As someone who’s spent large chunks of his life writing about horror movies in books and magazines, I know full well it’s a genre that, critically speaking, is the Rodney Dangerfield of cinema. It comes as a bit of a surprise, then, to see that Victor Salva’s Jeepers Creepers is on the receiving end of some respect from reviewers. And while that’s nice to see, it’s hard not to admit that some of the enthusiasm for the film is at the very least overstated. Sure, it’s not your standard cheesy horror flick (and if it is cheese, we’re talking camembert or brie, not Velveeta), and, yep, it beats the pants off its most immediate competition, Ghosts of Mars (but then Friday the 13th Part XXXVI: Jason Goes to Barber College would likely do that). There are so many things about the film that are good, great or just plain neat that it’s a shame that the movie ends up being a frustration instead of a delight. The picture starts slipping out of writer-director Salva’s control around the halfway mark, and spirals ever downward from there. Jeepers Creepers starts off strong. Salva sketches in a bickering brother-sister team (Justin Long, Galaxy Quest; Gina Philips, Nailed), who are savvily patterned on the pair in George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead — only far more likable, as well as better-written and acted. Salva scores with this duo as much by what he doesn’t tell us about them as by what he does: He deftly suggests that they have real and complex lives that extend far beyond the film’s narrative, affording them the illusion of reality. That’s a nice accomplishment in itself, but it’s essential in Jeepers Creepers, because this pair are soon called upon to retain their believability and likeability within a story that requires them to indulge in Horror Movie 101 Stupidity. Consider: You’re driving along the ultimate in desolate country roads in a ’57 Chevy with a dicey transmission and an AM radio that only seems to receive rather disconcerting Hot Gospel evangelists. Suddenly, you find yourself under attack by what amounts to an armored truck, the driver of which obviously does not have your best interests at heart. After he’s rammed your car a dozen or so times and runs you off the road before going his own way, you find yourself passing him and see him apparently sliding sheet-clad corpses down a pipe next to a very inhospitable-looking abandoned church. Naturally, the only sensible thing to do is … turn around and check out whether or not you’ve seen what you think you’ve seen. Well, at least that’s what our heroes do — far-fetched though it may be. (At least the film has a sense of humor about itself in this regard: Philips’ character actually states at a crucial point, “You know that part in scary movies where someone does something really stupid and you hate them? Well, this is it.”) There’s no denying that what the two find ranks up there with the creepiest of cinematic horrors. At this point — and for some time to come — Salva is in the realm of the local-legend quality of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and it works beautifully. It continues to work right up through a singularly weird sequence with guest star Eileen Brennan and a houseful of cats. Unfortunately, right there, Salva makes the certifiable mistake of moving from a vaguely defined horror that’s nothing more than a towering, shadowy figure in a long coat and a big hat to an all-too-defined “man-in-the-rubber-suit” type of monster with make-up that looks left over from the TV movie Gargoyles. He shows his fiend all too clearly and all too often, losing not only all the creature’s mystery, but most of its previously very real menace. In other words, Salva snatches defeat from the jaws of victory and his movie becomes mildly entertaining trash. He very nearly recovers his footing with a final scene (the unnerving setting of which is clearly inspired by the original A Nightmare on Elm Street) and the clever use of a 1930s children’s song, “Hush, Hush, Here Comes the Bogeyman,” performed by Henry Hall’s BBC Children’s Orchestra over his ending credits, but it’s too little, too late. What so easily could have been one of the summer’s few pleasant surprises turns out to be the summer’s biggest missed opportunity.
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