Wednesday, March 1, 2017

'Creepy' (2016) Movie Review

It’s a bold choice to title a horror thriller Creepy. But with that overt wink to the audience, Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Pulse, Cure, Tokyo Sonata) dives right into a Hitchcockian tale of psychopaths and serial killers.

Though there are definite narrative issues and few gaping questions that left me asking, “But what about…” as the credits rolled, Kurosawa is a master at manufacturing tension. And with compelling performances from a strong core of actors, he deftly combines the DNA of detective stories, psychological chillers, and domestic dramas, all in the skin of a horror movie. His auteurist skill shines through and propels the film even when it could otherwise falter.

Creepy revolves around Koichi Takakura (Hidetoshi Nishijima), a former detective who, following an on-the-job trauma, moves to the suburbs with his wife, Yasuko (Yuki Takeuchi), and turns to teaching criminal psychology at a local university. For a life where his primary concerns are serial killers and violence, his life is mundane and he is, of course, immediately bored out of his skull. When a former colleague, Nogami (Masahiro Higashide), asks for his help on a mysterious cold case, Takakura jumps at the chance. While this goes on, Yasuko, also bored and isolated and neglected, meets their weirdo neighbor, Nishino (Teruyuki Kagawa), and the two threads may be more related than they initially appear.

Kurosawa sets Creepy up as a mystery. Takakura and Nogami dig into the six-year-old case, uncovering new clues and evidence. As the title implies, Nishino is certainly creepy, but is he just an awkward dude with no social skills and tact or is there something more sinister going on? Is there a connection between the investigation and their new neighbor, or is Takakura simply so inundated with crime and psychopathy in his daily life that he’s paranoid and sees it everywhere?

But while Kurosawa lays out the story this way, at roughly the halfway point, Creepy makes a dramatic shift. Kurosawa answers all these questions and the plot switches from mystery to cat and mouse thriller. While the transition is a bit jarring, from this point on is actually where Creepy becomes most interesting.

The early going is fine, but it tends to drag and goes on for too long. A few too many scenes hammer home Nishino’s strangeness. They’re legitimately awkward and unsettling to watch—to the point where it’s difficult to look without cringing—but they don’t always move the plot forward, and the pace drops as we revisit similar points. And while Kurosawa’s craftsmanship—sweeping camera moves, adept use of architecture and interiors—keep things from becoming stale, there’s little in the way of innovation or elements audiences haven’t seen before. Designed to be a slow burn, it comes perilously close to burning out.

It’s the shift that injects Creepy with life, and the narrative veers off the well-trod path into new territory, leaving the simple police procedural trappings behind. The story takes legitimately unexpected turns, Kurosawa uses disquieting imagery—think vacuum packed corpses—to further discomfit the audience, and in general it becomes more unique and persuasive. Kurosawa hits his stride here, reminding us all how great he can be working in horror.

The cast does an admirable job. Hidetoshi Nishijima gives Takakura a stoic exterior that belies the raging boredom underneath. He truly comes to life when he’s on the job, single-minded and driven, but we also see what the does to his marriage. Yuko Takeuchi’s Yasuko is similar to her husband in that the exterior, the front she puts up, hides her true feelings, and her frustration and loneliness seethe just below the surface.

Teruyuki Kagawa, however, is the real star of the show. All toothy grins and humble deference, Nishino has the kind of smile that looks like he’s trying to find a place to sink his fangs into your neck. He’s disconcerting in every way, and like I said, he’s so painfully awkward that it’s hard to look at him at times. He makes my skin crawl in a way few movie villains ever have, and it’s not even in the “shocking” moments, it’s the quiet discomfort that truly unsettles.

While it takes its damn sweet time to get where it’s going, Creepy is ultimately a ride worth taking. Macabre and suspenseful, Kurosawa gets under your skin and settles in for the long haul, leaving questions unanswered—in both an effective and frustrating manner—and a creeping sense of dread. [Grade: B]

Creepy is now available on DVD and video on demand platforms.

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