31 (More) Days of Fright: The People Under the Stairs

For Fool, having a shotgun shoved in his face is just another day in America.

This January, in support of the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre / Multicultural Women Against Rape, friends and family have raised over $1,500 (which, when matched by my employer, totals $3,000). As a result, I now have to watch and write about thirty-one horror movies: one each night. Any donors who contributed over $30 were given the option to choose one of the horror movies I must subject myself to. After each viewing, I will write some things about said movies on this website. Be forewarned that all such write-ups will contain spoilers, and many of them will refer to unpleasant and potentially triggering situations. Today’s film is a second Wes Craven film (I usually try to avoid duplications, folks), The People Under the Stairs, chosen by friend, writer, editor, and communications consultant Richard Johnson. I picked up The People Under the Stairs from my local video store Queen Street Video.

What happens:

Trigger warnings: racism, child abuse.

The People Under the Stairs opens with a tarot reading. Ruby (Kelly Jo Minter) lays down cards for her brother Pointdexter (Brandon Quintin Adams) and pays special attention to the “Fool” card, because that’s what everyone calls him. She says the Fool has to walk through the sun to come out the other side a man. Pointdexter, or “Fool,” feels this reading has relevance to his current situation. After all, his mother, Mary (Conni Marie Brazelton) is very ill, Ruby is turning tricks out of desperation, and his family has just been evicted from their tenement housing. The landlords are pushing them out to set up a condominium. However, Ruby’s friend (maybe lover), Leroy (Ving Rhames), has an idea of how Fool might make some money and save his family from that eviction notice. (That’s a lot of pressure for a thirteen-year-old!)

“What does Marsellus Wallace look like?”

So, what’s the scheme: Leroy and his white friend Spenser (Jeremy Roberts) robbed a liquor store and found an address: the same people who own the liquor store own Fool’s run-down apartment building, so Leroy now knows where they live. Ruby has heard some strange, scary stories about the landlords, but Leroy has heard they have a stash of gold coins. And he plans to make like a Black Mario, collect those coins until he gets a free life. We next see the family of landlords, and it seems the rumours Ruby heard were accurate. Mommy (an over-the-top Wendy Robie, doing a decent Mommie Dearest) watches the eating habits of her daughter, Alice (A.J. Langer), like a hawk to make sure she doesn’t feed “that thing in the wall.” Daddy (Everett McGill, also swinging for the fences) casually drops the N-word and beats his daughter with a belt like it’s 1910 Mississippi (rather than 1991 Los Angeles).

Leroy, Spenser, and Fool roll through the neighbourhood and study the landlords’ house: it’s large, but seems to be falling apart. Fool disguises himself as a Cub Scout to try to weasel his way inside, but Mommy doesn’t fall for his scam. Still, Fool is able to somewhat case the joint and determine the house’s doors and windows are locked from the outside-in. Spenser then attempts to get inside, dressed as a gas meter reader. Though Mommy is very hesitant to allow him inside, she eventually relents.

Waiting on the street in their black van, Leroy and Fool see the landlord and landlady leave in their black murder Cadillac, but Spenser still hasn’t returned. Leroy is convinced his partner is trying to screw him over and take all the coins for himself. He brings Fool with him as he breaks through a series of locked doors with a crowbar. Along the way, they see what looks like a large voodoo doll caught in a mousetrap. And once the final door opens, a massive Rottweiler attacks them. But thanks to Fool’s quick thinking, they trick the guard dog and manage to lock it outside.

Trying to catch them riding dirty.

Leroy and Fool observe their surroundings: nearly every cabinet in the kitchen is locked, and dust and dead flies have piled up in every corner. “Nice to see rich folks get rats, too,” Leroy jokes. (Though we soon find out that rats are not the problem.) Leroy ventures upstairs to try to find Spenser but leaves Fool – who is visibly spooked by the dilapidated house – to stand guard on the main floor. However, Fool soon finds a secret basement entrance with hidden stairs. On those stairs lie Spenser’s fake gas-man clipboard and lighter. Against his better judgment, Fool remembers Leroy’s taunts and ventures into the terrifying cellar, pulling a trip wire that traps him inside.

Imprisoned in the dank basement, he searches for Spenser with the only illumination provided by a pocket lighter. He can hear people moving within the walls. He finds an old television tuned to CNN (and the night bombing of Baghdad during Desert Storm). Eventually, he finds the corpse of someone who looks like Spenser, but must be about 50 years older. In the body’s hand is a gold coin. (They do exist!) Fool tries to pull old Spenser’s body from the wall, but something (or someone) keeps dragging it back. Suddenly, a reedy man dressed like a Road Warrior extra leaps on Fool. Fool runs upstairs to escape, but with the flip of a switch, the stairs turn into a slide, and Fool skids back down into the basement. He recovers and runs up the ramp, but the door is still locked. Suddenly, it opens, and Fool is surprised to see a girl about his age (Alice) on the other side.

Fool discovers why this film is called The People Under the Stairs.

Fool is pulled back down by his ankle, but soon kicks himself free. When he escapes the basement, the girl is gone. But he sees through the front window that the landlords have returned from their afternoon drive. He runs upstairs to warn Leroy and finds him face-down on the floor. At first, he’s afraid Leroy is dead, but he’s on the floor for other reasons: he can heard something inside the walls. Fool tells him two important bits of information: (a) the creepy homeowners are back, and (b) Spenser is dead, seemingly frightened to death. “If you thought he was white before,” Fool grimly jokes, ”you should see that sucker now.”

Seeking a way out, Fool tries the front door, but discovers – the hard way – it’s electrified. Leroy tires to bash through the windows, but he has no luck either. Mommy and Daddy, seeing that someone has broken into the house in their absence and locked the dog outside, let Prince (the Rottweiler) have first crack at the intruders. The dog soon runs to the living room and locks onto Leroy’s wrist. So Fool leads the two of them to the front door, and using his and Leroy’s bodies as a conductor, electrocutes the dog. (Science?) They head upstairs to look for hiding spots as they hear Daddy load his pistol and the doors and windows lock shut.

Rarely seen kitchen crane shot.

Leroy hides in a closet by himself but is soon terrorized by the teenager from the basement jumping out of the wall. Leroy stumbles out into the hallway and is shot to death by Daddy before tumbling down the stairs. With no other escape, Fool decides to go through a secret passage into the wall. Inside he finds a little shelter and bloody animal bones. Then, through a vent on the far side, he spots Alice. Daddy, in the hallway, fires his gun wildly at the walls while Fool escapes from the walls into the dilapidated bathroom where Alice is hiding.

After preliminary introductions, Fool learns that Alice has never been outside before: she is certain it’s not possible to leave the house. Fool asks her about the people who live under the stairs – within the walls of the basement. Alice says that her mom and dad have looked long and hard for the perfect boy child, but none of them worked out. So Daddy cut out the bad parts of the boys they kidnapped – anything that spoke, heard, or saw evil – and put them in the cellar. But they get fed and have access to flashlights, so they can’t be living all that bad. As for the person who looks like a post-apocalyptic Gomer Pyle, that’s Roach (Sean Whalen). Daddy hates Roach, because he escaped the cellar and lives inside the walls. We then see that Daddy has changed into full S&M bondage gear. He fires a shotgun at will into the walls, aiming to kill Roach.

Ving Rhames isn’t the only Pulp Fiction alumnus to appear in this movie!

While Mommy feeds the recovered Prince Spenser’s severed hand, the 5-0 roll up into the driveway, having spotted a black van wanted in connection with a liquor store robbery. Daddy changes back to his street clothes, and he and Mommy answer the police officers’ questions in the driveway. They acknowledge that it appears someone is trying to break into their house, but they have it all under control. However, when the cops leave, Mommy notices something in the rear of the van: a discarded Cub Scout uniform. There’s still a boy inside the house with their “little angel.”

Alice and Fool separate, but angry dog Prince runs upstairs traps Fool in the bathroom. Daddy then tries to blow his way through the door with the shotgun. But when he does his best Jack Torrance, Fool smashes a tile on his head. Roach pops out and pulls the cornered Fool into the wall. Daddy tosses Prince into the wall to pursue them, but Roach uses a trap door to shake the dog. When Mommy and Daddy see Prince slide down a ramp toward them, they notice a doll in the dog’s mouth: the boy has already got to Alice!

Roach, Fool, and Alice reconvene in her bedroom. Fool learns why Roach is so quiet – Daddy cut out his tongue – and learns that Alice has a hobby of making dolls to hold the souls of salesmen and robbers that her parents have killed. She’s even made one of Leroy. (Fun! Also, she works very quickly.) That’s when Mommy and Daddy break into the bedroom and bust up the slumber party fun. Daddy captures Fool, Mommy slaps Alice around ,and Roach goes into hiding after being shot at a few times. Mommy announces that things are going to the next Defcon level: “TOTAL SPRING CLEANING.”

What’s the matter? Dad got your tongue?

So what does “total spring cleaning” involve? Apparently it involves tossing Fool and Leroy’s dead body into the cellar, and forcing Alice to clean up all Leroy’s blood, like some sort of horror-themed Cinderella. Daddy accompanies the men to the basement, where he chops up Leroy’s body and tosses some of the meat to the mutants trapped in the wall. After Alice finishes cleaning the foyer, Mommy prepares a bathtub of scalding water and dumps Alice inside. Finished with feeding the people under the stairs, Daddy shoves Fool into the wall with them. The pale, vampiric boys – looking a bit like Morlocks from The Time Machine – threaten Fool, but Roach soon comes to the rescue by animating Leroy’s eviscerated corpse to scare the superstitious mutants away.

Roach hides himself and Fool in the dormant furnace (Wes Craven loves furnaces!), which is when Fool realizes his saviour has been shot. Some of Daddy’s buckshot got him in the side. Roach hands Fool some gold coins, then indicates how to reach Alice’s room, and dies. Fool scurries up to the secret entrance to Alice’s room, where Daddy is busy menacing his daughter. Fool punches the man in his groin, breaks a lamp over his head, and brings Alice with him back into the walls. Daddy run downstairs to light the furnace (and simultaneously burn Roach’s dead body) to help smoke the two kids out.

Alice and Fool journey through the walls, mindful of many booby traps set by Roach. Prince again bounds into the wall and attacks Fool. Daddy (in the hallway) hears the commotion and begins to bayonet the wall, hoping to hit the boy. But Fool turns the Rottweiler around and Daddy inadvertently stabs his own dog to death. But he doesn’t realize that’s what’s happened. When he sees the bayonet slick with blood, he assumes he’s murdered Fool and begins to do the dance of joy. It’s only when they pull open part of the wall and Prince staggers out dead that his glee evaporates.

Next up, on Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares …

Fool guides Alice up to the house’s attic where the one openable window can be found. “I never thought smog would smell so good,” Fool remarks. Unfortunately, it’s a treacherous drop from the roof, and Alice is afraid to venture out the window. However, Daddy is on the way, so Fool takes his chances and slides down the roof, falling safely into the pond in their yard. Daddy runs downstairs and fires his gun into the bushes, but Mommy, mindful of the neighbours, warns him to never shoot his gun outside.

Fool returns to his grimy apartment. His grandfather, Booker (Bill Cobbs) appraises the coins and figures Fool’s family should be good for rent for the next ten years (and then some). Grandpa Booker (who we’ve never seen before) is a veritable Wikipedia of local superstition, noting that the landlords aren’t actually husband and wife – they’re brother and sister (!) – and that family has been twisted for centuries, each generation more depraved than the last. (Where was Grandpa Booker a day earlier?) Despite that, Fool feels the need to return to the house to rescue Alice. Ruby reads his cards again and advises against it, but Fool made a promise and he’s aiming to keep it.

An anonymous call to Child Welfare on the pay phone brings the police to the landlords’ creepy house. But by the time they arrive, Mommy and Daddy are making like Ozzie and Harriet, and the house has miraculously been cleaned up, weapons have been hidden (and walls repaired of multiple shotgun blasts, I guess). Most confusingly for the police summoned there, the couple appears to have no children at all. Satisfied the call was not legit, the police depart. But Fool uses the opportunity to hide in the cabinets. He drops out when Mommy and Daddy turn out the lights for the night.

Obviously, these are not the outfits they wear when they greet Child Protection Services.

Fool arms himself with a fireplace poker and heads upstairs. He hears Mommy and Daddy saying their evening prayers, but when he reaches the source of their voices, he realizes he’s been tricked by a tape recording. Daddy – in mega-leatherdaddy mode – pops up behind Fool and seizes him. Fool gouges his eyes and attacks both adults with the fire poker, then runs into the walls. Alice, meanwhile, is hanging from the brick chimney in the attic by her arms, like she’s in a Mad Magazine cartoon. Though a series of secret passageways, Fool finds his way to the attic chimney and undoes the bolt that holds Alice. But Daddy re-enters the room, and Alice must pretend to still be manacled. The sight of Alice as prisoner gets Daddy randy (gross), and it’s only Mommy calling from downstairs that prevents something more heinous from happening.

Once Daddy leaves, Fool tells Alice that her parents aren’t her real parents. She must have been kidnapped by them as a child. They could escape via the roof again, but Daddy has already drained the pond and filled it with broken glass. In the master bedroom, Mommy and Daddy fight over Alice when they hear a stirring from within the chimney. Daddy takes a look up the flue and promptly has a brick dropped on his head. He doubles back in pain and Mommy decides to take a look for herself. Fool and Alice slide down (like Santa Claus) and crash onto the woman. They continue downward, with Fool heading to the basement to retrieve Daddy’s shotgun.

Alice has made her way to the living room, but is soon captured by Mommy who demands to know where Fool is. Alice stomps on her bare foot and tells her mother to “burn in hell.” When Mommy and Daddy meet up again, they decide that Alice has become expendable. Both of the kids loose in the house are to be killed on sight. Daddy finds Fool in the basement, and after some struggle, Daddy wrests the gun from him. He’s about to blow Fool’s head off when there’s a knock at the door. They hesitate, thinking it could be the police.

Instead of the authorities at the door, it’s the community. Ruby and Grandpa Booker have gathered the former residents of the slums that Mommy and Daddy own for a protest. Mommy first slams the door on them. While this is happening, the people under the stairs shine their flashlights in Daddy’s eyes, allowing Fool to escape. Ruby knocks on the door again. When Mommy answers, she prepares to shoot Ruby in the head, but Alice drops down from the ceiling and smacks Mommy’s skull against the floor. Daddy, in the basement, opens fire on the mutants in the wall and accidentally breaks open the lock that fences them in. They drag Fool into their pen once again. Daddy runs upstairs to escape the basement dwellers and is knocked down by Ruby and Grandpa Booker, entering the basement at the same time.

“Turn around … every now and then I fall apart!”

The people under the stairs guide Fool to a secret chamber, where he finds a stash of gold coins, paper bills, and riches worthy of Scrooge McDuck. “No wonder there’s no money in the ghetto,” he marvels. Upstairs, through some trickery, Mommy gets all the community members outside and locks all the doors once again. She chases after Alice with a butcher knife and pins her on the stairs. That’s when the mutants underneath tear through the floorboards and bite into her arm. Mommy recoils, but soon the basement mutants are breaking out of the walls and corners in every direction and attacking her. She runs to the kitchen where Alice stabs her in the stomach, then the basement captives swarm Mommy. They toss her dead body into the basement – her throat torn open – where Daddy finds her and weeps.

Fool finds something else in the vault of riches: dynamite. (What a weird place to keep it!) Daddy follows the boy into his vault and draws his shotgun on him. But Fool has the dynamite rigged to explode. It’s a tense standoff for a couple moments, but when Daddy twitches, Fool starts the explosion. The whole house goes off like a Roman candle and Daddy dies. (Fool, who was standing right beside him, remains unscathed: “I feel like a million dollars.”)

The crowd outside cheers as money blows out through the top of the roof and showers down upon them. A celebration of the oppressed tenants erupts in the streets and the cannibalistic basement dwellers secretly escape through the crowd and into the night. Ding dong, the witch is dead.

It’s raining tens. Hallelujah!

Takeaway points:

  • The People Under the Stairs is easy to read as a broad, messy, satiric screed against the greed of (primarily white) urban landlords. Remember Donald Trump in the 1980s? Craven has essentially turned him into the perverted, murderous, leather-clad Daddy of this film. The greed of property owners kicks off the film, and it’s established that these white landlords have been hoarding the ghetto’s money under their own roof. Craven aims to expose the moneyed white class of Los Angeles as a thousand times more depraved and monstrous than any Black sex worker or thief. They’re also a class that the law serves to protect: both times the police arrive, they are more concerned with Black theft of property or so impressed by a veneer of white civility that they don’t uncover the evil under their very noses. And this class division is all the more relevant that it’s set in 1991 Los Angeles. One needs only to read about the 1984 Olympics or Operation Hammer (or the great chapter on Los Angeles in Kevin Smokler’s film book Brat Pack America) and how it helped widen the already growing rift between white and Black, rich and poor in Los Angeles in the 1980s (and today) to see why.
  • Though there’s a lot about race and class warfare in America (and Los Angeles, in particular) within The People Under the Stairs, it almost seems best to treat the film as a Wes Craven fairy tale. The trappings are there: a mysterious house, wicked step-parents (of a sort), a girl named “Alice.” The film follows the folkloric journey of our pauper hero (Fool) into the evil witches’ gingerbread house where children go to die, but transports those themes and tropes to a modern, urban setting.
  • The film is allegedly based on true events. Craven wrote the story after reading a news article about burglars breaking into a house. When the authorities responded to the call, the burglars were nowhere to be found. Police instead found a terrible case of child abuse: the home owners who called for the police had kept their children locked inside their rooms for years. Does that make The People Under the Stairs scarier? Probably.
  • The actors playing Mommy and Daddy (Wendy Robie and Everett McGill) have been a couple before, though a much more pleasant one: Craven got the idea of casting them as the incestuous brother-sister after watching them work their magic on Twin Peaks as a married couple who don’t really love one another, Nadine and Big Ed.
  • Wiser people than me have noted that The People Under the Stairs is a total inversion of Home Alone, which premiered only the year prior – right down to the booby traps. In Home Alone we root for the affluent white kid as he tortures thieves in new and unusual ways. In Craven’s film, our loyalties lie entirely with the thieves. That’s because in reality, the rich homeowner isn’t an adorable moppet like Macaulay Culkin; he’s a racist, avaricious monster like Mommy and Daddy.

Truly terrifying or truly terrible?: Not terrifying, not terrible – just a weird ride that maybe shouts its themes a bit too loudly.

“I want something that says dad loves leather.”

Best outfit: Daddy’s full-body Leatherdaddy hunting outfit makes a strong statement about traditional Christian values.

Best line: “I know it’s a bother, but so is cerebral palsy.” – Fool, with an incredible charity sales pitch.

Best kill: There’s definitely something enjoyably reminiscent of the finale of Tod Browning’s Freaks in the way that Mommy dies at the hands of the many hideous basement captives.

Unexpected cameo: The actress who portrays Fool’s ailing mother, Conni Marie Brazleton, is known to millions as Nurse Connie Oligario in nearly ten seasons of medical drama, ER. And you probably know A.J. Langer (Alice) as Rayanne Graff.

Unexpected lesson learned: Before you do anything, make sure you consult with Grandpa Booker.

Most suitable band name derived from the movie: The People Under the Stairs are a successful hip-hop group that took their name from this film. But if I had to pick another band name, it would be Total Spring Cleaning.

Next up: Basket Case (1981).

31 (More) Days of Fright: Creep

On the plus side, there is a free whiskey at the top of the stairs.

This January, in support of the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre / Multicultural Women Against Rape, friends and family have raised over $1,500 (which, when matched by my employer, totals $3,000). As a result, I now have to watch and write about thirty-one horror movies: one each night. Any donors who contributed over $30 were given the option to choose one of the horror movies I must subject myself to. After each viewing, I will write some things about said movies on this website. Be forewarned that all such write-ups will contain spoilers, and many of them will refer to unpleasant and potentially triggering situations. Today’s film is one considered the first horror film in the relatively new mumblecore genre, Creep, directed by Patrick Brice (The Overnight), and chosen by ECW Press’s Digital Production Manager and Art Director Jessica Albert. You can stream Creep via Netflix (even in Canada!).

What happens:

Trigger warnings: talk of sexual assault, stalking.

Freelance videographer Aaron Franklin (director Patrick Brice) answers a Craiglist ad: $1,000 for a day of filming; discretion is appreciated. He drives to the mountaintop address: a cottage on the cliff side with a yellow door (and old-school doorbell). But no one answers, and the client has no voice mail. The only signs of life are an axe embedded in a tree stump outside. Aaron opts to wait in the car for his video subject to arrive.

The subject, Josef (a magnetic Mark Duplass), scares Aaron by banging on his car door. Dressed in his running gear, he introduces himself to Aaron (who he declares has a kind face), and announces it’s going to be a great day. Josef encircles Aaron in a big hug, then lets him into his family’s old vacation home. Then he explains the job: Josef is a cancer survivor, but a short while ago, he learned he has an inoperable brain tumour. He has two or three months left to live. His wife, Angela, is pregnant with their first child, whom he may never meet. So, just like Michael Keaton in My Life, he wants to make a video diary for his unborn kid. Aaron is to document him over the course of the day as he dispenses advice, goes about his errands, and so on.

“Rubber Ducky, you’re the one!”

Josef pays Aaron in cash, up front, and after a few high-fives and hugs, he runs up to the washroom for the first scene. Josef immediately begins to strip off his clothes, which sets Aaron at unease. Josef, however, explains: he wants to talk his future child through his first “tubby.” “It’s okay,” Josef assures Aaron. “We’re going to go a lot deeper places than this.” Josef, seated naked in the tub, then mimes playing with a child in the bathtub for an extended period of time. He concludes by confessing to Aaron that he can’t stop thinking about how little time he has left, and wonders if he should just end it now. Josef slides under the water. When Aaron leans over to make sure he’s not drowning himself, Josef leaps out of the water screaming. “Sorry! That was supposed to be a joke,” Josef apologizes, noting he has a strange sense of humour.

The next scene take the duo on a hike up the mountain, but when Aaron goes to borrow a jacket from Josef, he finds an alarming discovery in the cottage closet: a terrifying wolf mask. Josef explains the mask is just “Peach Fuzz,” a character and mask his dad made to entertain the family. He dons the wolf mask and sings a little song about Peach Fuzz to prove his point. With the wolf mask fully explained, they don matching hunter’s caps, and head out to the mountain in search of “The Miracle Waters of the Heart,” a legendary spring on the mountain supposed to possess healing powers. But it only works on the pure of heart.

Test screenings for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”

In their journey to this mythical body of water, Josef takes several opportunities to surprise and spook Aaron, saying that the experience of being truly scared is like a near-death experience. “Anybody you need to make peace with,” Josef asks his documentarian, “before you leave this world?” If that question weren’t disconcerting enough, he then asks Aaron if – when he saw the axe outside – he was worried that Josef would kill him. He’s delighted to find the thought crossed Aaron’s mind!

Their search in the woods is looking dire: they find signage for sewer pipelines more readily than natural spring water and Josef confesses to not knowing the way back. But then Josef finds an overlook and what does he find but a waterfall that cascades into a little heart-shaped lagoon! (It’s literally in the perfect shape of a heart.) They both wade in the waters up to their knees and Josef scratches “J + A” into the rock face. After the purifying waters, Josef offers to treat Aaron to a pancake lunch at local diner, Billy Bear’s.

Aaron is further unsettled when Josef seems baffled by the restaurant menu. (Didn’t his family eat here every summer?) But Josef changes the subject and asks Aaron if he’s ever done something he’s felt truly ashamed of. Aaron tells a bizarre story about his childhood history of wetting his pants. Josef uses this as an invitation to talk about his own secret (and far more recent) shame: he photographed Aaron when he first arrived at the house. Josef only pretended to not be home: he was stalking Aaron from the shadows. He says he was nervous about meeting him and apologizes for his deceit. Aaron admits he finds it weird, but he can get past it.

Affordable family fare and awkward conversation at Billy Bear’s.

Night descends and Aaron hopes to put the strange day behind him, but Josef wheedles him into staying for one drink. As they re-enter the vacation home, Josef again jumps out to scare Aaron. (It never gets old!) Over their tumblers of whiskey, Josef asks Aaron why he accepted the job. “Money problems?” he wonders. Aaron admits money hasn’t been flowing in, but declines Josef’s offer of financial assistance. Josef says he has an excess of money and is happy to help. (The funniest bit in the film is when Josef tells Aaron he’s hidden a cheque in his boot. When Aaron looks for it, Josef yells “Gotcha!” and says the fact he looked for it means he needs the money.)

Exhausted by Josef’s condescension and weirdness, Aaron starts to leave, but Josef stops him and says he needs to tell him a secret. A secret he doesn’t want on film. He asks Aaron to turn the video camera off, but Aaron leaves the audio recording. Josef then reveals the real story behind the Peach Fuzz mask. Josef did something very bad four years ago. When his internet service was slow, he checked his browser history and found a cache of sites full of animal pornography. Given he wasn’t looking at those sites, it must have been his wife, Andrea. When Josef confronted her about it, she denied it and it drove a wedge between them.

Josef later organized a little vacation for he and his wife – to the family summer home. One night, he went out for a walk and purchased a wolf mask. He broke into his own house wearing the mask, tied his wife to the bed, and proceeded to have “ravenous, animalistic sexual intercourse.” He left and neither of them mentioned the event ever again, and his internet returned to normal service. Aaron cuts off Josef’s concluding statements for the video and begins to rummage around for his car keys. Understandably, he’s in a hurry to get home. Josef is worried he may have freaked out his new friend with the story about essentially raping his own wife. Though Aaron tries to leave, his keys have gone AWOL. Josef talks him into having another drink and just staying the night.

The two men sit down for another drink and Josef feels the whiskey that Aaron poured tastes a little strange. Before long, he’s passed out in front of the fireplace, lazily fondling himself and moaning about “Peach Fuzz.” Aaron riffles through the sleeping Josef’s jacket on the hunt for his keys, but can’t find anything. However, Josef’s mobile phone rings, so Aaron grabs it and runs downstairs so it doesn’t wake Josef. Aaron answers the phone. Andrea is on the other line and recommends that he – whoever he is – leave immediately. We also learn that Andrea is not Josef’s wife, but his sister. Her brother, she cryptically reveals, has problems, and it would be best if he left.

Josef’s Dream Windbreaker.

Following the phone conversation, Aaron returns upstairs to find Josef is no longer sleeping in front of the fireplace. Aaron creeps around the house, terrified, and realizes the balcony door is ajar. He ventures outside into the dark, where Josef scares him. “Death. It’s coming,” Josef cries. “Nothing we can do.” He starts to sob uncontrollably and hugs Aaron, who he declares to be such a good friend. Aaron tells Josef that he spoke to Andrea and knows what’s going on, but he’s not angry about the lies. Josef – looking like a trapped animal – panics and rushes downstairs.

Aaron ventures down the steps after his new, unstable friend, and finds Josef with the Peach Fuzz mask on, blocking the front door. “Are you going to let me go?” Aaron asks, but the wolf shakes its head no. Peach Fuzz begins to writhe against the front door, so Aaron makes a break for it, rushing Josef and bowling him over. The video image cuts out.

When the video image returns, we see Josef trudging up a hill, draggind two heavy garbage bags. He drops them at the top of the hill and returns with a shovel and starts to dig. The camera then turns toward Aaron, who explains that – after a scuffle at the door – Josef ran away and Aaron returned home. But a few days later, he received this DVD of Josef shovelling in the mail. Aaron is a little worried that Josef knows his address, but isn’t sure what the video is supposed to mean: is Josef digging a grave? His grave? What’s in the garbage bags?

That night, Aaron makes a late-night video confession: he’s been having disturbing dreams. In them, he’s hot-tubbing with Josef in the heart-shaped natural pool, and they’re both wearing Peach Fuzz masks. The water in the pool gradually turns to blood. Next, Aaron receives a large box with no return address. He opens the box on camera (as one does) and discovers a butcher knife and another DVD inside. He puts the DVD on immediately.

Everybody loves to receive a package in the mail!

The DVD is another message from Josef, who apologizes for his last video. He also realizes that Aaron drugged him with Benadryl at the vacation home, but he’s no longer mad about it. He tells Aaron to search the box thoroughly: there’s a third gift inside. Aaron pauses the video and digs into the box further to find a wolf cub stuffed animal. Josef explains: he loves wolves because wolves love deeply. But often, they murder the things they love. (It happens.) Josef encourages Aaron to embrace his inner wolf: he tells him to murder the wolf cub with the knife and find the surprise he’s hidden there. The surprise, of course, is an engraved locket – “J & A Forever” – with their photographs inside.

Aaron does something he should have done days ago: he changes his locks and calls the police. Unfortunately, he doesn’t know Josef’s full name or address, and the police are unable to help him much. (One might point out that Aaron, in theory, has hours of video footage of Josef, which would probably make for good evidence.) Aaron’s nightmares persist. As he recounts another one on camera, he hears a large bang and freaks out. Aaron grabs his knife and turns on all the lights. As he patrols the house, we (viewers) see Josef lurking at the front door, though Aaron doesn’t see him. Aaron heads outside and slowly searches around the building, but only sees that his garbage has been torn apart – by raccoons, he presumes. (That rhymes!)

J & A Forever.

When the camera next starts recording, we seen Aaron sound asleep (so, obviously, he’s not recording this part). Josef leans in and snips a lock of hair from his head. When he awakes, Aaron discovers one more DVD, entitled “My Last Video,” inside his bedroom window. Extremely distressed, he watches the final video. Josef speaks to Aaron from the side of a lake. He went through Aaron’s trash and is disappointed that Aaron discarded the necklace he made for him. He says it sent him into a downward spiral and led him to some inappropriate thoughts. But Josef then had a realization: he and Aaron aren’t friends.

Josef confesses that he’s a liar: he’s pretended his whole life, and it’s driven away friends and family. But he hopes that Aaron’s kindness will allow him to explain in person. He asks Aaron to meet him at Lake Gregory (the spot where he’s filming) at 11 AM the next day. It’s a public spot, wide open, he notes, so there’s no need to fear. Josef says he’s just a lonely, sad person who needs a friend.

Who could say ‘no’ to this face?

Aaron pauses on the sad face of Josef and can’t help but empathize. The next morning, he drives to the lake, but keeps 911 on speed-dial and keeps the camera rolling. He then leaves the camera on the dashboard of his car and waits on a bench facing the lake. From a distance, we watch in terror as Josef silently creeps up from behind. He then puts on the Peach Fuzz mask, and pulls out an axe from beneath his coat – all unseen by Aaron, watching the lake. Without ceremony, he drops the axe onto Aaron’s head.

The video then cuts to Josef, who comments that watching the scene keeps getting better and better. He can’t imagine why Aaron didn’t just turn around or face away from the lake so he could see Josef coming. But then, he realizes why he didn’t: because Aaron Franklin is the “greatest person who has ever lived.” Josef says, “You always believed I was good,” and that’s why Aaron will always be his favourite murder victim.

Josef (in the past) then leaps in front of the car windshield and screams, scaring himself (while watching the video). The final scene of the film is Josef (now calling himself ‘Bill’) on the phone, explaining a job to a new videographer. As he goes over the details, he places the DVD of Aaron’s death in his closet, alongside dozens of other DVDs and VHS tapes, all marked with a victim’s name.

Just a calm day at the lake … wait a minute!

Takeaway points:

  • As the hosts of the popular true crime podcast My Favourite Murder say, “fuck politeness.” Creep is a horror film that demonstrates how easily people die at the hands of murderous sociopaths for wanting to appear nice. Aaron was paid up front in cash; there is no monetary reason for him to stick around, other than Josef has convinced him that he believes Aaron is a kind man, and Aaron wants to maintain that image. This is why he stays for that drink. This is why he never turns him into the police – though he doesn’t have his name or address, he literally has a day of video footage of Josef. But to rat him out to the police shatters that idealized image of a good friend. You will note that this dynamic (trying to maintain niceness) is often a gendered one (though not here in Creep). How many women have had to play nice with predators of various kinds? Either through cultural indoctrination or fear for personal safety. I imagine they, more than anyone, feel the horror embedded in the host’s push to just have “one drink.”
  • My wife Meg noted halfway through the film that this is a horror movie as awkward as it is scary. Mumblecore, a genre of which this film is an example, is all about low-budget productions with use of natural and improvised performances. And often, the situations and dialogue turn awkward (as that’s what often happens in real life). Originally this largely improvised film was intended to be a dark comedy, but after showing some scenes to friends, they were convinced to re-write and re-shoot it as horror. Part of the horror of Creep comes from the compellingly awkward figure of Josef. If he were socially adept, rather than so painfully weird and awkward, perhaps Aaron would have known how to react. Would not have felt compelled to react with such performative kindness.
  • The real enigma of the film is Andrea. There is an Andrea, though she seems to be Josef’s sister, rather than wife. But how much does she know? She knows Josef is troubled, but does he know he’s killed? And if so, is she not just as monstrous as her brother? Maybe these are questions that Creep 2 – which does exist – answers. (Don’t think I’m not watching that!)

Truly terrifying or truly terrible?: Creep genuinely spooked me. The entire film, you sort of expect what’s coming, but it’s a neat little self-contained creep-out. If it’s any indication, Creep is the only film I’ve had an associated nightmare about immediately afterward. (In my nightmare, the creep was a noted sexual predator in the book world who kept insisting I attend his cousin’s birthday party. But the scenario was otherwise quite similar.)

Josef, in a winter photo spread for Running Room.

Best outfit: Josef is looking pretty good in those form-fitting track pants and that moisture-wicking top.

Best line: “Tubby time!” – Josef, indicating the point when Aaron really should have left.

Best kill: There’s only one kill, but it’s a great one. It honestly seems like Mark Duplass maybe just killed the director of the film. (I guess that’s the magic of filming at a distance.)

Unexpected cameo: The cast literally consists of two people, but the voice of Angela, Josef’s wife or sister, is Katie Aselton, a regular actor and director of mumblecore films like The Puffy Chair and The Freebie, and Jenny McArthur on television’s The League.

Unexpected lesson learned: I was unaware you can recycle DVDs. Also, never trust a man who readily references the Michael Keaton film, My Life

Most suitable band name derived from the movie: Peach Fuzz, obviously.

Next up: The People Under the Stairs (1991).