Josef (Mark Duplass) has a penchant for scaring people. With love. It’s kind of an eye roll worthy thing, actually. On the behest of his invitation, Aaron (director Patrick Brice) brings him camera, under the assumption he’ll be filming Josef’s time capsule video for his as yet unborn son Buddy. And, as always when following up with a Craigslist ad, there’s something off. Josef is weird. Josef is odd. With his overbearing saccharine personality that often manifests in inappropriate hugs, lack of awareness of others’ personal space, and explicit outpourings of affection, Josef is kind of a creep. Maybe more implicitly, a straight guy’s nightmare.
Brice’s film, Creep, places Aaron and Joe in situations where their dynamic must evolve, the film’s narrative trajectory contingent on the time that the two spend together in the latter’s cabin in the woods and to what degree power is allowed to shift between the two. For the most part, it’s in the hands of Josef, who’s illustrated by Duplass as too off kilter to be ineffectual enough to not be jarred by. There is clearly something to be suspicious of, and yet, with Duplass’s warm smile and adorable face, there’s something appealing about him all the same. not completely nonthreatening, but intriguing. Like a teddy bear that might kill you.
Aaron in comparison is rugged looking, not a bad guy, and not someone who would overtly consider himself bigoted or prejudiced. It might be slightly unfair of me to indict him, or Brice for that matter, so strongly, but it’s the casual nature of the film’s latent and explicit homophobia that’s troublesome. Aaron trades in being a blank slate, one that can easily be projected onto. He’s the one with the camera, after all, drawn as generically as possible.
The tension of the film is split between two methods: the jump scare, where Josef is inclined to randomly jump out and scare Aaron; and the “let’s make him uncomfortable” method. Through conversation, Josef steadily crosses boundaries, his tone of voice too ambiguous to be completely well meaning.
He asks Aaron what’s the most shameful moment he’s ever experienced, and Aaron recounts his childhood problem with urinating. On a quest to find a mythical river, where only the “pure of heart can partake”, Josef fosters a kind of homosocial intimacy that Aaron becomes more and more disturbed by. When they finally find this river, the two hug, seem happy, etc. but none of it really feels authentic, from either end. Even Josef’s effusive nature, always telling Aaron how much Josef values him, is presented as odd and unwanted. Josef offers Aaron a hug the moment he arrives at the beginning of the film, and even that seems to set Aaron on edge. The bathtub scene, where Josef performs the role of the father, almost in an androgynous sense — the act of giving his son a “tubby” is actually genderless — reveals an inauthentic vulnerability that also feels odd to Aaron.
How do we know this? Because Aaron is our audience surrogate. Utilizing the found footage style of filmmaking, everything that jars, weird out, or upsets Aaron affects us in turn. There’s a sort of sly absurdist element to the film, awkward comedy occasionally slipped in. It isn’t there to alleviate tension, it’s there to exacerbate it.
Intentional or otherwise, what we have here is Gay Panic: The Horror Movie. It’s typically every archetypal straight man’s nightmare to be lured to a place in the middle of nowhere under the impression that a deliberate job will be done, only to be shocked and appalled that the person they’re meeting will threaten their masculinity and assault them, or become obsessed with them.
Brice takes the latter route, presenting the wolf as his primary metaphor: “I love wolves. because they love deeply, but they don’t know how to express it, and they’re often very violent and, quite frankly, murder the things that they love, and inside of the wolf is this beautiful heart.” The threat of the gay isn’t exclusive to the effeminate fairy: Judith Anderson’s Mrs. Danvers leers at Joan Fontaine’s naive second Mrs. de Winter in Hitchcock’s Rebecca, embodying an iconography of frigidness, the Dangerous Lesbian. But Josef’s threat against Aaron’s (presumed) heterosexuality exerts itself as sensitivity, an unapologetic confrontation of emotions that Aaron explicitly avoids, outside of fear and annoyance.
So often, gay panic takes the form of lazy comedy, and Creep‘s absurdist streaks of humor don’t completely set it apart. It’s both disconcertingly honest about its feelings of threat and vulnerability in the face of the queer man, and yet ways to play some of it off like a joke. It’s the horror film equivalent of saying “no homo”.
The revelation that Josef raped his wife while wearing a wolf mask — named Peachfuzz — doesn’t clear the tension, nor the homoerotic danger of the situation. Instead, Josef morphs into an archetype emblematic of heterosexual males’ greatest fear: their own form of animalistic masculinity used against them.
Their basically abusive relationship continues to escalate, Aaron receiving packages containing different DVDs (also found footage), a knife, and a stuffed wolf that has a locket buried deep within. Aaron reaches through the backside of the baby wolf for the locket, apparently representative of penetrative anal sex, and the necklace is monogrammed with a heart and “J + A Forever”, with their pictures on the inside.
The antidote to Creep‘s nightmarish vision of heterosexual masculinity under threat is Gregory Jacobs’ Magic Mike XXL, where homosociality is not only normalized, it celebrated, devoid of the toxicity that frequently permeates similar situations.
Yes, to be fair, given the circumstances and this specific scenario, Aaron has every right to be worried. But the dynamic that’s articulated in this film is emblematic of a pretty specific kind of defensiveness. Josef is weird, and othered, because he acts and performs in ways that are codified as atypical and even sometimes antithetical to traditional heterosexual masculinity. His technique of luring someone in the way that he does isn’t terribly unlike that of Jeffrey Dahmer or John Wayne Gacey. To be fair, the film is often very effective formally, lingering in silences and dark spaces. But the darkest aspect to this film isn’t its clever way of navigating through digital intermediates and mediums, but rather what it says about a compulsive fear of queer men and casting them as killer. It’s anxieties about gayness remind one of A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge, where queer identity is meant to be suppressed, kept under wraps lest the real world be exposed to it and all of its dangers. But films like these, so averse to characters that perform in atypical ways ask the question, Who’s the creep now?