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Entries in Jeepers Creepers [2001] (1)

Wednesday
Jun152016

Jeepers Creepers (2001)

Predator, Too

Jeepers Creepers works better as a time capsule than as a movie. Victor Salva's 2001 road-trip-gone-wrong thriller was one of the last original horror films to receive a big mainstream push, before Hollywood became obsessed with Japanese imports, torture porn, and turning decades old properties into viable "brands" to be sequelized, prequelized, remade, and rebooted until the end of time.

Two weeks after Jeepers Creepers came out, 9/11 jolted America awake from a decade of cultural isolationism. Shocked, we compartmentalized the drumbeat to war and sought refuge in entertainment that made us nostalgic for a time when everything wasn't so scary--indeed, so foreign. We wanted to feel safe. At the movies, that translated to sick empowerment narratives involving maniacs taking people apart with graphically ghoulish precision and giant robots tearing up the Middle East. When the reanimated corpses of childhood bogeymen Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, and Leatherface re-took the movie landscape, they re-introduced the post-Viet Nam Era nihilism that had given way to gags and cartoon gore in the 80s, fusing moviegoers' collective, impotent bloodlust with nostalgic warm-fuzzies. Finally, mass murder was fun again.

In a way, Salva's film presaged that pending real-world nastiness. Though Jeepers Creepers is a silly little horror movie featuring college kids making bad decisions; authority figures making worse ones; and a monster whose makeup and costume design are better conceived than its abilities and motivations, the film's resolute tone of naturalism elevates it to more than just a mash-up of Predator and Duel. Salva tells us from the very beginning that great danger is coming, from which there is no escape, but our age-old belief that the good-hearted heroine will always defeat the bogeyman (even if said bogeyman is destined to return) refuses to let us doubt.

During a cross-country drive home from school, Trish (Gina Phillips) and younger brother, Darry (Justin Long), are overtaken by a super-fast, super-creepy old truck. Darry catches a glimpse of the license plate, which reads, "BEATINGU". It's an omen that neither the protagonists nor the audience wants to believe. Further down the road, the siblings spy the truck parked near a house, its driver dumping what appear to be wrapped-and-roped bodies down a large pipe. After some debate, Trish and Darry decide to investigate, on the off chance that A) they're correct in their assumptions and B) some of the victims might still be alive.

After falling down the pipe, Darry discovers a vast underground lair with waxy, naked corpses lining its walls and ceiling. The driver, it turns out, isn't actually a man; like the titular beast in Stephen King's It, this shadowy humanoid emerges every couple decades to feed on the innocent. Despite their best efforts to find help in the next town, no one can stop the man/thing from pursuing our heroes--not the local psychic (Patricia Belcher), not the gun-wielding cat lady (Eileen Brennan), and definitely not the entire Poho County Sheriff's Department.

Jeepers Creepers disguises its bleakness in a series of bland, drawn-out car chases and police stand-offs that seem quaint by today's standards. Salva pulls off quite a bit of cool stunt-work, and that goes a long way in stretching his limited budgets, locations, and (I hate to say it) actors. Everyone is dialed up to 7 in this movie, with an earnest but misplaced back-of-the-house expressiveness that recalls early-80s slasher films. By film's end, it becomes apparent why Salva insists on so many close-ups of Justin Long's wide, terrified eyes,* but the motif gets corny quickly, and I couldn't shake the stunned image of Marty McFly in Back to the Future, after realizing he'd just sat down next to the teen version of his dad.

There is no hope at the end of Jeepers Creepers, only a damaged family who must live with the fact that an aberrant predator swooped in from out of nowhere and destroyed its notions of innocence for (at least) several generations. Coincidentally, if you look up writer/director Salva on the internet, you'll see him listed first as "convicted sex offender", then as "filmmaker". Yes, Salva served fifteen months in prison in the early 90s for an unspeakable crime against a twelve-year-old boy. Keep in mind, this was years before he made the mainstream hit Powder in 1995 and a decade before Jeepers Creepers.

How is this possible, you might ask? I'm not sure, but that information doesn't lessen my appreciation for Salva's work, from a purely artistic standpoint, anymore than do Roman Polanski's crimes affect my opinion of Rosemary's Baby. It does, however, add yet another layer to his films' narratives.* Like the hat-and-coat-clad monster that stalks Trish and Darry, Jeepers Creepers wraps itself in our expectations of what horror movies should be, and what they used to be. Beneath the surface, however, lurks a sinister compulsion to obliterate the status quo and leave witnesses scrambling for cover, begging for answers, and desperate for assurances that will never, ever come.

*The other closeups we get are embarrassing to watch. The corpses in the Creeper's lair look so doll-like, that I couldn't believe Salva wanted to show us the fine details. They look hastily prepared, and background-filler cheap.

**Which I'll explore further in an upcoming look at Jeepers Creepers 2.