The title of “Creepy,” the new shocker by horror maestro Kiyoshi Kurosawa, sounds like an in-jokey self-parody. It’s like titling a new Adam Sandler comedy “Goofy” (or if you’re not feeling charitable, “Crappy”). But “Creepy,” which premiered at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, is also the title of the Yutaka Maekawa novel on which it’s based. And despite his well-deserved reputation for raising goose pimples, Kurosawa has also made well-received straight dramas, including the 2008 “Tokyo Sonata,” a dark film about family disintegration that won the Cannes Un Certain Regard section Jury Prize.

That said, “Tokyo Sonata” also had surreal passages that were — creepy, if you will. So does this new film, though it begins as an all-too familiar drama about a cop in crisis.

Takakura (Hidetoshi Nishijima), a detective trained in criminal psychology, resigns from the force after his attempt to talk a dangerous suspect into surrendering goes disastrously wrong. He becomes a university lecturer and, with the aid of his understanding wife, Yasuko (Yuko Takeuchi), starts to get his life back on track. But once a cop, always a cop. When a former colleague (Masahiro Higashide), comes to him with a six-year-old case of a missing family, Takakura can’t help but investigate, which leads him to the left-behind daughter Saki (Haruna Kawaguchi), then a child, now a still-traumatized young woman.

Creepy (Kuripi Itsuwari no Rinjin)
Run Time 130 mins
Language Japanese
Opens JUNE 18

Meanwhile, Yasuko is becoming uncomfortably well-acquainted with their odd new next-door neighbor Nishino (Teruyuki Kagawa), who swings unpredictably between meek obsequiousness and menacing verbal aggression. What, Takakura wonders, is the problem with this guy, besides his troubled teenage daughter and depressed, never-seen wife?

Working from Chihiro Ikeda’s script, Kurosawa takes his sweet time tying these story strands together, until the film starts to feel more like atmospherics than action. But what atmospherics! As he did in his 1997 international breakthrough “The Cure” (“Kua”) and many films since, Kurosawa uses everyday phenomena — a breeze through untended bushes, sunlight flickering into a mildewed room — to stir feelings of unease and dread.

Also, as an over-wrought Takakura interrogates an uncooperative Saki at his college, Kurosawa’s camera shows students silently milling about in the background, behind the blinds of large windows. The effect is at once natural (the students are doing nothing out of the ordinary) and uncanny (their silence and distance and the filtered whitish light make them seem ghostly). This and other scenes unfolding in somehow otherworldly settings intensify the queasy sense that something wrong is going on.

How wrong becomes shockingly clear when Takakura learns the truth about the volatile Nishino and, to put it as vaguely as possible, everything else that he has been taking for granted. Similar transitions to bizarre alternative states have featured in other Kurosawa films, such as in the hero’s dream-like near-death experience in “Tokyo Sonata.” But in “Creepy,” every pretense of normality falls away in the climatic scenes, including the delicate dance of dealing with a weird neighbor. Even the filtered light disappears and we are in the clammy gloom of Horror World.

As Nishino, Kagawa becomes the film’s ultimate fright effect with no CGI assists whatsoever. Instead he creates a nuanced portrayal of a borderline case, whose mask of sanity is an ill-fitting cover for a cold psychotic rage that finally consumes him. But Nishino is effective in his own twisted way. Where nice-guy Takakura earnestly plods and desperately pushes, Nishino cuts straight to the quick with the weak and defenseless, bending them mercilessly to his will. Yes, he goes sailing over the top in the process, but so do the worst nightmares.

Keep telling yourself none of it could really happen, ever, ever. It’s too creepy to think about otherwise.

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