many horror film fans who have vowed never to watch another found footage film, I urge you to reconsider and give this cunning and deceptively unsettling film a chance. Like many films of its type, the less you know the better, so this is a jumping off point for those already interested to fire up your streaming services and watch. It’s a lean 82 minutes, so I’ll go put the kettle on and see you shortly…
…Creep begins with Aaron a documentary filmmaker (played by Brice) driving into the hills for a quick cash in hand job he has picked up from a Craigslist ad. His subject is to be Josef (US indie powerhouse Mark Duplass). Aaron has no real idea what he is in for, he just knows that Josef will pay for eight hours of his time to film and edit a to-camera piece. On arrival the relentlessly jolly Josef ask him ‘have you ever seen the movie My Life?’ Josef has an inoperable brain tumour and inspired by the schmaltzy Michael Keaton film wants to make a movie for his infant son to know his father after his death.
From the start Duplass’ character is ‘off’, but Aaron (and the audience) dismiss his early slightly bizarre behaviour and dubious sense of humour (he is particularly a fan of springing ‘sudden cat scares’) as a result of his fast encroaching sense of mortality.
Josef is a really, REALLY, annoying person. Slightly clingy, subtly inappropriate, and capricious in his moods. He is initially a kind of wild-and-crazy-guy comedy figure and the humour is accentuated by Aaron’s occasional knowing glances to the camera lens when unobserved.
Duplass is fantastic, probably the best that I have seen him, never making Josef into an outright monster and always keeping Aaron and the audience guessing as to his motives and the actual depths of his mania. Although Brice is often a disembodied voice behind the lens, Aaron is a very real presence in the film and never falls into the ‘idiot plot’ so common in this type of film of acting irrationally and wilfully wandering into harms way just to meet generic horror beats.
As the film progresses, the tone of the piece shifts into even darker territory (but maintains its humour). There is a serious statement to be teased out of the film about the threat and terror of becoming the subject of a stalker and a growing homoerotic tension as Josef becomes more and more possessive and contrives to keep Aaron from leaving his cabin. The choice of a male ‘victim’ rather than a female one is important, for one thing it takes the comfort of the ‘final girl’ archetype off the table, but it also makes Aaron understandably reticent to go to the authorities when the situation begins to spiral out of control. And when he does finally dial 911, he is not taken seriously.
The pacing of the film is superb, only moving into outright horror territory at a very late stage leading to a superb and chilling denouement.
Creep is a small movie, it probably had a production budget measured in thousands (possibly even hundreds) of dollars, it’s one of those films where you kick yourself and think ‘why didn’t I do this?’ Well suck it up buddy, you didn’t. It is a shame that the diminutive scale and lo-fi aesthetics probably factored in denying this a cinema release as it is the sort of movie that would be great with a suitable audience (I wish I’d seen it on its festival run) but it is also really well suited to home viewing because of these same aesthetics. I say this on the same day as the enjoyable multi million dollar behemoth Ant-man, and this is the movie I wanted to blog about the next morning.
It’s really, really good.