“Dad, can you tell me a scary story?”
This is not how most children ask to be put to bed, but brave young Anna (Taliyah Blair) isn’t afraid of a few ghosts and goblins. Plus, her dad, Harry (Jonathan Nyati), is a great storyteller. Thus begins Jamie Hooper’s The Creeping, a delightful horror flick that will bring back memories of swapping ghost stories over a bucket of Halloween candy. While The Creeping is undeniably a ghost movie, it’s more likely to make you feel nostalgic than scared. Hooper takes a straightforward scary story and embellishes it with an R. L. Stine-esque style that will make you want to mix in some candy corn with your popcorn.
With the recent release of Stranger Things Season 4, 1980s horror nostalgia is in full swing. Now is the perfect time to release a ghost flick filled with retro fashions, gadgets, and special effects, and that’s exactly what Hooper does with The Creeping. The year is 1985 and Anna (now played by Riann Steele) is all grown up. When her father unexpectedly passes away, she returns to her childhood home to care for her grandmother, Lucy (Jane Lowe), who is suffering from early symptoms of dementia. The death of a parent would be stressful for anyone, but Anna takes it especially hard. She begins to suffer from terrifying nightmares, and she starts hearing things that just aren’t there. As the situation in her childhood home gets more and more out of hand, Anna realizes that it might not be all in her head. While trying to comfort and care for her grandmother, Anna finds herself being stalked by a menacing paranormal presence.
The Creeping isn’t a scary movie. Unless you scare easily or you’ve never watched a horror movie in your life, you’ll find the jump-scares and special effects to be tame, campy, and a little cheeky. While the horror elements of the movie are predictable and cliché, Hooper doesn’t use those elements out of laziness. He uses them in a fun and celebratory way, taking us back to the ghost stories we grew up with. The opening credits are written in a pale-yellow version of the iconic ITC Benguiat font (or some very similar), setting the stage for the movie’s distinctive 1980s style. As Anna drives on narrow country roads to get to her childhood home, you can’t help but think of the opening sequence from The Shining (1980). The house itself is the perfect place for a good old-fashioned haunting. While it’s not a dark, decaying mansion atop a foreboding hill, there are subtle signs of paranormal activity throughout the home. The pale, fading decor creates an aura of ghostly mischief, and the vintage furnishings look like they’re holding on to decades of stories and secrets. Then, there’s the outdated tech. When Lucy’s caregiver and housekeeper, Karen (Sophie Thompson), pulls out a bulky old vacuum cleaner, mumbling about whether it will work, you just know that it’s going to play some role in the haunting. Same goes for the 1950s baby monitor that Anna finds in the attic and the record player in the living room. Like a tried and true fast food meal or an old song that you’ve heard dozens of times, the predictable horror elements of The Creeping are comforting and familiar.
So how does Hooper use those overdone elements in a fun and exciting way? For starters, he doesn’t try to hide the narrative clichés with modern special effects. Every aspect of The Creeping is distinctly retro, making it clear that the movie is a love letter to a specific style of horror. When the paranormal presence finally makes itself visible, it looks like something straight out of a made-for-TV Halloween special. The villain’s makeup is campy and fun, like the cover of a Goosebumps novel. Plus, the script is also fairly solid, showing us that Hooper knew exactly what he was doing in terms of story. Despite the predictable plot, the dialogue is neither cringey nor corny. It’s fresh, genuine, and natural, making it easy to slip into the world of The Creeping. Hooper wasn’t trying to make a modern horror film with a predictable plot. Instead, he was trying to imitate classic haunted-house stories so that viewers could indulge in some horror nostalgia. And he definitely succeeded.
Of course, the cast also plays a role in making the dialogue sound fresh and natural. As the adult Anna, Steele is emotionally distant and walled-off, which makes sense for a character who has lost her father. Her emotional walls make it difficult to get a good read on Anna’s thoughts and feelings, but she’s still natural and very believable. Lowe is perfect for the role of the aging grandmother, and she makes the “scary” moments in the film all the more fun with her creepy smile and eerily calm demeanor. Charming as ever, Thompson keeps the story upbeat and fun as the warm and cheery housekeeper. Together, the three women make an excellent trio and add a heaping spoonful of girl power to the chilling tale.
Hooper also makes The Creeping interesting by giving Anna and her grandmother a solid backstory. The Creeping isn’t one of those paranormal movies that’s just about the scares. There’s a good story in place and a mystery aspect to the plot, which makes it easier for viewers to care about the characters and stay engaged. Hooper sets the stage for a paranormal story with death, family tension, and mental illness, subjects that generally make for successful horror stories. While the movie treats these serious subjects in a somewhat simplistic way, you can’t really make this kind of fun and nostalgic ghost flick without being a little simplistic. It’s not easy to develop a serious plot while paying tribute to cheesy haunted house movies, but in the end, The Creeping balances itself out. So, if you’re looking for something fun and a little creepy to watch on a stormy night, go ahead and throw a bag of popcorn in the microwave and turn on Jamie Hooper’s The Creeping. You’ll be in for a scary good time.
Screening during the Chattanooga Film Festival, June 23-28, 2022.
For more information, head to the official The Creeping festival webpage.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.