Screenplay : Victor Salva
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2001
Stars : Gina Philips (Trish), Justin Long (Darry), Jonathan Breck (The Creeper), Patricia Belcher (Jezelle Gay Hartman), Brandon Smith (Sgt. Davis Tubbs) and Eileen Brennan (The Cat Lady)
Despite the snicker-inducing silliness of its title—which is taken from Johnny Mercer and Harry Warren's '30s-era tune for plot-related reasons that are notably strained—Victor Salva's Jeepers Creepers is actually a grimly effective horror movie ... for the first half hour. The set-up, which involves a brother and sister terrorized on their drive home from college for spring break, is simple, and the scares are well executed when they are tinged with suggestion, rather than graphic visuals.
But, what makes Jeepers Creepers interesting is the way it packs in virtually every horror-movie paradigm from the last 30 years into a lean 90 minutes. It starts out by invoking city-slicker fear of rural barbarity in the vein of Deliverance (1972) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1973). Then, it slowly builds the plot with bits and pieces from urban legends and movies about slashers, demons, and serial killers (one of the final shots seems particularly evocative of the scene of Buffalo Bill working in his basement in The Silence of the Lambs). While not particularly gory (at least by horror movie standards), Jeepers Creepers does evoke a litany of skin-crawling visuals, from human taxidermy to having your eyes gouged out, and when sticking to this domain, it works. Unfortunately, Salva gets overconfident and starts showing too much, and then the whole thing just collapses.
The two main characters are Trish (Gina Philips) and Darry (Justin Long), a brother and sister driving home from college. For reasons that are never made entirely clear, they decide to take the backwoods route, which involves driving down long stretches of empty highway surrounded on all sides by nothing. Of course, done right, open spaces are just as claustrophobically terrorizing as being trapped in a dark room, and writer/director Victor Salva creates an impending sense of dread in the mundane countryside.
Trish and Darry's uneventful drive is interrupted early on when a huge, rambling old truck that looks like it drove off the set of Mad Max bears down on them from behind, its horn shrieking, and nearly runs them off the road. A little while later, they spot the truck again, except this time it is parked off the highway next to an abandoned church, and its driver, a large man shrouded in tattered, heavy black clothing, appears to be dumping bodies wrapped in white sheets down a large pipe in the ground. The movie's most thrilling and terrifying moment is when Trish and Darry glance out the window for one last look and see that the man has suddenly stopped his activity and is staring right back at them.
This is only the beginning, of course, and at this point Jeepers Creepers is a spine-tingling good thrill. It continues along in sharp fashion, as Trish and Darry venture back to the church to find out if the mysterious man was dumping bodies or not. Darry discovers a grisly shrine of human remains in the church basement that simultaneously evokes both the Alien movies and collective nightmares about Jeffrey Dahmer.
At this point, the movie is almost too good, and you know it has to start stumbling at some point. Sooner or later, Salva has to start answering all the questions he has set up in the initial half-hour, and it is here that the movie is not so good. The mysterious serial killer begins tracking the young brother and sister, and the plot starts introducing more characters, including Eileen Brennan as a bizarre old woman with a house full of cats and Patricia Belcher as Jezell, an old psychic woman who Salva never manages to integrate seamlessly into the plot without making it obvious that her entire purpose is to explain the unexplainable through her "dreams."
Still, despite some of its narrative flaws, Jeepers Creepers is at times a startlingly good horror movie. It doesn't have much in the way of pretension, even though the demonic nature of its monster seems both over the top and ludicrously underdeveloped. Gina Philips and Justin Long make for good protagonists; neither is especially flashy looking, and they are believable in their responses to such extreme situations. Salva has some fun with the traditional gender roles in horror movies, casting Trish as the stronger of the two characters and Darry as the traumatized victim. Salva should also be given credit for having the gumption to the end the movie the way he does, with the kind of bleak, yet fitting conclusion that leaves you with one final, horrific image that you can't quite shake, even though it is essentially a grisly visual joke that gives a whole new meaning to the question posed by the lyrics of "Jeepers Creepers."
Copyright © 2001 James Kendrick