Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s career began, as it has done for a number of notable modern Japanese directors, with a Pinku eiga – ostensibly a softcore porn film – but it wasn’t long before he was unsettling audiences at home and abroad with renowned horror pictures such as Cure, Charisma and Pulse. Cure came at an interesting time for Japanese horror, released just months before Ringu and marketed very much as a ‘J-Horror’ film in the West. Whilst Kurosawa has returned to horror a number of times since Cure, his career is also peppered with a number of oddities, such as the mesmerising Bright Future, the blackly comic Doppelgänger, and last year’s somewhat infuriating Journey to the Shore.
Creepy sees Kurosawa return very much to a somewhat straightforward genre approach that we haven’t seen from him for some time, but that’s not to say that there’s anything ordinary about it. Living up to its name and then some, Creepy is a seriously unsettling film that sees Kurosawa very skilfully pulling you deep into the story and playing with your nerves like the master manipulator that Cure showed him to be almost twenty years ago.
The film opens with the introduction of Koichi Takakura (Hidetoshi Nishijima), a police detective who specialises in psychopathic criminals. In this tense opening sequence Takakura attempts to use his intelligence to deal with a hostage situation. This goes horribly wrong and he’s quite literally stabbed in the back. This sequence sets up the main protagonist of Creepy – the film then cuts forward to one year later – but also gives us a hint at one of the film’s central themes, the struggle between logic and the unpredictability of human behaviour. It also highlights the intellectual impotence that Takakura must deal with when he is in a weakened position, unable to deal with a certain situation.
One year on from this event and Takakura has a job lecturing in criminology and a nice suburban house in which he lives with his lovely wife, Yasuko (Yuko Takeuchi). This somewhat idyllic scenario, though, is unsettled by a neighbour, Nishino (Teruyuki Kagawa), who is behaving in an increasingly uncomfortable way and by a deeply unpleasant cold case that Takakura begins to investigate. Bringing to mind the disquieting brilliance of Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt and even the increasing dread of Psycho – it’s no coincidence that Kurosawa appeared in Kent Jones’ recent Hitchcock/Truffaut documentary – Kurosawa uses the uncanny to disturb in a slow and insidious way.
Kurosawa’s skilful grasp of the uncanny in cinema can be seen in so many ways throughout Creepy, but one moment in particular exemplifies the subtlety with which he slowly twists the knife and unsettles his audience. The scene may at first seem relatively innocuous: Takakura, Yasuko and Nishino are standing casually in the street, with the camera framing them in a fairly traditional manner at eye height. After a short time there’s a cut and the camera is now above them, with the three characters now at the bottom of the frame. Our eyes, of course, follow the characters, somewhat discounting the ‘negative space’ now above them. Then, suddenly, there’s movement and we see that Nishino’s daughter Mio (Ryoko Fujino) is standing watching them. There’s no loud stab of music and it all plays out relatively slowly and with little movement, but it’s a moment that makes you jump and unsettles you in a way that tops any jump scare in recent memory.
Creepy is a horror film that unsettles and upsets in a way that makes even the most ordinary spaces and activities feel dangerous and unpleasant. Whilst some may find the ending somewhat unsatisfactory – it works on a thematic level, but is underwhelming from a plot point of view – Creepy will get under your skin and disturb in a way that few films manage.