by Melissa Strong
Creeps are unpleasant, deviant, and disturbing people. Real-life creeps tend to be repellent. Movie creeps, however, can be weirdly alluring. Some are even sexy in a sinister, disconcerting way. Sexy creeps are a longstanding tradition with strong ties to film noir, with their elegant femme fatales and dashing hard-boiled detectives. They can be psychologically manipulative, like Gregory Anton in Gaslight (1944); inscrutable with terrible secrets, like Maxim de Winter in Rebecca (1940); or violent, like Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), who makes wearing a t-shirt look both menacing and hot.
Female characters such as Phyllis Dietrichson, the double-crossing murderer in Double Indemnity (1944) make important contributions to the tradition of sexy creeps. However, in the twenty-first century, the term “creep” is almost always gendered male. Try a cursory internet search for “creepy women,” “creepy girls,” and “creepy chicks.” Chances are your top results are horror movies, a couple of Goth looks, and stuff about creepy men, not women. As Aziz Ansari observes in Live at Madison Square Garden, “Creepy dudes are everywhere!” Luckily, the movies keep them at a safe distance. Here are a few memorable sexy creeps from recent movies.
Tom Stall, A History of Violence (2005). Put yourself in the shoes of Tom’s spouse, Edie (Maria Bello): you wake up from the perfect American dream and find your happy family and quiet life in small-town Indiana is built on a sham. Your husband Tom (Viggo Mortensen) is not the unassuming diner owner you thought he was. He isn’t even Tom; he’s Joey, a former hit man for the Irish mafia who created a new identity and an idyllic life in which to hide from his past. You see the person you thought of as a loving husband and caring father hurt and kill others easily and cruelly. This makes you sick but leads to some violent yet erotic hate sex. Tom Stall is a liar, a murderer, and a criminal. And he’s sexy, thanks to Mortensen’s portrayal and the palpable chemistry between him and Bello.
Killer Joe Cooper, Killer Joe (2011). In this unnerving crime drama with Southern Gothic flair, Chris (Emile Hirsch) and Ansel Smith (Thomas Haden Church), a bumbling, small-time drug dealer and his father, hatch a plan for a Double Indemnity-style insurance scam but lack the wits and guts to execute it. Enter Joe, a dirty cop who moonlights as a hit man for the fun of it. Matthew McConaughey expertly plays Joe as a merciless killer with a smooth and gentlemanly air. His attentions to Chris’s younger-than-her-years sister Dottie induce shudders. Joe clearly communicates his terms and demands Dottie as collateral when the Smiths can’t pay up. What you heard about the fried chicken scene is true, and the film deserves its NC-17 rating. More important, though, is Joe’s embodiment of the intersecting tensions between sex, power, violence, kindness, and cruelty. Roger Ebert rightly lauded Killer Joe as one of McConaughey’s finest performances.
Brandon, Shame (2011). Michael Fassbender may be naturally sexy, but he frequently plays creeps. He is at his sexiest and creepiest as Brandon, a man so consumed by addiction that he has no identity beyond it. Brandon is addicted to sex, and Shame effectively shows how destructive and dehumanizing this is, like any addiction. Brandon effortlessly attracts and seduces women with skill that confounds other men, but nothing can satisfy him. Scenes that initially seem erotic devolve into robotic acts that portray Brandon’s isolation and self-loathing, suggesting that his behavior constitutes an effort to mask something much worse. Shame also deserves its NC-17 rating, and rumors of Fassbender’s majestic full frontal are true. Shame is disturbing and sometimes disgusting but also provocative, haunting, and gorgeously shot. Fassbender is fantastic and Carey Mulligan is stellar as Sissy, the sibling who humanizes Brandon and provides insight into their dark past.
Jon, Don Jon (2013). Joseph Gordon-Levitt brings some heart to the litany of creeps in the title role of this film he wrote and directed. Jon is the Don Juan of contemporary New Jersey, a ladykiller who scoops up the most attractive females in the club, conquers them, and tosses them aside in order to focus on more important things, namely cars, bodybuilding, and porn. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, you may wonder, a ladykiller? A creep? However, films including Mysterious Skin (2005), Hesher (2010), 50/50 (2011), and Looper (2012) demonstrate his range. Jon is a familiar type: his disinterest in relationships befits hookup culture, and his objectification of women, while grody, is sadly unremarkable. What makes Jon creepy is his porn habit and his preference for masturbating to porn over engaging in real sex with partners. Two women spark some self-reflection and inspire Jon to make some changes. He actually attempts a relationship with Barbara (Scarlett Johansson) and befriends Esther (Julianne Moore), a fellow community college student, who challenges Jon to be present during sex. Jon’s willingness and ability to evolve show that sexy creeps can rehabilitate.
Honorable Mention: Jareth the Goblin King, Labyrinth (1986). OK, so Labyrinth is not a recent movie, but David Bowie’s death earlier this year provides occasion to revisit it. A Jim Henson musical fantasy may seem a weird place to go looking for sexy creeps, and Jareth has a sense of humor that creeps typically lack. Plus, Bowie’s wig is ridiculous, and let’s not get started on the pants. However, Bowie endows Jareth with mesmerizing menace. He is powerful: Jareth shape-shifts, controls time and place, materializes out of thin air and disappears. He is cruel, vindictive, and controlling as well. Jareth’s unpredictability makes him more perplexing and fearsome. One minute he is making jokes or dancing with puppets, then suddenly he tries to poison you. In a climactic scene, Jareth begs the heroine Sarah (a fresh-faced, young Jennifer Connelly), “Just fear me, love me, do as I say and I will be your slave.” The age difference between Jareth and Sarah makes his mention of love -- not to mention dominance and obedience -- unsettling. Equally important, Jareth’s remark is characteristically mystifying: who is master, who is slave? Sarah conquers Jareth with the declaration “You have no power over me.” This, along with the romantically charged power dynamic between a young woman and a magical older man/rock star, made Labyrinth a favorite of many girls in the 80s.
Creepy dudes are everywhere, indeed. Sexy creeps in recent movies share qualities with the past’s villainous and conflicted characters while engaging with current issues, and they often are more fully developed. If you’re ready to go dark, sexy creeps provide plenty of food for thought, and they stay inside the screen.