A fleeting image of the supernatural villain, Creeper (Jonathan Breck), illuminated by the moon as he flies off with a victim in tow, is ample indication that this horror movie is an anti-fairy tale, perhaps designed as an antidote to the 'enhanced version' of Spielberg's E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) released around the same time.
Movie buffs are either going to love or hate Jeepers Creepers. Its homages to John Carpenter, Wes Craven, David Lynch, The Terminator (1984) and Duel (1971) come thick and fast. There is scarcely a single original element in it, as the witty reply to the line, "Is he dead?" – "They never are" – gleefully indicates. But the verve of its execution and the unapologetic bleakness of its itinerary give it a special aura.
Darry (Justin Long) and Trish (Gina Philips) engage in teenage brother-sister banter as they drive down an empty, endless stretch of road. After they are menaced by an ugly truck and spot its even uglier driver dumping a suspicious-looking load into a drainpipe, the pair decides to pull over and investigate. From there, the bad vibes escalate to a near-apocalyptic level.
This is a well-shaped, superbly crafted work. Seemingly banal images – like the opening shot of the teen's car in the distance momentarily disappearing from sight down a dip in the road – create incredible disquiet. The sound effects, beginning with the jarring horn on the offending truck, mess shamelessly with our moods and perceptions.
Much of the bracing, brutal effect of Jeepers Creepers is created by its judiciously minimal selection of plot elements. As in Abel Ferrara's horror-fantasy films (such as Body Snatchers ), typical humanist themes like moral awareness and emotional growth matter less than purely physical, primal bonds. The scene in which Trish begs with Creeper to be the replacement for her brother is unforgettable: "We are the same inside!"
Likewise, the mystery elements of the plot – centred on the oft-heard song "Jeepers Creepers", coded messages on car license plates, and the premonitory visions of a babbling psychic, Jezelle (Patricia Belcher) – tend to signal starkly literal possibilities, rather than wishy-washy, comforting escape-routes. This is a film that never evades its scariest prospects.
Director Victor Salva is fast becoming the new Roman Polanski. Hasty commentators seem unable to resist the temptation to relate allegations about his private life to his dark work on screen. Salva's previous feature, Powder (1995), was a bizarre fable woven from many undigested dreams and nightmares with sexual connotations.
Jeepers Creepers is a far more controlled piece, but perversity is still paramount – signalled by the suggestive manner in which Creeper carefully smells his victims (or their disengaged body parts) before deciding exactly how he will violate them. Salva even borrows from an X-Files episode a gruesome analogy between the monster's serial killing and the Holocaust – a touch of gothic melodrama that works well.
After the debacle of Apocalypse Now Redux (2001), we can thank Francis Ford Coppola and his associates for nurturing Salva's disturbing vision and sticking with it right down the line. The final scene is on my list of the great screen moments of 2002.
© Adrian Martin January 2002