“Jeepers Creepers,” is a horror flick from writer/director Victor Salva, and it’s two-thirds classy thrills and one-third example of how not to make a horror movie. The fact that both these sections occur in the same picture is a fairly remarkable feat of filmmaking. In class, you can show the first part as an example of the tricks of the fear-inducing trade and then show the second part to display how horror directors go wrong.
As the movie begins, Trish and Darry (Gina Philips and Justin Long), brother and sister, are driving the back roads on their way home for a visit from college. Trish likes to look at the countryside. They are briefly pursued by an enclosed truck, the unseen driver of which seems determined to scare them spitless. Finally, the truck passes them.
Sometime later, they see the truck parked beside an abandoned wood frame church, surrounded by trees, its yard overgrown. The siblings see the driver of the truck carry a bundle that looks suspiciously like a dead body wrapped in a crimson-stained sheet. “The Creeper” deposits the bundle into a large pipe sticking out of the ground. They slow down and he dumps another one.
The Creeper spots them and the chase begins again. Darry drives off the road into a field, and the truck continues on its way.
The kids go back to the pipe to make sure of what they saw and to convince themselves that if bodies there are, they are all dead.
Darry thinks he hears someone down in the hole, and, of course, is determined to climb down for a closer look.
“You know that place in horror movies where someone does something really stupid and everybody hates him?” Trish asks. “Well, this is it.”
Of course, Darry falls into the hole and, of course, we think The Creeper is coming back at any moment and, of course, the hole is more full of corpses than a cheesecake is full of calories. From this point on, the film becomes a conventional killer chases kids thriller.
It holds up well up to the point Darry and Trish bring the cops into the picture. It’s at this point our understanding of what The Creeper is begins to change. The more we know about him, the less frightening he is.
Do you remember watching monster movies as a kid and feeling less scared when the monster was already on the screen because you knew that if you could see it, it couldn’t jump out and yell “Boo!”
Salva has forgotten that basic point. John Carpenter, in “Halloween,” reminded us that you can’t kill the bogeyman, but you shouldn’t take too much time trying to explain him, either. That kills him more effectively than blades or guns.
As long as The Creeper remains unseen, or seen in shadow, he represents that potent, visceral force of the Unknown. When he hunts, does he do it for fun or is there a solid reason for all the corpses he’s dumped down the pipe? Why all the incisions? Why is the catch phrase for this picture “What’s eating you?”
And what’s the significance of the number “23”? You’ll know what I’m talking about if you ever see the flick. And there’s a legend that ties into the plot. Is it a real legend or one manufactured for the movie? If we’re going to be offered some degree of explanation, let’s have enough to make sense.
The movie is left open for a sequel—what kind of horror movie would it be if it couldn’t develop into a franchise for United Artists—but that’s not the main reason many viewers will find the ending unsatisfactory. I can’t go into that, but I will say that a soap opera on Friday leaves you with much the same feeling.
But when Salva is clicking during the movie’s first 50 minutes or so, he runs the thing like an expensive watch. Sure, a lot of the shocks come from pop-ups and loud noises, but these work so well because the director has set them up so nicely. First he attaches the electrodes, then he pushes all the right buttons.
The two leads are just fine. When they talk and argue as siblings, they sound real. The screenplay gets across a lot of background information via the humdrum talk of any long car trip. These kids are more than potential monster-fodder.
“Jeepers Creepers” is creepy and horrid without being gratuitously gory, but it never really moves from average to being worthy of a solid recommendation. It’s worth seeing, but I’m not sure it’s worth a special trip to the video store to rent. Maybe if you pick it up when you go to get something else. Or the next time it runs on cable. Or you could forget I mentioned it.