Jeepers Creepers (2001) ***
It may have just about the stupidest title of any horror movie released to theaters during the last ten years, but Jeepers Creepers is a shockingly good film, all things considered. What starts out looking like a slasher movie (it starts out looking like the remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre which came out two years later, not to put too fine a point on it— that’s right, Michael Bay; I’m looking at you) gradually turns into something rather more interesting, mixing and matching traditionally separate genre elements in a way I haven’t seen since probably Basket Case. Mind you, Jeepers Creepers is nothing at all like the latter movie in story terms, but as both are monster-slasher hybrids with a pronounced affinity for unexpected tangents and occasional flashes of a sick sense of humor, I think the comparison is at root a valid one.
The spring semester is over, and brother and sister Trish (Gina Philips, from Deadly Invasion: The Killer Bee Nightmare) and Darry (Justin Long) Jenner are on their way home from college across the marshy bowels of Florida in Trish’s beautifully restored 1960 Impala. The Jenner kids are like most adolescent siblings whose life circumstances cause them to spend just a little too much time together, which is to say that they’re going to spend nearly every moment of the movie’s running time bickering about petty, stupid shit. It is while they’re sniping at each other over the subject of “Mr. Poly-Sci Track Team Guy”— Trish’s apparently soon-to-be-ex boyfriend— that a 1940 Reo panel van which looks remarkably like a scaled-down version of the scabrous old tanker truck from Duel races up behind them and starts riding the Impala’s bumper. The Reo doesn’t just look like the Duel truck, either. It too is being driven by a dangerous lunatic who, though he honks furiously at the Jenner kids to get out of his way, refuses to take any of the opportunities Darry offers him to pass, repeatedly changing lanes so as to maintain his relative position just over a foot behind the car. After a few minutes, however, the truck driver apparently tires of the game, and he swings around the Jenners to go speeding off down the road— making sure to give Darry and Trish a good look at his “BEATNGU” vanity plate as he does so. (Subsequent events will suggest that the correct reading of the tag is something even more defiantly antisocial than the obvious interpretation.) The encounter leaves the kids rattled, but not nearly as rattled as they are by what they see by the side of the road perhaps half an hour later. In a grove of trees off to the left is a decaying old church with some sort of rusty standpipe in its side yard; the BEATNGU truck is parked beside the building, and its driver (Jonathan Breck, of Spiders) is out by the pipe, dumping what looks like a body wrapped up in a bloody sheet into it. Worse yet, the driver spots the Impala as it cruises by, and he comes in pursuit. Understandably not content just to throw a scare into the kids this time, the man in the Reo batters the shit out of the car’s bumper and runs the Jenners off the road into an unkempt hayfield. Darry and Trish probably ought to count themselves lucky that he doesn’t then stop the van and do to them whatever it is that comes before being trussed up in a sheet and tossed down a standpipe.
As it happens, however, the Jenners possess degrees of both empathy and civic responsibility that are almost unheard of among horror movie teenagers, and they quickly decide that they need to do something about the apparent crime onto which they have stumbled. Darry considers it possible that the person they saw being dumped into the pipe might still be alive, and he persuades his sister to drive back to the church to have a look before proceeding on to the nearest town to call the police. This is not what you call a smart idea. A rather contrived accident leads to Darry falling into the pipe himself, and he winds up in a large, subterranean chamber which he takes to be part of the church’s cellar. Since he’s pretty well stuck down there anyway, Darry has Trish toss him a flashlight, and tells her to go back to the end of the driveway and keep watch for the Reo. (Trish’s roadside vigil serves as the setup for one of the most skillfully crafted false scares I’ve seen in quite a while.) Once he can more or less see what he’s doing, Darry quickly finds the thing in the sheet; it is indeed a human being, and for the moment at least, it is indeed alive. The boy under the sheet has apparently been the subject of some kind of demented DIY surgical procedure, for he has a crudely sutured incision running up the midline of his belly all the way to the sternum. He dies before he can pass on any useful information, but that sewn-up wound confirms all of Darry’s worst suspicions all by itself. Then Darry has a look around the cellar, at which point he learns that even his worst suspicions weren’t nearly bad enough to do justice to the situation. There is not one shrouded body in the cellar, but a multitude. Furthermore, there’s a table in the center of the room with what appears to be a sort of home taxidermy kit laid out on it, and the walls and ceiling of the cellar are covered with the preserved, nude bodies of literally hundreds of young men and women in an array which Darry will later aptly describe as resembling “some kind of psycho Sistine Chapel.” Deep in shock, Darry makes his way out of the cellar and into the church proper, then returns to the car.
Trish pulls up to the first business establishment they run across, a roadside diner about an hour away from the church. Convincing the waitress to call the police for them takes some doing, but she does eventually hurry back behind the counter. That’s when the pay phone Darry had been leaning against starts ringing. When he answers, there’s a woman on the line (Patricia Belcher, who played small roles in Flatliners and Species) who clearly knows exactly who he is and exactly what he’s been up to that day. The woman starts telling Darry about things that she “sees” him doing later on— something about lots and lots of cats, something about the 30’s swing tune “Jeepers Creepers,” something about screaming in the dark— and the boy gets so wigged out that he hangs up the phone with a jittery, “Fuck you, lady!” Meanwhile, Trish spies the Reo zipping up the road in the direction of the old church, and gets to worrying about what signs of their passing she and her brother might have left behind them.
The police (Jon Beshara and Avis-Marie Barnes) arrive sometime around nightfall, and with the mulish obtuseness of all horror movie cops, they don’t believe a word of Darry’s story. The Jenners get an unexpected assist from the killer himself at this point, however. Evidently he did find some evidence of their snooping at the church, and he puts in an appearance at the diner to do some snooping of his own— one of the customers spots him ransacking the back seat of Trish’s car and frantically sniffing Darry’s dirty laundry, but he’s gone by the time word gets back to the two cops a few minutes later. There’s no mistaking the evidence of the killer’s hurried search, though, and there is a strange, dusty handprint on the Impala’s door handle. While the police radio for forensics assistance, Trish gets the strangest feeling that some large object has just passed through the air perhaps fifteen feet above her head, but she quickly forgets about the sensation.
Not much later, the Jenners are leading the police on an excursion to the old church. Darry has a moderate freakout over hearing a fairly ghastly cover version of Siouxsie and the Banshees’ “Peek-a-Boo” (which recycles some of the lyrics from “Jeepers Creepers”) on the radio, and while he and Trish are thus occupied, they fail to notice what’s happening to the police cruiser behind them. Just as the station dispatcher radios to inform the cops that forensics has identified the dust from the door handle as dead human skin, and that the fire department reports an out-of-control blaze at the very church to which they are headed, something massive sets itself down on the cruiser’s roof. It’s the killer, who we now understand is not really a human being at all. The thing on the roof drags both cops sufficiently far out of the passenger compartment to kill them, and the Jenners finally get wise to what’s going on behind them when one of the officers’ heads comes sailing through the air and bounces off of the Impala’s hood. Trish loses control of the vehicle in her panic, while the now-driverless prowl car skids off the road and comes to a stop. The kids stick around just long enough to see the killer pick up the cop’s severed head, rip out its tongue, and eat it. They speed away and seek help at the first house they come to, which is owned by a crazy old lady (The Hollow’s Eileen Brennan) who lives alone with what looks like about 150 cats— didn’t somebody say something about Darry and a lot of cats? The creature catches up quickly and disposes of the cat lady, apparently less than impressed with her double-barreled twelve-gauge. Finally, Trish and Darry accept the essential truth that they’re going to have to be their own cavalry, and go on the offensive. It takes a few tries (their opponent, unsurprisingly, is inhumanly fast and strong, and that trip through the hayfield seems to have done a number on the Impala’s transmission), but Trish eventually rams the killer thing fair and square, and spends the next few minutes driving back and forth over its increasingly mangled body. (“Do you think it’s dead?” “They never are…” *Vroom— splat!* *Vroom— crunch!* *Vroom— crack!*) Then they see a leathery wing stretch out from what surely ought to be the creature’s carcass by now, and decide that this would be an excellent time to pay a visit to the county police barracks. Then again, as a certain Linda Hamilton character could have told them, troopers aren’t necessarily your best protection when there are inhuman monsters afoot.
Victor Salva certainly has come a long way as both a writer and a director since making his feature debut with the mostly worthless Clownhouse. Admittedly, the central characters in Jeepers Creepers are no more likable than they were in the earlier film, and it wasn’t such a good idea to dump all of the expository duties onto Jazelle Hartman (the psychic who calls Darry on the pay phone at the diner), but Salva displays a commendable facility for approaching traditional horror movie plot points from unusual angles and combining conventional elements in unconventional ways. This is originality by the distaff line, I suppose, but it’s more originality than a lot of recent horror movies have to offer. Salva also has the courage to leave his monster mostly unexplained, and Jeepers Creepers might almost be seen as a direct renunciation of the timidity regarding the abuse of major characters which was Clownhouse’s most annoying feature. (Salva kept the abuse strictly behind the camera that time around...) Meanwhile, as a director, Salva achieves the rare feat of bringing a decent amount of genuine suspense to Jeepers Creepers, particularly in the scene with the crazy cat lady, and the piece-at-a-time revelation of the creature’s lair early on is a model for the way such scenes ought to be handled. The wild praise which briefly greeted this movie upon its initial release may have been mostly unwarranted, but so is the contemptuous dismissal which it has received so much of since then.