One of the great joys Trista and I share is checking out world cinema. Admittedly, we have a bit of a bias toward Asian films. Even before we were dating we enjoyed that part of the world and the arts we managed to see emerge from it. As we dated and married, we shared a lot of flicks together including classics from Kurosawa, modern fare from Miike, Park, John Woo, Jackie Chan, and many, many others. Later, we would even vacation in Japan (two of them, in fact). As of this writing, that group of islands is the only place I have visited outside North America.
So, when we were grabbing the opportunity to write a movie column together, we took our love of world cinema and our love for suspenseful, scary flicks and merged them. Although we would dip into domestic fare, it was often of the art house variety instead of the blockbusters. Thanks to some great programming in our city’s Alamo Drafthouse, we got the chance to see Train to Busan (2016) or The Wailing (2016) on the big screen long before they appeared on Netflix. This is a trend that continues in our Considering Stories offerings. Sure, we have done pieces on blockbusters like Black Panther (2018), but more often than not we shine a light on less obvious and sometimes overlooked pieces. We still enjoy catching Asian cinema when possible (though the chances are greatly reduced ever since Wee Eleanor came into our lives), and when given the chance to program a picture for the Alamo Drafthouse’s Graveyard Shift series here in Houston, (a horror film every Friday night!) I was pleased as punch to choose Miike’s touching and grueling Audition (1999).
So when we got the chance to catch a thriller from Kurosawa Kiyoshi (no relationship to filmmaker Kurosawa Akira) back in ’18, we were excited. Kurosawa is a filmmaker who uses the stuff of suspense in unique ways, crafting memorable exercises in the ghastly and the spine-chilling, which also manage to play with a lot of elements often left on the cutting room floor in American thrillers. Creepy (2016) turns out to be a supernatural-free exercise (or perhaps not completely free . . .) that falls into the quirky sensibilities employed by American auteurs such as David Lynch. It nevertheless manages to so very Japanese, playing on the ideas of community, neighborliness and how certain, sociopathic individuals can manipulate the social programming hammered into its contributing members from early ages.
We hope you enjoy this trip both into the art house as well as down our memory lane. The film is still widely available and worth tracking down. It’s another gem in a career studded with priceless stones.
Alamo Cinema Massacre Presents: Creepy
By Daniel R. and Trista K. Robichaud
Synopsis: After a violent encounter with a captured serial killer, Detective Takakura (Nishijima Hidetoshi) retires from duty, moves his wife Yasuko (Takeuchi Yuko) to a lovely home in a more spacious neighborhood, and discovers a new satisfaction teaching courses in criminal psychology. However, he soon learns that being a Detective is more than a career choice, it is a state of mind that cannot be left behind easily. When an interest in a cold case connects to some strange events in his decidedly standoffish new neighborhood, the world turns increasingly sinister. Kurosawa Kiyoshi, the writer and director responsible for several excellent Japanese horror and thriller films, including Kairo (remade in the States as Pulse in 2001), Charisma (1999), and Cure (1997), presents an unsettling true crime story with Creepy (2016).
Kurosawa Kiyoshi’s Creepy is an interesting film, which straddles a lot of genre lines. It is kind of a thriller, kind of a horror picture, and informed by a true crime story, and yet it is none of these things completely. What Kurosawa has given audiences is a quintessentially Japanese study of the eeriness of manners, mannerisms, and how people who deviate too far from our societal expectations are not only off-putting but potentially dangerous.
The core story has the feeling of a stage play, taking place on a street with three dwellings. We have our new family arriving in the corner house. Two doors down lives a standoffish older woman uninterested in saying hello, much less respecting the Takakura family’s neighborly hospitality. Standing in the middle of the street and the centerpiece of the events that take place on it waits the Nishino home.
Set back behind a fence, the Nishino house is in a constant state of repair or construction. Of the Nishino family, we initially see the family patriarch (played with delightful eeriness and comic timing by Kagawa Teruyuki), an odd fellow who is either socially inept or simply rude. Then, we meet his daughter Mio (Fujino Ryoko) who seems quiet. The wife Taeko (Misaki Saisho) remains off camera for a while, suffering from an unspecified illness.
While plenty of events occur outside this street, including a storyline following Takakura’s investigation into a closed missing persons’ case, the heart of the story is presented in these units. The crime/horror storylines in Creepy are drawn to this area. In fact, the events preceding the story and those to which the story progresses take place in reflections of this street and its three houses. Similar to how Stanley Kubrick redressed the US Marine Corps basic training barracks location for Full Metal Jacket‘s (1987) final, harrowing scene in a bombed out building in Hue, Kiyoshi Kurosawa redresses this street, the buildings, and its attendant characters for the past and present events in Creepy.
I call this a quintessential Japanese picture because it takes for granted the rather strict social dynamics respected in that culture. Part of the eerie atmosphere is watching how easily the social contracts are strained or altogether broken. Some of the nuances may be lost on viewers who are not familiar with these cultural touches. However, there are plenty of other elements to keep an international audience’s interests locked onto the story. The cinematography, Habuka Yuri’s musical score, the atmosphere, and mystery drew me in immediately and carried me through.
Creepy (aka Itsuwari No Rinjin, literally False Neighbor) certainly lives up to its title. Speaking from my not-perfect outsider’s perspective, Japanese society socializes people to politely go along with the collective good and to stay within their roles. In normal civilized life this can be a great advantage, but Nishino exploits these cultural urges to his own selfish desires. Nishino moves through social situations gracelessly, sometimes displaying learned behavior for situations that makes other characters relax. At other times he clearly hits a social uncanny valley of erroneous but honest responses that make other characters deeply uneasy.
It is obvious something is wrong with the guy when he first appears. Part of the mystery is finding out just how bent he is and what form that twistedness takes.
For example, when the Takakuras first come calling offering a happy-to-meet-you present of homemade chocolate candies, Nishino can’t be bothered to answer the door. When Yasuko returns alone and leaves the candies on the gate, Nishino comes out to see what they are, and is clearly more interested in the gift than in Yasuko. However, when Nishino next encounters Yasuko he is full of fulsome praise for her prowess in the kitchen… and contrives a way to get himself invited to supper. Nishino is always a little too friendly, a little too forward, a little too openly selfish, apologizing only when he sees others retreat in confusion.
There was a great interview with writer/director Kurosawa at rogerebert.com, where he mentions that he approached the Nishino character as a monster born from “thin relationships in the local community” as well as a traditional Japanese folklore “spirit who lives between a forest and a village”. That is a fascinating juxtaposition of ideas from which to approach the character. It presents some intriguing information about not only the character but many of the choices for visuals presented in the film.
This is not a supernatural horror piece by any stretch of the imagination. However, there are some spooky images and sequences that suggest at larger forces at play. One of the most breathtaking of these is a wind gust whipping through the plants surrounding and plastic draped over parts of the Nishino house. These winds seem to emerge from the house itself and push toward the gate and the street, grating the property a surreal, otherworldly property. Nishino himself demonstrates that same quality. He is truly from Outside the comfortable world the Takakura’s call home.
Aside from his new neighbors, Takakura is settling into a new job at the local university teaching criminal psychology, specializing in serial killers. (He is shown describing Robert Hansen, an American serial killer from Alaska, to his students.) One of Takaura’s new coworkers (Takashi Sasano) interests him in a serial killer cold case in his database, and implores the ex-detective to explore the house. In the course of their investigation they find shrink-wrapped corpses in the house next door. This naturally catches the attention of Takakura’s old department, and Nogami (Masahiro Higashide) assists the two professors in their unofficial investigation.
There is some understated family drama in Creepy. Yasuko is clearly glad Takakura has retired from being a detective, and resents his continuing interest in dangerous crimes. She also appears happy to have her own house in a nice new neighborhood, but feels incredibly isolated when these neighbors prove unfriendly jerks. Her relationship with her husband is a bit strained, and she has a meet-cute moment with Nishino that could have come straight from a romantic comedy. Unfortunately for Yasuko she’s in the wrong genre! Yuko Takeuchi plays Yasuko as worn and lonely, easy prey for a manipulator to move in upon. Furthermore, Takakura doesn’t confide his suspicions about Nishino to his wife, probably because he doesn’t want to admit that he can’t turn off his detective-brain even though he’s moved to the suburbs. This relationship between Yasuko and Nishino turns ominous – but to go on would be to spoil it, eh Daniel?
Actually, it turned ominous well before their meet-cute and the subsequent secret friendship. During initial scenes, Nishino invites Yasuko into the house to meet his wife. However, daughter Mia gives a subtle shake of the head and a look of dull-eyed horror that combines with the claustrophobia-inducing camera angles and house design to amplify Nishino’s eeriness. That whole moment gets sinister. Afterward, Nishino warns Takakura to control his wife, in another disturbing moment.
I really liked the way Kurosawa pulled the two initially separate storylines into one sinister whole. I found it masterfully done. I suppose we should tack on a SPOILER ALERT at this point.
I’d say that’s warranted.
As far as cinematic serial killers go, Nishino is definitely broken in a very Japanese manner. Other serial killers, like Mickey and Mallory from Natural Born Killers (1994) were enraged by childhood abuses and go on dramatic revenge road trips. Nishino appears free from overweening wrath and is perhaps defined by cowardice – or at least a desire not to get his hands all icky and gross. Unlike Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and titular Hannibal (2001), Nishino is not a highly educated amoral predator/artist with questionable culinary tastes. Nishino has no artistic statements to make, no macabre whimsies to leave the authorities. He’s content to move through life lazily, eating Japanese convenience foods and watching jellyfish nature shows on TV. He has his corpses shrink-wrapped to contain the mess and drugs his victims to make them more pliable – but doesn’t seem to understand or care how the drugs really work.
Nishino is perhaps most similar to Aileen Wuornos from Monster (2003). In Monster we get to see Aileen’s adoption of her new career as a survival strategy. We don’t see this backstory with Nishino, but we sense that he too can’t function in a salaryman’s suit and needs to find another niche to survive. He’s broken, but he’s learned that he can abuse the Japanese social contract to further his own survival and enjoy a relatively comfortable lifestyle.
Actually, the movie I initially thought of was Audition (1999). However, Creepy is more like a bookend to Audition. Here, as in Miike Takashi’s film, we have an awkward character intruding on the family unit who brings destructiveness with him. Although Creepy‘s antagonistic neighbor is more about collecting family members– preferring to leave the messy business of dispatching people to others–than Audition‘s antagonist Asami is, there is nevertheless a break in the family units which seems to invite exploitation by violent troublemakers. Again, this strikes me as a traditionally Japanese concept: A community weakened by unspoken schisms and secrets will ultimately break down in the most destructive way.
My last thoughts on the subject are that this movie earns its slow, atmospheric pace. Don’t go to Creepy expecting gross-out artistry or jump scares. If you like psychological horror, however, Creepy is not a movie to miss.
Don’t go into Creepy expecting the excesses of the recent spate of flicks inspired by classic American 1970s horror cinema. Creepy is more of a social critique hidden inside the non-offensive thriller structure. This film’s evocations of horror come through the audience witnessing Nishino’s manipulations and the inability of the characters he sets his sights on to work against him. The suspense is subtle and yet powerful. There are no release valves, either. The film is sometimes disturbing but always understated. That gives Creepy an all the more fascinating edge than your more run of the mill horror flicks.
Next week, we will bring you a review of the new feature Knives Out, in which Rian Johnson directs a dream cast in a mysterious old dark house mystery (with laughs). It is in theaters now.
“Movie Mondays: Creepy” is copyright © 2019 by Daniel R. and Trista K. Robichaud. It contains material first published as “Alamo Cinema Massacre Presents: Creepy,” which appeared on the Cinema Knife Fight website in 2017 and is copyright © 2017 by Daniel R. and Trista K. Robichaud. Poster and still image taken from IMDB.
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