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Wednesday, July 27, 2005

What's that smell?


Rating: * * * (out of 5)
Japanese title: 0:34
Director: Christopher Smith
Running time: 86 minutes
Language: English
Now showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

It's a dirty job, but somebody's got to do it. The weary adage started beating in my brain from the very first scenes of "Creep," in which two sewage cleaners sludge their way through London's underground, exchanging lines like: "just don't tell me the different ways sh*t smells. Sh*t smells like sh*t, OK?" (OK, we got it.)

News photo
Franka Potente an Paul Rattray in "Creep"

Then, in the next scene, one of the cleaners (the nice one, of course) goes off to investigate the source of some screaming sounds and winds up floating face down in some brown sewage water -- and plenty of his own blood. The other guy (the wisecracking one) is left to face a similar fate, as the camera zooms sloooowly onto his stricken, horrified face. He's knee-deep in sewage. Rats scurry in the background. Filthy water leaks and trickles from rusty drainpipes and you can almost smell the . . . well, sh*t.

Quite effective, this opening sequence, and awe-inspiring to imagine the camera crew, lighting technician, makeup people etc., standing around in brown water, grimly pursing their lips as they go about their jobs: somebody's gotta do it.

As the story progresses another familiar phrase starts up: Up sh*t creek without a paddle! Really, there's nothing like a gross-out horror film to bring out the cliches that are otherwise buried deep in the subconscious. With other movies, one struggles to come up with humorous and witty descriptions, that untried and quirky metaphor -- in the case of "Creep," one's brain just refuses to make the effort.

This has nothing to do with the film being good or bad; "Creep" is actually quite decent in terms of building eerie atmosphere, and the location work in parts of London's (disused) Northern Line subway system is impressive. Genre fans will also be happy to know that first-time director Christopher Smith doesn't rely on digital graphics to create the villain; it's old-school, house-of-horrors type makeup and a body-stocking stuffed with what appears to be undergrown potatoes. They just don't make 'em like this anymore.

"Creep" is also classical in its structure: an opening steeped in mayhem and violence, then cut to a fashionable singles party held somewhere in the London suburbs. Kate (Franka Potente of "Run, Lola, Run") is a brisk businesswoman in her late 20s, who has plenty of comebacks for an offensive colleague overly flirting with her. She ends up alone, waiting for the last train at Charing Cross tube station.

She dozes off on the platform bench for what feels like seconds but when she opens her eyes the place is completely empty. Annoyed, she goes up the staircase but all the exits are locked. When she comes down again a train appears out of nowhere and she jumps on, thinking, perhaps, that this is an extra last train (wishful thinking that all urbanites can relate to). But then the train stops in the middle of a tunnel and the colleague (Jeremy Sheffield) who had been coming on to her at the party emerges suddenly to make his move. "Just breaking the ice," he says, lowering his zipper. Eeeyew!

From here on begins Kate's horrific night of near-rape, near-drowning (in sewage water, no less), assault and battery and bloody sights galore. At the party she's in full regalia of makeup, sexy yellow dress and spiky heels, while by the end of the movie she's wet and bedraggled and tired beyond belief.

In the production notes Franka Potente recalls that before shooting a scene the director would order her to run around, to get her out of breath and make her "very, very tired." Then he would shoot her just like that. One of the problems with "Creep" is that Kate herself is a bit of a creep, and therefore it's hard to care about what happens to her. But, by the last reel, you begin to think that anyone who's this tired and beaten up deserves a bit of sympathy.

Still, you wish there was a bit more to the story than just yuck, muck and gore; a little something to tell us all what the hell is going on and -- most importantly -- why. All the focus is on running around like mad along dank and narrow corridors that branch out from the subway platforms, and getting butchered in the process. Dialogue? What's that? On the other hand, when you're trapped in a London tube station with a maniacal killer chasing you around with a harpoon, there's not exactly time for explanatory conversation.

"Creep" would appear to be a spoof on the often unreliable and potentially hazardous London subway system, just as "28 Days Later" (another British horror film) was a statement about the rising fear of BSE. In the light of current events, however, Kate's ordeal seems almost innocuous. When the truth is scarier than fictional horror, panic assumes an entirely different dimension.

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