Considering the low ebb to which horror cinema had sunk in 2001, it's not really surprising when one looks back and finds how eagerly genre fans embraced Jeepers Creepers. A vigorously R-rated movie in an age of PG-13, with a story that freely combined elements of the decades-old creature feature with characters and reflexively ironic attitude forged in the post-Scream '90s, all topped off by one hell of a great monster? Hard not to fall in love a little bit, even if - amongst other flaws - the film begins a hell of a lot better than it ends, and boasts two entirely unlikable protagonists.
The film opens, as so many horror pictures have, on a long stretch of isolated highway, in what is recognisably Florida, though I would imagine it was meant to have a certain "lost in America" vibe to it. Here, we find an old Chevy Impala barreling down the road at top speed, driven by Darius "Darry" Jenner (Justin Long), much to the consternation of the car's owner, and passenger, and above all things, Darry's sister, Trish (Gina Philips). And for a goodly long time, we just sit in the car with these two, getting to know them.
It's a peculiar and ballsy move, and typical of writer-director Victor Salva's approach to the material, that the film more or less refuses to start for the first few minutes. Peculiar, and entirely effective: though the first half of Jeepers Creepers (or just more than a half, really) is paced according to no traditional rules of horror narrative that I know, it is as taut and compelling as any 50-minute chunk of a horror picture of its generation. But for now, we were just meeting those kids in the Impala: they go to the same college, Trish is unquestionably the more mature of them (as she ought be: Philips is eight years older than Long), though if absolutely had to guess, my sense based on their interactions is that the two are twins. They like to play idiotic road trip games that were no doubt honed in childhood; they are absolutely unwilling to concede any interest in one another's life, though this is entirely a front, as seen when, at the very moment that Trish accidentally implies a personal romantic crisis, Darry drops all traces of sarcasm.
Oh, and they're awful, irritating people. Which I don't think is intentional, in the way that slasher movies make a habit out of depicting their deep casts of Expendable Meat as hideously unlikeable jerkasses so that we're not conflicted when they start getting hacked apart. And at the same time, through all of the annoying bickering that Trish and Darry throw at one another, I never found myself calling it bad writing. That's the thing: they're not awful, irritating characters. They are, in their own fashion, excellent-rendered and wholly believable examples of the kind of human beings who are awful and irritating in real life. I do not know what value it is to the world that Salva was thus able to accurately depict the douchiness of a young man like Darry and the whinyness of a young woman like Trish; but he is not at any rate guilty of a failure of observation. And when it all comes down to it, I did indeed, and despite myself, find that I was more concerned for our two protagonists because they were mostly believable, even if I had very little use for them as people.
Anyway, the film, which I would rather not spoil in depth: the kids drive past a nasty old pick-up truck with the license plate "BEATINGU" (which can be read two ways and its absurdly savvy of Salva to know that we're all only going to notice the same one that Darry does, until it's pointed out to us), which tries to run them off the road. Rattled, they drive on, only to find the driver (Jonathan Breck) - an uncanny figure in a long black duster and a big hat and some kind of mask - dumping what looks undeniably like a body down a long metal pipe behind an abandoned church. Naturally, he chases them down once more, forcing them into a field, and here the film commits the one unforgivable logic flaw that is all the worse given that, without this moment, the movie would now end: Darry convinces Trish to go back to the church and find out what got dumped down that pipe.
That's as far as I'm taking the plot synopsis: what works and doesn't work for the rest of Jeepers Creepers doesn't have a whole lot to do with the story per se, and more with the skill with which any given scene is carried off. Suffice it to say that what Darry finds when he explores the pipe is an absolute masterpiece of uncanny, hellishly creepy production design, that the driver isn't exactly human, but a magnificently-designed winged thing, with spiky bits all over, and that Victor Salva has clearly seen The Terminator and The Hitcher, and pilfers those film's respective police station sequences with unabashed joy.
Throughout, Salva's skill as a director keeps the movie afloat, helping to propel us through some of the dodgier narrative stumbles (the "let's go back to the obvious death trap for no reason other than to facilitate a horror film!" moment, or a weird, stretched-out, yet excellently tense confrontation with a crazy cat-lady played, distractingly, by Eileen Brennan), and making the best moments sing. Every inch of the sequence inside the pipe is carried off brilliantly, and not just Darry's half: as Trish stands guard outside, there's a truly breathtaking false scare that uses an out-of-focus depth of field in a profoundly clever, subtle manner; as indeed, the film consistently makes outstanding use of hiding details in corners of the frame where, because of composition or focus, we don't necessarily expect to look.
But for all that the film is a top-notch piece of visual craftsmanship (production designer Steven Legler and the gorgeously-named cinematographer Don E. FauntLeRoy need to get their fair share of praise here), and though the slow-boil pacing of the first half of the story is giddy, Jeepers Creepers suffers in the stretch, becoming altogether less compelling as a narrative, and a lot more typical as a thriller.
Like a lot of horror movies, Jeepers Creepers is at its best when it is at its most inexplicable, and thankfully, the film never goes too far overboard in making with the explanations. Though we do get an unfortunate visit from a Psychic Black Lady (Patricia Belcher), who provides information that may or may not be entirely accurate - despite the prominence of the hook that "every 23 years, for 23 days, it gets to eat" in the film's marketing, this is nothing but a belief of Jezelle's (to give Psychic Black Lady her proper name) that is not remotely confirmed or disproved by what we see onscreen (which, incidentally, has always struck me as a very X-Files-flavored narrative hook, for a film that otherwise does not tend to feel very much like it was born in the 1990s). And the two biggest questions that I, at least, ever had about the monster and its nature - where did it come from, and why does it preserve its victims' bodies? - are never given anything approaching an answer, for which I was extremely grateful.
Still, answers do come, just by virtue of the fact that this is a movie, and the more we see of the monster, the more it looks like a man in really impeccably-designed make-up; and the shoot-out in the police station, though helped by some fantastic lighting tricks, is just like every other shoot-out in a police station. Basically, the film runs out of steam: not that at 90 minutes, it begins to drag, but that at 90 minutes, Salva can't help the fact that he only has 50 minutes of ideas. Hence the psychic, hence the eminently predictable third act. And I have no idea where the last scene comes from, but I found it frustrating in the greatest degree. Still, I am terribly glad that Jeepers Creepers exists; it feels like a throw-back to a better time in horror made with an extra dose of gloss and technical aptitude. Not one for the ages, but certainly a good way to find some genuinely creepy moments in a decade where they were short in supply.
* * * * *
Jeepers Creepers 2 did not have the good fortune of its predecessor. While Jeepers Creepers managed to find some level of acclaim among the monster-movie faithful and even a tiny slice of mainstream critics, who were perhaps seduced by the name of executive producer Francis Ford Coppola, even as it was largely dismissed by society at large, its sequel managed to lose some of the people who enjoyed the first, but found the second to be an obnoxious dilution of the original's potency. And those people have a point: where JC1 focuses like a laser on the travails of just two people who have no idea what the hell is going on, and keeps us stumbling along after them, JC2 has a fairly huge cast that it's next to impossible to keep straight, and it makes the monster a bit more "knowable" than the first movie: if not by explaining anything more, then certainly by giving the monster a bit more personality and putting him onscreen much more frequently, to the detriment of Brian Penikas's beautiful but only about 90% convincing monster effects.
Still, I found myself liking the movie rather more often than not: if it's less successful than the first one, that is not the same as saying that it's a failure. If nothing else, Victor Salva (returning along with most of the same crew as the original) deserves credit for fashioning a scenario that uses all the standard tricks of the body-count slasher film while not feeling much at all like a body-count picture (that most of the Expendable Meat ends up alive at the end probably has a lot to do with that impression).
Points, at any rate, to the black joke that opens the movie. A title card reminds us of the rules stated in the original: "Every 23 years, for 23 days, it gets to eat". Cut to a field of wheat, with the words, "Day 22". Later evidence determines that it's three days after the first movie ended, and on this afternoon, the men of the Taggert family - Jack Sr. (Ray Wise) and his son Jackie (Luke Edwards) watch in horror as younger son Billy (Shaun Fleming) is snatched away by what looks like a man in a duster and a battered hat, with wings (Jonathan Breck, returning to the role of the creature). Cut to the next day, when a school bus full of high school basketball players, cheerleaders, and the school reporter all return from winning the championship. The creature flings a throwing star made, rather disconcertingly, from bits of dead humans, and puts out the bus's tire; after the adults in charge decide to keep pushing on, with no help coming to this godforsaken corner of the world, the creature is obliged to take out another tire, stranding the bus in the country in the middle of the night.
And from there on you could probably write the thing yourself: bus of teens (the adults are all picked off fairly quickly) on the one hand, vengeance-driven father and brother with a jerry-rigged harpoon (this seems to be the only relic of a Moby-Dick theme that Salva, almost certainly wisely, left on the cutting room floor) on the other, indestructible flying monster that eats people in the middle. In a lot of ways, Jeepers Creepers 2 deserves its measure of criticism, and not merely because it is wildly unoriginal, both compared to the first and in general (originality of scenario is anyways not a terribly good way to judge a horror film's overall quality). Like most "Spam in a can"-type movies, the teens on the bus are rather arbitrarily sketched-out, other than the Racist, Homophobic Jock (Eric Nenninger), the Suddenly Psychic Chick (Nicki Aycox), and the Guy That People Think Is Gay (Travis Schiffner), all the characters fade into a uniform background radiation. Meanwhile, the Taggert plot feels grafted-on, though I for one am never prepared to bemoan the presence of Ray Wise in a movie. And the whole thing, at some 15 minutes longer than the first, is unquestionably draggy; there is no reason at all to have the bus breakdown twice, nor to have the final chase go on for quite as long as it does.
For all these flaws - and they are significant and often crippling - the sheer level of craftsmanship Salva and his crew bring to bear is not all easy to dismiss, and at its best moments, Jeepers Creepers 2 achieves a level of visual horror that is equal to, though wildly different from, the stellar achievements of its predecessor. The sequences inside the school bus are particularly well-handled: locking the camera inside a tight location, the filmmakers achieve an effect not at all unlike the feeling of a top-notch submarine thriller, as the kids mill about in place and start sniping at each other, the tension of their situation erupting in terms of the petty squabbles and annoyances that are typically ignored and choked down. If the film had spent more time inside that location, and if Salva's screenplay had given more attention to rounding out the personalities of the teenagers, JC2 could have been one of the great horror films of the '00s.
The film also boasts a tremendously individual look, achieved through huge amounts of post-production color correction and admittedly artificial as a result: but the sickly look of the landscape (which is, unlike the original, clearly not Florida, but in California), drenched in browns and oranges, gives the whole movie a feeling of decay. It's ugly, but its ugliness is purposeful, to make the audience uncomfortable and ill-eased even before the actual matter of the drama has kicked in.
Ultimately, it's the imagery that saves JC2: the movie just plain looks threatening, and that ends up counting for a great deal. While the script adds little to our appreciation of the creature (and, happily, explains nothing more than we already knew; too much knowledge would be devastating for these films), and the characters are too basic to anchor the story, the film looks nightmarish enough, and the creature itself is enough of a wicked fairy-tale presence, that the experience of the whole thing is a great deal more effective than its curt dismissal would suggest. It's even less of a great movie than the original, but there are moments that have a primal power which cannot be denied.