Image via Blumhouse Productions
The more I submerge myself within the horror community, the more I realize that the Creep franchise doesn’t get nearly as much attention as it should. Mark Duplass’ and Patrick Brice’s incredible profile of a lunatic killer who murders victims after spending a day with them is the Chef’s Kiss of slasher films. These movies are both disturbing and nuanced, rife with scares but also with moments of contemplation. The antagonist is so sympathetically portrayed that, even in the face of his violence, you can’t help but wonder if said violence is a response to trauma, not passion.
So I’d be remiss not to talk about 2017’s Creep 2, the demented, flawlessly-constructed follow-up to 2014’s Creep. And let me just begin by saying that this is one of the finest explorations of the Villainous Crush trope I’ve come across to date (hats off to you, Netflix recommendations). Rooted in classic horror but crafted with a modern twist, it’s the age-old tale of a monster and his muse.
Continuing the found-footage style of the original, Desiree Akhavan stars as Sara, a failed documentarian struggling to find a worthy subject for her unsuccessful YouTube channel. Duplass rides in to save (ruin?) the day as “Aaron” (more on the quotation marks later), a self-professed serial killer who solicits her on Craigslist to film him for a day. The story is not so much a wild ride as a slow, insidious burn. The scenes are often quite tame: Sara and Aaron stomp through the woods, hang out in a hot tub, and play Two Lies and One Truth. But what results is an unnerving, batshit love story about two misunderstood artists finding inspiration in each other.
It’s one of those rare horror movies that eclipses its predecessor in nearly every way. And while the original Creep can undoubtedly hold its own, its sequel finds success in how weirdly un-scary it is. The terror in this film weaves through its DNA. Its monster is lonely, depressed, and deeply human. His increasingly-romantic interactions with Sara are terrifying in just how mundane they can be.
When we meet our heroine, she’s on the verge of giving up. Her web series, “Encounters,” follows her as she responds to bizarre ads on Craigslist and films the lonely men who post them. She’s answered requests for everything from a “Talk Buddy” to a man who wants a woman to “mommy” him and rock him back and forth like a small child. It’s weird. No one gets it, as evidenced by the abysmal views her channel racks in (a whopping 9 in total for the mommying video!). She’s always on the hunt for the Biggest and Baddest wolf. Not to heal him of his loneliness, but because she wants to feel seen.
Enter Aaron. He’s just your average, run-of-the-mill murderer down on his luck. He’s suffering an identity crisis, extending to the reality that “Aaron” isn’t even his real name (rather, Aaron was the name of his victim in the original, where the character then went by “Josef”). That long-held, apotheosized zest he had for killing is gone. Nothing inspires him anymore, including his short films, comprised of footage of his kills. So he drums up a Craigslist ad, searching for a videographer to help pull him out of his creative slump, and Sara takes him up on his offer.
If this sounds like the plot to the campiest episode of American Horror Story yet, then I have to stress this to you: somehow, the insanity works. It’s subtle without being dull, hilarious without being stupid and frightening without being absurd.
The film expertly juxtaposes its two leads by establishing how alike they are, rather than how different: Aaron is a manipulative, narcissistic control freak, and in many ways, so is Sara. She’s made a career out of getting pariahs to feel comfortable enough around her to go Full Whackjob on camera. Her morals as an artist are shaky at best.
This is a recurring theme that co-writers Duplass and director Brice frequently shove in your face: the reality that artists can sometimes be, y’know, fucking dicks. Creep 2 forces us to consider where artistry ends, and psychopathy begins. Is there an inherent level of egotism that’s almost required of an artist by default? And what does the prevalence of social media say about how art has changed, forcing the creator to focus not on the creation itself, but on staying relevant?
The effect is both hilariously self-aware and scary as fuck to think about, especially as someone who has once or twice called themselves an artist. Maybe the axe-wielding murderer isn’t the only monster under our beds. Perhaps the purple-haired art student with nothing to lose is, too.
Indeed, some of the scariest moments arise from the beats where you get the sense that, in an alternate reality, Aaron and Sara might’ve met on Bumble and bonded over their shared love of Evil Dead, or whatever. Their chemistry is so natural and instantaneous that, as Aaron grows increasingly violent, it becomes harder to decipher which of them truly has the upper hand. Sara is perpetually guarded as she films him, hiding behind a veneer of empathy and emotional vulnerability. Then again, so is Aaron. I don’t think the audience really knows who either of them is by the end, and this is what draws them together. Both are adept at figuring people out for the sake of their art. Still, they can’t seem to figure out the other, or even themselves. There’s a constant game of hide-and-seek at play here (sometimes literally displayed in eerie games of hide-and-seek).
Periodically, Aaron will don a creepy wolf mask (his Murder Uniform), only to assure Sara that he’s “as friendly as a rabbit.” And each time, she challenges him to remove it, literally and metaphorically, and vice versa. This is further exemplified in a fantastic scene early on in the film: they strip naked before each other, for the sake of obliterating boundaries. By removing any and all traces of artifice, they offer themselves to be molded however the other sees fit. But this is performed powerlessness. And the moments where the characters snap beneath the weight of it are the best (and scariest) bits in the film.
Duplass is phenomenal in his portrait of a psychopath. He’s at once profoundly unnerving (with a face like the Greek masks of Comedy and Tragedy) and highly sympathetic, capturing violence, grief, mania, and affection in nuanced spades. Akhavan is equally-excellent in a quietly charismatic turn as our protagonist. Sara stands at the height of badassery; this is the girl you’d find intentionally sitting alone in a high school cafeteria, reading Vonnegut. If you asked to sit next to her, she’d stare blankly at you, and you’d be all the more enamored with her for it.
So, do the beauty and the beast fall for each other here? I couldn’t tell you. That’s what makes Creep 2 so brilliant. Sara and Aaron actively manipulate each other. They lie to one another. They go out of their way to make each other feel uncomfortable. Despite all this, somewhere within this twisted act of authenticity lies the essence of the truth. The pull between them is at once frightening, beautiful, baffling, and somehow, totally understandable. And hey, what is art, if not something in between?