Jeepers Creepers (2001)

D: Victor Salva
S: Justin Long, Gina Philips

Slight but occasionally eerie low-key horror film notable for generating a good amount of sympathy for its central characters and concentrating on build-up and atmosphere over shock. This would not be particularly remarkable in a world where the majority of horror films were of good quality, but in the era of the snigger-up-the-sleeve gorefest, the virtues of basic mechanics of the genre have been forgotten.

It begins very well. Brother and sister Justin Long and Gina Philips are driving along a largely deserted rural road on their way home from college. Their conversation, while not deep, is authentic and believable. These really seem like a pair of siblings having an ordinary discussion. Their journey is interrupted first by inexplicable harassment by a dusty vehicle, then later by the sight of the driver of that vehicle dumping what looks like a bloodied body wrapped in a muslin sheet down an old pipe. So begins an odyssey of terror which really grips for a while before eventually revealing its lack of depth and petering out like an underdeveloped episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or The X-Files. Pity.

Writer/Director Victor Salva has a basic hand of stylistic and technical cards to play here, and it initially seems very strong. The low-budget look has worked before in this genre, most notably for George Romero's Night of the Living Dead, Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, John Carpenter's Halloween, and, dare we mention it or have you already forgotten it, The Blair Witch Project Jeepers Creepers is closer in style and tone to the first two, lacking the jokiness of Carpenter's film and trying hard to unsettle the audience rather than just make them jump. The tawdry and threadbare look of the film creates a sense of reality which serves the director well. Coupled with the good dialogue, it draws you in very quickly and quite thoroughly.

Once on the hook, the audience is first treated to a pretty relentless build up of tension as the siblings are pursued by the demon truck and then find themselves re-treading every cliché in the horror handbook as they go back to investigate what the maniac who drives it has been doing. By virtue of a good choice of camera angles, judicious editing, and evocative sound effects, the film gets away with these familiar scenes ("Don't go in there", "Hold onto my feet and I'll be okay", "Please, you have to believe us, there's a guy chasing us", "Officer, I'm not drunk..." etc) and continues to build suspense. It even attempts to vary the formula a little by throwing in small variants on that formula (the cops do not dismiss them entirely, there is a plan for what to do if they're separated, etc).

One of the reasons it works as long as it does is that the film derives a great deal of its eeriness from reaction shots. Rather than concentrating on the horrors we are shown the horrified reactions of those who observe them. This is a classic technique, of course, leaving most of the work of scaring you to your own imagination (which is not to say that the film is without its explicit gore and nastiness). It relies to a certain degree on the acting, and both Long and Philips are fine.

It begins to loose itself about half way through however. As the plot unfolds and the script tries to get to grips with the nature of the beast against which our heroes are pitted, its poverty of thematic imagination shows. The explanations are unsatisfactorily vague (it feels more like an excuse not to work things out clearly than an attempt at ambiguity as in The Blair Witch Project) and the incidents which transpire are increasingly silly and meaningless (not inexplicable, just meaningless). Having won our respect by keeping it low key, the film becomes more action-oriented in a series of violent encounters which accomplish little enough as far as the story is concerned.

There is not enough going on between the main characters by the time Patricia Belcher and Eileen Brennan are introduced in bizarre, midjudged roles which seem only half workd out. The generic seams begin to show through the ever-less frightening incidents which make up the latter half of the film. What had initially seemed something interesting becomes nothing more than a series of anecdotal incidents which serve as temporary diversions before the film gets back to what it started with; teens pursued by monster. It has nothing new to say about either, and little enough to say overall. In these circumstances, the reaction shots become repetitive. We are no longer interested enough in these people to care that they are visibly scared, and the long, slow movement of the camera away from their wide-eyed faces leaves us colder and colder.

By the time it reaches its shaggy-dog finale, the film has completely lost its grip. The wrapup is abrupt and predictable, as if cut off before the story really gets going. Perhaps there was a built-in plan for a sequel, or a 'director's cut' which will explain what they would have done if executive producer Francis Ford Coppola had only given them more money. It aspires to be a classic campfire yarn, but it ends up a joke with a weak punchline. Horror fans will still probably get a kick out of it, mind. It will fill a corner for the diehard fan, and its success Stateside would seem to suggest it has. But at a time when Japanese flicks like Ring and Audition seem to be taking centre stage, American horror will need to try harder to earn back some respect. Real fear must be earned through respect. Despite its strong opening, this is a film is ultimately too easily dismissed and filed with scores of other minor genre entries.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2001.