Smallscreen platforms doubtless will be the primary showcases for “Creep,” a slow-burning found-footage suspenser with some mildly clever twists and a knockout payoff. But any genre fan who’s able to catch this sporadically unsettling indie with a festival or theatrical audience probably should jump at the chance to do so, if only to savor the jolt of shared frisson each time a methodical build-up leads to a nasty surprise. The overall game plan recalls the “Paranormal Activity” series — not surprisingly, considering Jason Blum, producer of that franchise, signed on for this project as well.
More or less a two-hander for co-stars Patrick Brice and indie-cinema multihyphenate Mark Duplass, who reportedly improvised from a jointly written bare-bones outline under Brice’s direction, “Creep” is the sort of thriller that demands evasions and vagueness from any reviewer who doesn’t want to spill beans or spew spoilers. Suffice to say that the plot pivots on the misadventures of a videographer, Aaron (Brice), who accepts an offer of $1,000 to record the last testament of Josef (Duplass), an aggressively engaging fellow who says he’s dying of inoperable brain cancer, and wants to leave some messages behind for his unborn son.
Right from the start, “Creep” primes viewers to suspect that nothing is what it seems. Indeed, even before Aaron actually begins shooting Josef’s monologues, he comes across as dangerously naive, if not downright clueless, simply by agreeing to spend a long day alone with a much-too-ingratiating stranger in and around a cabin in a remote mountain town. Sure enough, there’s an entirely predictable revelation of deception around the midway point. But then something else happens, followed by some other, far more unexpected things.
As creative collaborators, Brice and Duplass borrow from a variety of sources, and specifically acknowledge in a dialogue exchange the influence of Bruce Joel Rubin’s “My Life,” the 1993 tearjerker in which Michael Keaton movingly portrayed a terminally ill man intent on leaving videotaped messages for his offspring. Unlike that warm-and-fuzzy movie, however, “Creep” takes a cold-and-calculating approach to matters of mortality.
The thriller conceivably could have been more effective if Duplass’ performance were a shade more ambiguous, and the audience had a chance to at least fleetingly believe Josef might be telling the truth. But never mind: Despite the blatancy of his character’s ulterior motives, Duplass scores a considerable impact by making the most of the aforementioned plot twists. Likewise, Brice elicits a fair amount of sympathy, despite the movie’s implicit suggestion that Aaron ultimately gets pretty much what he deserves.
Tech values are adequate to the task of sustaining the found-footage gimmick. It should be noted, however, that, judging from the evident p.o.v. of some shots, the filmmakers didn’t always feel duty-bound to play by the rules of the game they chose to play.