Jeepers Creepers (2001)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2016-06-09 16:31
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Jeepers Creepers (2001)
Studio: Scream Factory
Release date: June 14th, 2016

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)




The movie:

When tackling Jeepers Creepers, you can’t ignore the larger conversation that has grown around it in the years since its release. Quite frankly, it’s galling that Victor Salva’s horrible crimes weren’t always a part of the discussion, though there’s something to be said for the fact that people seem to be more aware these days (one has to think it’s at least played a role in continually delaying the long-rumored Jeepers Creepers 3). It’s become inseparable from the film to the point of overshadowing it: even calling it the elephant in the room feels too dismissive. Separating the art from the artist is practically an imperative, and drawing the line at any point almost seems arbitrary—certainly, you’d have to ignore plenty of art if you held all creators to an unflinching moral standard (in fact, there’s no telling how many fewer reviews this site would currently host).

Why is it, then, that it’s so difficult to create that dissonance with Jeepers Creepers? I suppose the monstrous nature of Salva’s crimes—which were committed on the set of a film that was ultimately released—are too unforgivable, even if he atoned in the eyes of the law. However, it certainly doesn’t help that Salva’s film does so little to disavow his actions: you can’t separate the art from the artist when the latter makes it so difficult. Taken at its most basic level, Jeepers Creepers involves a monstrous predator preying upon a younger boy—thoughts of his crimes don’t just linger in the back of your head so much as they’re shoved into your face by the film itself.

I’ll be honest—I intended for this review to start with more of a brief disclaimer to acknowledge Salva’s sordid history before attempting to focus on Jeepers Creepers. But doing so would be intellectually dishonest, if not plain old dishonest: while watching the film for the first time in several years, my mind never strayed too terribly far from it. At this point, it retroactively shadows whatever fond memories I had about the movie. Maybe in another time, I could wax nostalgically about seeing it in theaters, but it seems kind of disingenuous to indulge something like that.

I would like to be able to look past it all—even though Jeepers Creepers has never been a personal favorite, it is effectively crafted and generally well-done. The oft-repeated criticism of it has become a cliché, so much so that the crew acknowledges it in a newly produced retrospective on Scream Factory’s Blu-ray: the first half of the film is taut, tense, and evocative, while the deflating second half sees the film lose its steam once its secrets are revealed. It’s been my impression since 2001, and this revisit did little to convince me otherwise, though I have come to accept the outlandish turn of events during the third act that felt so jarring back then. At that age, I simply wanted the film that was playing out in my head; fifteen years later, that feels solipsistic, so I’m more inclined to meet it halfway, at least in theory.

If anything, though, watching it again only reinforced and heightened the contrast between the two halves. More specifically, it’s the first third that stands as one of the more gripping and atmospheric horror movies from the era, as two siblings (Gina Phillips and Justin Long) breeze down an eerily desolate, rural highway, where their ratty car radio can only pick up the rantings and ravings of evangelical preachers. There’s nothing out here except for the occasional car, which might provide an opportunity for the two to play a game involving vanity tags. In a short amount of time, the script and actors deftly build a lived-in chemistry that’s immediately recognizable: you like Trish and Darry, a couple of nice kids who worry aloud about how their mom is getting along now that they’re away at college between needling each other with insults they’ve no doubt hurled since they were kids.

Likewise, they can’t help but whisper about a local urban legend about a girl who literally lost her head in a prom night car accident on this very road. It’s an unwitting prelude of the horror that will soon barrel into their lives in the form of a beat-up old truck that terrorizes them. With an enigmatic driver at the wheel, this vehicle conjures up the preternatural menace of Duel. There’s a great sense of mystery that’s only heightened when Trish and Darry glimpse the driver dumping what looks to be a body down a drainpipe, something that pique’s the latter’s curiosity. In an ill-advised move, Darry convinces his sister to investigate further, only to stumble on a grotesque lair lined with a crazy-quilt of preserved bodies. It turns out that the campfire tale involving prom night was very real, and yet that truth is somehow stranger than fiction.

Nothing will recapture watching this unfold for the first time, when you obviously have no clue where Jeepers Creepers is headed, but it’s still entertaining to watch how playfully it reveals its secrets. It continues to play coy by introducing a psychic (Patricia Belcher) and keeping the true nature of its villain hidden for as long as it can. Even when the Creeper (Jonathan Breck) is properly introduced, it’s staged in an inexplicable fashion: somehow, it manages to perch atop a moving police car and decapitate its occupants. Soon thereafter, it kisses one of the severed heads before chowing down on it in a sequence that’s meant to make audiences squirm to the edge of their seat as they wonder just what in the hell is going on here.

Once the answer is eventually revealed, it turns out Jeepers Creepers has nestled an old-fashioned little creature feature inside of a typical slasher movie set-up, a clever structure that I appreciate more now—I mean, how many of these off-the-beaten path road movies end up at the den of some maniac (or maniacs)? Jeepers Creepers plays off of those expectations by crafting a monster movie mythology instead. The Creeper is a unique creature that masquerades as an anthropomorphic boogeyman before it reveals its true form, and his gruesome design is realized via a gloriously practical latex and rubber concoction that reimagines what the Creature from the Black Lagoon might look like if it were crossed with a gargoyle.

Echoing the vintage Universal era with this design is no coincidence: Jeepers Creepers consistently evokes the thrills and chills of those monstrous matinee idols, albeit with more of a sick, gory bent. In many respects, it stands apart from its contemporaries at a time when horror was at something of a crossroads: with the slasher resurgence already fading and the remake boom still a few years off in the distance, Jeepers Creepers offered a unique throwback to the nostalgia-tinted films of the 80s. It has more in common with The Blob and Night of the Creeps than it does with anything that was in theaters in 2001, which isn’t surprising since its director was a self-admitted matinee and late-night TV horror junkie.

It’s such a shame that there’s so much more of Silva that keeps bubbling to the surface here. Just when you can almost lose yourself in Jeepers Creepers, there’s a stark reminder provided by the director, almost as if he can’t help himself. You wonder how he could write a sequence where the Creeper has rifled through and sniffed Darry’s clothes, most pointedly his underwear, without someone raising some concerns. Likewise, the Creeper uncomfortably corners his targets before sniffing them in a predatory, sexual manner, an act made all the more disturbing by its director’s crimes of molestation and assault.

There’s an argument to be made that Salva certainly has the right to explore his personal demons via his art, though that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s guaranteed such a high-profile platform that nationwide theatrical distribution entails. I tend to resist biographical readings, but Salva makes it so difficult with films like this and Powder. What’s so disturbing about Jeepers Creepers in particular is how unapologetic it is: it’d be one thing if Salva were experiencing some self-loathing angst about his demons, but he all but conquers them. It’s a film that confirms that not only confirms that he is the demon but that he also has won: the film literally climaxes with a creeper fleeing from a jail in triumph, and its resolution reveals that he’s taken a literal piece of the boy he’s been stalking. You can’t help but sense some measure of self-satisfaction on the part of Silva, who treats the final shot as a “gotcha” moment that lands far too uneasily in light of everything.

Ultimately, Jeepers Creepers is an unfortunate reminder that evil can win out in more ways than one—and sometimes, it even gets a deal with a major studio for a thinly-veiled film that all but revels in its exploits. In any other case, fifteen years might be long enough for me to come around on a film like Jeepers Creepers, but something tells me no amount of time will ever allow me to truly enjoy it.

The disc:

With its Blu-ray collector’s edition releases of both Jeepers Creepers and its sequel, Scream Factory finds itself in the awkward position of lauding a movie directed by a reprehensible person. To its credit, head honchos Jeff Nelson and Cliff McMillian did recently address the controversy about as well as can be expected on a recent episode of Shock Waves, so I will defer to their own words to serve as a defense. Not that I think their decision is completely indefensible—again, their library would be at least one movie smaller if they only released films where everyone involved was a saint (Ravenous actor Jeffrey Jones was once convicted of soliciting a minor, and he appeared in the Blu-ray special features). It’s complicated, to put it mildly.

What is kind of difficult to defend is the decision to feature Salva himself so prominently in the special features. The disc ports over both his original audio commentary, plus a newly recorded track with Phillips and Long. He also appears in “Jeepers Creepers: Then and Now,” a thirty-five minute retrospective that also involves producer Barry Opper, DP Don FauntLeRoy, editor Ed Marx, and Actor Tom Tarantini. It’s the usual quick overview of the film’s conception, production, and release, but there’s something especially unsettling about watching Salva gleefully recall the experience. At one point, he even discusses how Francis Ford Coppola’s involvement came as a surprise because, as Salva explains in a particularly oblivious moment, he hadn’t spoken with him for a decade—no doubt because he was a convicted child molester, not that anyone is (obviously) going to point that out. While people can atone and be forgiven, it’s tough to do that here, and I imagine most people wouldn’t mind only hearing from the rest of the cast and crew.

Otherwise, there are some bright spots to this disc, such as “From Critters to Creepers,” an extended interview with Opper, who briefly discusses a career in Hollywood that has spanned Corman to New Line Cinema. As the title suggests, he chats about his involvement as the brainchild of the Critters franchise (his brother, Don, of course starred in all four), which started as one of New Line’s hot commodities before being lost in the shuffle once the studio merged with Warner Brothers.

In one of the more disheartening moments, he confirms that there’s no interest in reviving the franchise for a reboot, a revelation that’s obvious enough but still represents more than you ever learned from the actual DVD releases of Critters. Given the unlikelihood of Scream ever procuring the rights to Critters (and its status as a Warner Brothers title makes that highly unlikely, per the aforementioned Shock Waves episode), this is the next best thing, and it’s a clever way for the label to throw fans a bone.

The rest of the disc is also solid, as Belcher appears in “The Town Psychic,” another interview segment that has the actress similarly reminiscing. Between this and the new commentary, just about every principal cast member is accounted for in the new material. Whatever gaps are filled by the vintage material that’s ported over from the original DVD release, including a making-of feature, deleted and extended scenes, alternate opening and ending sequences, a photo gallery, a theatrical trailer, and a radio spot.

There’s no doubt this is a definitive release for Jeepers Creepers—if anything, it may be too definitive, given Salva’s heavy involvement. Far be it from me, however, to judge anyone’s feelings about buying the disc. I certainly couldn’t blame anyone for not wanting to support something that indirectly puts money into Salva’s pocket, no matter how well-done this edition might be.
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