In the years since “The Blair Witch Project” popularized found-footage theatrics, filmmakers have stretched the genre to its limits. After half a dozen “Paranormal Activity” installments, the mini-phenomenon that is “Cloverfield” and a score of interchangeable stories about devilish encounters and digital transgressions, there’s not much in this format that hasn’t been aped ad nauseam.
At least one recent addition rises above the clichés: “Creep,” the brisk indie conceived by Mark Duplass and director Patrick Brice (“The Overnight”). Currently available on Netflix, the movie premiered in 2015, inaugurating a trilogy whose second installment, “Creep 2,” premiered Tuesday on VOD platforms. (It, too, will soon hit Netflix.) “Creep” and its sequel twist the documentary-style voyeurism that characterizes found footage. No one merely happens upon unlikely horrors, nor does anyone set out to chronicle expected encounters with the supernatural. The characters double as the movies’ auteurs; they personify the audience’s anxiety.
It’s a welcome guise, as the conceit implicates the act of filmmaking. An ominous man (Duplass) hires videographers via vague Craigslist advertisements. The movies unfold from the vantage of a single amateur documentarian, sent to a remote cabin ostensibly to capture a day in the life of his or her employer, a boundary-deficient charmer who calls himself Josef. In the first “Creep,” Brice plays the summoned filmmaker, Aaron, there to record a video diary for Josef’s unborn son; in the second “Creep,” Desiree Akhavan (“Appropriate Behavior”) takes over, portraying Sara, the host of a little-seen web series that profiles lonely men.
Throughout Aaron’s nightmarish experience, during which Josef coaxes him to crash overnight at his rustic chalet, we are privy to Josef’s psyche only as it exists through Aaron’s camera lens. Our apprehension builds alongside his. Is Josef a chronic liar? An unstable murderer? A harmless charlatan? Something else altogether? By the time Sara enters this weirdo’s orbit, we know the answers to those questions. Keeping things interesting, Josef ― this time using a different moniker and disclosing his supposed childhood biography ― informs Sara of his motive upon her arrival. The tension instead boils around whether she will believe him. As the ordeal grows odder, she gives herself a pep talk in the bathroom: She’s there to revive her floundering web series, and here’s the perfect subject. Why flee now, simply because he could be a dangerous lunatic?
With a low-budget ease, the “Creep” series works because it’s pristinely calibrated and fastidiously acted. The videographers are more heard than seen, so the terror stems from disembodied voices rounding dim corners and navigating head-scratching scenarios. As viewers, we probe whether we would respond in kind. (Josef’s vulnerability and charisma convince Aaron to trust him despite Aaron’s car keys having gone missing. Sara agrees to hike with him at night even though he’s threatened to make her witness to his suicide.)
“Creep 2” doesn’t thrive the way its predecessor did. The audience’s familiarity with Josef’s demented sense of humor reduces the sting. Yet it’s still worthwhile, stretching beyond the confines of a typical horror narrative. Duplass’ uncanny mania carries these movies so handily that the chief found-footage quandary ― why anyone would keep filming amid danger; a camera seems like an impediment to self-defense ― almost vanished. These are experienced videographers, after all. If this dude’s a cad and they make it out alive, better have some footage to show for it.
As the internet swarms to assemble its annual lists of horror recommendations, I nominate the “Creep” flicks as an under-appreciated double feature. Did Brice and Duplass need to make this sequel, or its forthcoming follow-up? Probably not. But, together, they make for excellent home viewing, the lights dimmed and your voyeuristic claws gripping the cushions.