Why Creep 2 Isn’t Actually a Horror Movie

Mark Duplass in Creep 2. Photo: Blumhouse Productions

When Patrick Brice and Mark Duplass began work on Creep 2, they faced a fundamental problem. The first Creep told the story of underemployed videographer Aaron (Brice) who answers a Craiglist ad posted by Josef (Duplass): $1,000 for a day of filming, discretion is appreciated. As the day goes on, Josef’s behavior becomes more and more erratic, and Aaron grows increasingly freaked out; the central tension of the movie comes from trying to figure out what, exactly, Josef’s deal really is. By the time that — spoiler alert for this movie from 2014 — Josef drives an ax into Aaron’s head, it’s pretty clear what’s going on: dude’s a serial killer.

Creep was a fascinating film for a number of reasons, including Duplass’s remarkable subversion of his typical onscreen persona, and the deft pacing and touch for escalation Brice demonstrated in what was essentially his filmmaking debut (released literally the same week as his other first movie, sex comedy The Overnight, which Duplass and his brother Jay executive-produced). But the uncertainty at the heart of it was key. Unlike most horror movies, in which the issue at hand isn’t whether there’s a real threat, but whether anyone will survive it, Creep continuously hinted at the possibility that it might not be a horror movie at all — that Josef might just be a weirdo, that Aaron could escape unscathed. When Netflix asked Brice and Duplass if they’d want to make another Creep, though, they knew that cat was out of the bag, meaning they needed to figure out a new method of maintaining the original’s idiosyncrasy and high stakes. Most sequels get to go back to the well; Creep had to find another well entirely.

The genesis of the franchise was as idiosyncratic as its style. Brice and Duplass met when Brice’s wife started babysitting for Duplass’s children; at the time, Bryce was a recent transplant to Los Angeles and a graduate student at CalArts’ filmmaking program, with the ultimate goal of making documentaries. Duplass and Brice started hanging out as friends, and though they didn’t set out with any intention of collaborating, their conversations eventually led to the idea of making Creep, combining Brice’s documentary instincts and techniques with Duplass’s knack for subversion, spontaneity, and eccentricity. In the grand tradition of Duplass collaborations like Charlie McDowell’s The One I Love, they didn’t wait for funding or a perfectly fine-tuned script: They took a camera out to the woods and made a movie.

A few years later, the situation had changed. Since Creep and The Overnight, Brice has directed the popular James Van Der Beek episode of Duplass’s HBO series Room 104, and been commissioned to do multiple episodes of the show’s second season. When Brice and Duplass had first worked together, they’d barely known each other; since that shared experience, they’d developed a deep emotional and professional bond. Combined with the film’s low overhead and the complete reveal at the end of the first Creep, that bond allowed them to move in a significantly new direction.

“The idea for this movie came from Mark and I reckoning with the fact that the payoff of the first movie gave away anything that we would hope to continue as a mystery,” Brice told me over coffee in northeast Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife and baby. As they batted around ideas, Brice brought Duplass the work of a video artist that he was a fan of named Laurel Nakadate, who would go make films in the apartments of the men that approached her on the streets of New Haven. “She would put herself in these semi-dangerous positions and film herself in a schoolgirl outfit or doing a dance routine to a Britney Spears song in these guys’ apartments,” Brice said. “Part of the tension of watching these vignettes she would make is just knowing that she’s maybe putting herself in danger. I just thought that would be a great inroad into providing the justification for someone actually spending time with Mark’s character, and it would allow us to let him be completely honest, and let the audience be in on his honesty. Hopefully, it would also let the audience fear for this person and not be mad at her for sticking around.”

The work of Nakadate turns up in Creep 2 as “Encounters,” a web series in which Sara, played by Desiree Akhavan, answers Craigslist ads posted by lonely men, going to their apartments with the aim of creating intimacy — all of which would be captured by her camera. Unfortunately, these videos end up being less voyeuristically risqué and more casually depressing, and Sara becomes desperate for the kind of encounter that might contain the genuine thrill of danger that she’s seeking for the series. Enter Duplass’s character, now going, curiously, by the name of Aaron, who posts a Craigslist ad that Sara answers.

Right off the bat, Brice and Duplass do away with any possibility of returning to the dynamic of the first film. In the cold open, Duplass’s character cuts the throat of a hapless victim played by Karan Soni, making it unambiguous that he’s a killer. And in his first seen with Sara, he tells her that he’s a serial killer, and that he’d like her to make a documentary about him. “That was us acknowledging, this guy’s a killer,” Brice says. “He’s a lot more manic in this movie, he’s a lot more talkative in this movie, he’s a lot more forthcoming in this movie with information that may or may not be true, and that was part of what we were trying to do. We wanted to do that thing where we’re giving you what you want, but it also might not be what you want.”

To do that, Brice expanded on the genre melding that played such a major role in the first movie. For the most part, Creep 2 consists of the footage Sara captures on her camera during her encounter with Aaron; Brice often held the camera so that Akhavan could focus on acting. If the first film constantly balanced on the knife’s edge between horror and not horror, Creep 2 essentially keeps saying, “You think you’re watching a horror movie, but you’re not.”

Jump scares are called out, murder-y setups are acknowledged, and Sara becomes a much different avatar for the audience than your typical horror protagonist. Rather than the object of our fearful concern, the vulnerable damsel in distress — a role that Brice’s character occupied in the first one — she’s the stand-in for our sense of curiosity, questioning why Aaron does what he does, what drives him to it, and whether, after all, he’s telling her the truth about being a serial killer. Through the vehicle of her voyeuristic interest, and Aaron’s openness with her, Brice and Duplass don’t just provide the means for making a sequel; they give themselves a completely new blueprint to work from in playing out the interaction between the two characters. Her disbelief is so genuine, and Duplass’s honesty so disarming, that you start to wonder whether this all might be some big misunderstanding, an art project gone horribly wrong. In fact, Brice said that audiences at test screenings kept telling him that, like Sara, they didn’t believe Aaron was a killer — despite having just watched Aaron kill somebody.

“It was like, you saw him point-blank brutally murder someone in the movie!” Brice says. “But that was nice, because it meant that at least people were onboard and it was working, this weird subterfuge that’s going on between these two people.”

All of this serves to get around the fact that we know the truth about Aaron. Creep kept asking the question, “Could this guy possibly be a serial killer?” With that answered, Creep 2 shifts its focus to, “Why is this guy a serial killer?” In doing so, it delves deeper into the concept of why we’re interested in serial killers in the first place. (In fact, Creep 2 makes a good double feature with some episodes of David Fincher’s Mindhunter, also on Netflix.) Brice agrees that, fundamentally, Creep 2 isn’t a horror movie: “I know it’s going to be marketed that way, and that’s fine, and I know a lot of horror fans like it, and that’s great. But when I think of a horror movie, I think about classic horror films. I think this is an experimental film: That’s our mind-set going into them. They feel like weird art movies that are playing with genre, and that genre just happens to be horror.”

In fact, Brice feels like Creep 2 is almost closer to romantic comedy than horror — romantic comedy fused with the techniques of Michael Haneke, especially Funny Games and Caché. Of course, to make that work, the character alongside Aaron needed to be just as interesting as he was, and casting a woman in that role further distanced the sequel from the original.

“We knew we were wading into dangerous waters even having a female character in this movie,” Brice says. “Once you put a woman in a horror movie, there are all of these tropes and all this history you’re kind of fighting against, or hopefully considering when you make that decision, especially when the killer is a man and the protagonist is a woman. For this movie, I think wanting to have someone who was — not equally as fucked up as the guy, but who definitely had an element of questionable intent was important to us. Because it would do a disservice to that character if we just showed her as an innocent: We had to hopefully create a real core motivation for her being there and also set up a conceit where not only is she there because she has to be, she’s there because she wants to be, too.”

Casting Akhavan helped address some of these concerns. First of all, she’s a writer herself, and she would constantly question the character Brice and Duplass had created and help refine her as they went along. Second, her presence as an actor both connected Creep 2 back to the first movie and pushed it in a direction further away from horror.

“One of the pluses, I think, of having Desiree specifically, and also in how it related to me in the first movie too, is just the simple physicality,” Brice says. “I think Desiree is actually taller than Mark, and I was taller than Mark in the first movie. Desiree is a very strong presence with a very deep voice, and I think having that up against someone like him, the hope was that that would throw people for a loop a little bit in terms of whether or not they’re scared for her in that situation. [Sara] is smart, she’s in grad school— she’s well aware of the situation he’s putting herself in.”

All of this adds up to a sequel that successfully takes the conclusion of the first movie, a conclusion that other filmmakers might’ve seen as complete, and complicates it to a point that opens up countless potential directions for the franchise to go in the future. If Creep wanted you to consider just how far the horror genre could be stretched and still remain horror, Creep 2 freely acknowledges that horror is just the starting point, then delights in stuffing that framework with surprises, digressions, and new ideas, delivering a film that’s simultaneously more cerebral and more heightened than its predecessor. At least one thing remains the same between the two films, though.

“I feel the exact same way I did before we released the first movie,” Brice says. “I really have no fucking idea what the public is going to think about it.”

Why Creep 2 Isn’t Actually a Horror Movie