Though it may feel familiar, “The Creeping” is a slow-burn ghost film elevated by effective chills and stellar production values.
I first got a chance to check out the new British horror film The Creeping from Cryptoscope Films last fall at Cincinnati Comic-Con and was so impressed that I immediately reached out to the filmmakers personally to congratulate them on a job well done.
I had so many other projects on my plate that I had to put my review on the back burner. But now that it is being released to the public (March 3rd), I have it back on high heat.
And I am pleased to report that those who have not yet seen it are in for a real treat.
The Creeping is a ghost story that treads a lot of familiar ground. But it sets itself apart by taking the viewer to some unexpected, dark places which deal with heavy issues like grief, dementia, and sexual abuse.
In his full-length directorial debut, Jamie Hooper (who co-wrote the story with producer Helen Miles) has proven he has what it takes to lead a top-tier cast and crew.
Hooper presents his vision for a slick and terrifying cinematic tale that will stick with audiences long after their first viewing.
The movie opens with loving father Harry (Jonathan Nyati) telling his daughter Anna (Taliyah Blair) a scary bedtime story. After he leaves her to her slumber, she wakes in the middle of the night to investigate a strange noise.
As expected, this leads to a spooky encounter (the old kitchen chair moving on its own bit), prompting her to return to her room and hide under the covers (which never seems to work out very well in horror films despite the method having rescued many of us from the boogeyman in our youth).
Whatever entity is after Anna must have seen Drag Me to Hell (which wants its demon feet at the door crack scene back).
Be that as it may, it stands there breathing loudly, just like the ghost in the story her dad told her.
It then kicks the torment up a notch by rattling the door —1963’s The Haunting style — before closing in on the screaming child in a POV shot, providing a final scare before the credits and title sequence take over.
I wish I could say this was the only film I’ve watched this year that opens in almost the exact same way, complete with a ballerina music box fading into a car heading through the countryside towards an unknown destination.
But rather than dwell on the familiarity of it all, I’d like to point out a highlight of the film.
The score (by gifted young composer Stephanie Taylor) is above par and sets the tone for what is to come.
The driver of the car turns out to be an adult Anna (Riann Steele, Ant Man and the Wasp, Dr. Who).
As she arrives at her rustic childhood home, an English cottage off the beaten path, the camera slowly pans in on what was probably her bedroom window growing up, adding a welcome sense of foreboding.
Inside, Anna pensively caresses a photo of her as a child being embraced by her father. Immediately we can deduce that he has died, soon confirmed by family friend Karen (Sophie Thompson, TV’s Detectorists), who takes her to her ailing “Nan” Lucy (veteran BBC character actress Jane Lowe), an elderly woman who suffers from some form of dementia and doesn’t seem to remember Anna at first.
What is it about the tropes of music boxes and doors shutting by themselves that make them so irresistible to filmmakers who decide to tackle ghost stories?
There’s such a fine line between trotting out tired clichés as part of a formula and using tried and true techniques in a creative and compelling manner. From the beginning, The Creeping walks that line, leaving it up to the viewer to decide whether the gorgeous cinematography, nuanced performances, and other bells and whistles provide enough leverage to maintain that balance — which, at times, I found myself questioning.
But as a critic and consumer of genre films in mass quantities, I would say that most casual viewers will not be taken out of the movie as often as I was.
Tropey or not, the film’s camera work does a fantastic job of playing on the now-established idea that something evil in this home wants to “get” our protagonist.
It seems like every happy memory Anna has of her beloved father is soon interrupted by this sinister force, which creates a delicious tension that quickly builds toward a desire for answers and resolution.
This is compounded by the first of several nighttime visits from an unseen menace (coinciding with the flipping number of an old clock that must have been purchased from the same thrift shop as the one in The Amityville Horror) that slowly removes Anna’s bedclothes revealing her bare legs.
This may clue us in on a possible motivation for the supernatural entity behind the disturbances, culminating in the music box playing by itself, waking Anna to a classic bed sheet ghost breathing heavily at the foot of her bed.
Is she dreaming? Dramatic irony dictates that we know better, but Anna’s uncertainty piles onto her already elevated suspicions. Just when you think our poor, oppressed protagonist might finally get some sleep, the ghost doubles down on the scares… or does it?
Watching for the second time, I realized that the second jump scare almost gives away the whole plot, but it was so quick that I missed it at the initial viewing and expect most others will as well.
As if that weren’t bad enough, Anna’s latest strange noise investigation leads her to the kitchen, where Lucy is inexplicably scrubbing the floor in the ungodly hours of the morning.
The next day, Anna decides to dig the old baby monitor out of the garage (because, hell, everyone loves Insidious) while Karen brushes Lucy’s hair.
More dramatic irony teases the viewer.
Lucy seemingly incoherently babbles about what may actually be clues to the mystery surrounding the force at work in the house if only they weren’t written off as mad ramblings.
These are reinforced during a much-needed (and somewhat late) exposition scene in a lovely garden between Anna and Lucy, during which we learn that Lucy’s daughter Maggie died giving birth to Anna and that Lucy’s husband died not long after.
In another horrifying moment, Lucy sees something in the window on their way back into the house. But Anna chalks it up to Lucy’s fragile state of mind.
Things escalate with strange voices over the baby monitor, more decontextualized mumbling from Lucy, more slamming doors, and yet more strange happenings at night (including pictures being displaced, self-playing records, and Lucy acting more batshit crazy than ever).
This is all helped immensely by the aforementioned soundtrack.
Though at about the halfway point, savvy viewers will probably figure out what is going on and begin to experience trope fatigue.
This isn’t helped much by Lucy’s slightly hokey nod to Poltergeist with an impromptu, “He’s here.” But at least the audience knows shit’s about to get real.
The rest of the movie is a thrill ride, with several perfectly timed jump scares, mysteries, and terrible secrets revealed.
What follows is Lucy’s further descent into madness, some rather expensive-looking digital effects, a murderous ghost, and stellar performances from David Horovitch, Peter MacQueen, and Phillipa Peak — as well as Nyati, whose chemistry with young Blair in flashbacks throughout the movie are a highlight.
The writing in the final act shines, piling on the drama, the twists, the horror, and the terror.
Everything is resolved satisfyingly enough, though not without providing a final scare that I was surprised to find gave me shivers even on subsequent viewings.
Winner of Best Feature at Panic Fest and The Dark Hedges Film Festival, it’s worth watching for the goosebump-inducing writing and solid production value.
If it’s been a little while since you’ve sat down for a slow burn that delivers the thrills and chills in abundance and brings it home in the end, turn up the suspension of disbelief to 11 and let The Creeping work its magic on your nightmare fuel reserves.