Franka Potente is one of my favourite actresses, and it’s surprising how much she can bring to even the most basic role. She rose to (international) fame in the brilliant Run Lola Run, and that’s essentially a movie where her character is running for 80 minutes, yet it’s totally compelling. Even in the “token-woman-to-increase-the-film’s-oestrogen-level” role of Marie in The Bourne Identity she brings this really great sense of a genuine person to what is a pretty stock-standard character.
Then there’s Creep. It’s a fun little horror movie from the UK, and Franka stars as Kate, the unlucky socialite who finds herself trapped in the London underground with a monster. The thing is, the movie is not too great. It’s trying very hard to be a good horror movie, but it just doesn’t have the guts. I love it, but I’m also aware that it’s…well, a bit shit.
The movie aside, Franka does give a really good performance as Kate, but it’s interesting that, in the end – she’s an unlikeable character. It’s a good performance, but of someone we don’t really care about, which gives the film a whole new dynamic that I’m pretty sure the filmmakers didn’t originally intend.
The plot follows Kate (Franka Potente) an arrogant socialite through one disastrous night. She’s on her way to a party to shag George Clooney (yep – Cloontang is a plot device) but she nods off while she’s waiting for a train, and gets locked in. Turns out it’s one of those plot-convenient stations that doesn’t have the shutter release system that all tube stations have for just such an emergency. She boards a late train, only for it to stop, as the driver has been killed (though she doesn’t know this). Instead, a guy (named Guy) who was at a party with her earlier accosts her. He attempts to rape her, but an unseen person drags him off her and tears him up. Kate flees the train, and enlists the help of a homeless man, Jimmy to take her to a security guard. Jimmy leaves behind his girlfriend Mandy, who gets abducted by the monster of the film. Kate and Jimmy find a still-alive Guy crawling along the tracks, and although Jimmy rightfully points out that Guy tried to rape her, she insists he get him up off the track. Jimmy does, but Guy soon dies from his wounds. The security guard is killed, as is Jimmy, and Kate runs away, through a labyrinthine network of passages off one of the train tunnels, before she finally comes face to face with the monster.
He traps her in a cage which is filled with water, where she meets George (a sewer worker who is kidnapped in the film’s opening). They escape their cages, and on the way out discover an old nursery of sorts attached to an abandoned medical clinic, with foetuses in specimen jars, and a creepy toy doll playing a xylophone. There they find Mandy, who they assume to be dead, tied to a gynaecologist’s chair, her legs apart in the little footholds they have. Kate and George flee, and the film stays with the still-alive Mandy for what is an oddly vicious scene that doesn’t quite match the tone of the rest of the film. The monstrous man who has been chasing Kate dresses in a surgeon’s scrubs, mimes washing his hands (there’s no water in the pipes) and proceeds to put on gloves as best he can. Then, he takes a long, long knife and thrusts it into Mandy – through an orifice that means this place used to be an abortion clinic.
Nothing pleasant follows the appearance of this knife.
Back with Kate and George, and it’s not long before George gets killed with a spike to the head. Kate flees yet again, this time for the showdown. Kate discovers that the monster was once a boy named Craig, who has since been abandoned in the tunnels and left to survive, becoming a demented creature who would be right at home with the creatures from The Descent (this film predates The Descent, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Neil Marshall took some cues from it in creating that film). She wins her fight with Craig by driving a spike through his throat, and throwing a chain attached to it in front of an oncoming train, monumentally ripping his throat apart.
She makes her way back to the platform, dirty, bruised and bedraggled, and collapses on the ground. By now, the station has opened again, and a commuter steps onto the platform, then gives Kate some money, mistaking her for a homeless woman. Kate laughs hollowly and the film ends.
The film is not great, but I do love it. I’m sure my love is biased, what with liking Franka Potente, but there is some good stuff here. It’s director Chris Smith’s first film, and it does show – there’s some serious pacing issues in scenes that are meant to have you on the edge of your seat. The reveal of Craig is also not done as it should so clearly be. Kate settles herself down in a nook, and shuts off the torch, leaving us with a black screen. When she snaps the torch back on, Craig is staring at her (where the screenshot of him above comes from) and then it cuts back to the angle where Kate first turned the torch off, and he’s staring at her (in profile to the camera). It’s so obvious these two shots should have been reversed, and it would have been much scarier – as it is, it’s an oddly quiet moment, which is creepy in its own way, but robs Craig of a truly terrifying establishing moment.
Smith also says that he took a lot of cues from the old video nasty horror films, and this is obvious in many places – he actually manages to homage several films very nicely – but at the same time, he doesn’t then utilise the homages to do anything original with it.
There’s a nice moment where Kate is running away early in the film, and the music is very similar to Argento’s bombastic and caterwauling score in Suspiria. He also seems to have taken some cues from Argento – there’s quite a few scenes that are straight from the Giallo genre, and he uses chiaroscuro lighting very effectively at points.
Technically, the film is also quite good. It’s nicely shot, and except for a few moments where the pacing lags, it’s edited together quite well. The lighting is particularly good, and it’s amazing how the stark cleanliness of the fluorescent lighting on the platforms is every bit as moody and evocative as the later scenes in the dingy, abandoned tunnels.
What intrigues me most are some of the thematic angles the film takes, and I’m not sure it necessarily meant to.
KATE AND THE HOMELESS:
Early in the film, when Kate has left the first party and is on her way to the subway, she stops at an ATM. A homeless man on the ground asks her for change, and she cruelly tells him that these machines only dispense notes – if he wants change, why not hang around a telephone box?
Then, when she’s in the subway, she tries to get a ticket from a vending machine, only it needs the exact amount. A woman behind her (who I call Posh British Bitch because therein lies the character motivation) tells her she’ll need to go to a booth. Kate asks PBB if she has any change, and the woman demands she go to the booth, at which point Kate feels a little ridiculed and asks PBB if she’s enjoying this. This is where we first meet Mandy – who offers to sell Kate a travel pass. Mandy’s asking price is a pound-fifty, and Kate, in a rush to shag Cloontang, pays her 20 pounds.
Later, when she’s getting Jimmy to take her to the security guard, she pays him fifty pounds, and then another fifty so Jimmy will help Guy off the tracks.
This leads to Kate coming across as flippantly throwing around her cash, or at the very least, implying that she has much cash to throw around. She’s also implied to be fond of some cocaine every now and then, and as we all know, cocaine is synonymous in cinema with rich hedonism, so she must be both rich and flippant.
It’s interesting, because it means that rich-bitch Kate is constantly in contrast with the more appealing homeless people she encounters. The first guy we just feel a bit sorry for, because she’s such a bitch to him (although, to be fair, her logic is sound) but Jimmy and Mandy are set up as quite sympathetic characters, despite being homeless, dirty, and junkies.
The film also makes a deliberate allegory of Kate being reduced to their level by the events of the film, as witnessed in the guy giving her money at the end. Earlier, when she’s talking to the security guard, he suggests she might be part of a gang of crackheads, at which she incredulously cries “Do I look like a crackhead to you!?” at a security camera, making a point of tossing her long blonde hair while she says it. By the film’s end, yes, she does look like a crackhead.
I can identify this theme, and I can see what the film is doing with the comparison, but I have no idea what it’s trying to say. I’ve balked at people reading too much into film before, but there’s a very deliberate emphasis put on the contrast between Kate and the homeless people she encounters. It’s something we’re meant to pick up on.
Are we meant to not feel sorry for Kate, because she has it so easy? Well, that’s unlikely, because there’s no point in deliberately creating an unsympathetic protagonist. It could be the film is doing something new, and just creating people as its characters. Regardless of your status in life, no one wants to be locked in a subway with a murderer. But if that’s the case, then why the emphasis?
There were theories abounding on the IMDb boards when the film first came out that actually, Kate is a homeless person, and she just imagines her rich-life and everything leading up to the end, and actually all the horror was in her head – blah blah blah. I call bullshit on that theory, but it does go to show how bizarre the emphasis is.
Maybe despite everything, the film is trying to get a message across that homeless people are still people and even you, you rich bitch George Clooney shagger, could be like them if things go bad. But that’s as close as I can get.
KATE AS A BITCH
Franka Potente’s performance is excellent, and in the interviews on the DVD, she shows that she’s clearly put a lot of thought into how she went about portraying Kate – but it’s really jarring to have such a bitch as the main character.
I’m probably ladelling it on a bit, and those who see the film after reading this might feel I’ve been way too harsh to her character. But keep in mind that a movie has a limited amount of time to tell a story and establish characters, so for the most part (and especially in a genre film) what you see on the surface is how you judge the character.
When we meet her at the party, right off the bat, she’s a bitch. Guy talks to her, and though we later get that he’s meant to be a total sleaze, she’s still just, at first impressions, needlessly mean to him. When she’s talking with her friend about how she’s going to go about pulling George Clooney, she says “in the end, he’s a man. Men are simple creatures,” and she blows Guy a kiss. Guy of course thinks he’s done something right, and you have to wonder if the film has called him Guy, because he represents all men to Kate – sleazy, easily manipulated, and an eventual rapist.
Even when Guy’s cornered Kate on the train, and he pulls his wang out (cos he’s a master of seduction) she looks at it, and remarks (keeping in mind that she’s well aware he’s drug fuelled, obviously wanting sex with her, and has her trapped on a motionless train) “it’s just like a penis – only smaller!” Take away the fact that he’s been making untoward advances on her, he could, at this point in the story, be the one who helps her find her way out of the train stations. And given her predicament, it’s probably not the best idea for her to be making emasculatory comments like that (and no, I’m not saying she deserved to be raped, but her comment does awaken his inner rapist).
There’s the odd moment with Posh British Bitch where Kate asks her if she’s enjoying making Kate look like a fool, and you’re left wondering – is she enjoying it? Is Kate absolutely hypocritical for asking the question?
And even when shit’s going down, and Kate needs the help of others, she’s still selfish about it. She demands that Jimmy take her to the station, and yeah she pays him, but while Jimmy’s trying to be friendly and chatty, Kate tells him in words as simple as “I don’t care” that she doesn’t care. She makes Jimmy get Guy off the track – and yeah, he’s probably stronger than Kate, and she had just nearly been raped by Guy, but it still comes off as though she doesn’t wanna get her dress dirty.
Later with George, she makes him go and check if Mandy is alright, or even earlier, when they’re in the cages, she demands that he swim underneath to let her out, despite him not being able to swim. At least in that case, she ended up doing the swimming.
It’s just fascinating to me that they’ve crafted such an unappealing woman as the main character. She’s kind of the antithesis of the Final Girl from the slasher films of yore. Whether this is a deliberate contrast I don’t know, but I do think it comes down to Franka Potente creating a much richer character than the film calls for.
Watching her interviews on the DVD, you know that she gets Kate as a character on a much deeper level than the film portrays, but that doesn’t help when you’re watching a film with a character with whom you’re meant to be sympathising.
In pointing it out, it might read like I think it’s a flaw in the film, but I actually think it’s a strength – it makes what could have been (and let’s face it – kind of is) pretty standard proceedings for a horror film a lot more interesting to watch – but again, I don’t know why.
In the end, it does sadly mean that the film is a bit of a mish-mash of tone and quality, and there’s stuff to distract you here that probably shouldn’t be all that distracting in the end. As a simple horror film, it’s by-the-numbers but with some good craftsmanship. As a film to analyse, there’s a lot to analyse but indecipherably. It’s a good performance from Franka Potente, and it’s a cool little flick. Kinda shit, but I love it all the same.
It’s also worth noting that Christopher Smith went on to make Triangle, a godawful film that falls prey to many time-paradox movies in that it doesn’t make sense by it’s own established logic, and also Severance, which was another good-but-not great film – he might still have some good to come, but I don’t have high hopes…