Whether you like your horror extreme, baroque, or cerebral, you’ll find it in the recent spate of films made outside the United States, thanks to a soaring straight-to-DVD industry. One of these, Creep is an old-school screamer, courtesy of our friends from across the pond. A monster movie akin to forgotten classics like Hell Night and The Final Terror, Creep eschews cheeky dialogue and complicated twists, instead delivering straight-from-the-hip scares.
Creep quickly establishes a sinister mood, opening as style guru Kate (Franke Potente) ditches a late-night office social (and the advances of a cocky coworker), to go party hopping. She soon finds herself deep in the London Underground, nipping booze by herself and, predictably, missing the last train. The film briefly sputters here, with an improbable and upsetting sexual confrontation, but the darkness holds a predator far more terrifying and the film twists into some grisly, unfamiliar territory.
Caught in a fever dream of rapists, killers, and gated exits, the traumatized Kate finds small hope in Jimmy (Paul Rattray) and Mandy (Kelly Scott), homeless junkies who make the inhospitable Tube their home. Holed up in a spacious heating vent with their dog, they initially balk when Kate pleads for help, fearing reprisal from the overnight station supervisor, with whom they have a tacit agreement to “live and let live.”
Here as elsewhere, Kate’s confrontations with the city’s homeless illustrate her lack of sympathy for those less fortunate. She derides them with snide remarks (“If you want change, why don’t you hang around a phone box?”), reluctantly buys a train pass from one, then demands safe passage out. Disdainful until overtaken by desperation, Kate appears to be the film’s primary “creep.”
Writer/director Christopher Smith’s first feature is surprisingly assured. Lingering shots build tension, as do haunting perspectives of the Tube’s otherworldly look, with focus on ominous low arches, ambiguous sewage tunnels, and oppressive crawlspaces.
In a documentary included on the DVD, Smith admits to using less-than-ethical tricks to solicit performances, like freaking out first-time actor Scott by filming a longer, more violent take of one scene than what he had promised. Sean Harris, who plays the “monster” Craig, secretly colluded with Smith (on this and other stunts) to create anxiety on set. Perhaps best known for his portrayal of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis in 24 Hour Party People, for this role Harris never broke character during production, isolating himself and upsetting much of the cast. In the documentary, Potente and Scott credit the method actor for escalating their sense of dread.
Craig becomes a surprisingly complex character: his life underground, absent light, language, and love, has turned this pale boy into an animal. He howls and hisses like a screeching train, moves dexterously through a maze of tunnels that would confound Daedalus, and hunts with cunning and ferocity. But he also retains an unusual curiosity. At times Craig seems almost sportive, as if playing hide and seek with his quarry. In one particularly frightening scene, he plays doctor to a squirming drug user, but his behavior appears less sadistic than a warped cry for human connection and purpose—this even as he deploys an awkward embrace while suffocating a victim.
At its core, Creep speaks to abandonment: Kate abandons her colleagues, London abandons its homeless. Alienated from society—and each other—these characters find solace in vodka, heroin, even murder. The Underground provides a fitting environment for their disconnectedness, labyrinthine, mechanical, and claustrophobic. In the empty Tube complex, cries go unheard and lives are forgotten. Closed-circuit cameras spy on activities, but no one’s really watching.
Credit for choosing such an effective setting should go to Smith, who, according to the featurette, developed an obsession with the Underground after seeing An American Werewolf in London. He was granted unprecedented access to decommissioned train stations, only to face controversy over his representation of the commuter complex. Punctuated with unnatural light, swarming rats, and sewage leaks, the Tube came with a readymade nasty climate. Potente complains that, during the shoot, “You couldn’t sit down anywhere.”
Smith loses points for a few contrivances (the boxcar showdown between Kate and Craig is especially frustrating), but comes up with a clever ending that puts the successful socialite in the very place we least expect to see her. Creep shows there is a thriving undercurrent of independent horror outside the U.S. And it will keep me off the Tube for a year.