“Jeepers, creepers, where’d ya get them peepers? Jeepers, creepers, where’d ya get those eyes?”
In our slasher-saturated age of moviemaking, “Jeepers Creepers” seems like the corniest title that ever cried out box-office suicide. Bopping little ditty as it may have been in its 33 rpm days, the song wouldn’t spur a rush to buy the soundtrack.
The surprise is that, even though the title garnered laughs with every movie audience I was with who saw the trailer, “Jeepers Creepers” isn’t a bad little horror flick. Golly, who would have thought it?
The scenario is simple enough. Trish (Gina Philips) and younger brother Darry (Justin Long) have taken the scenic route home from their respective colleges. In the middle of this desolate back road, they witness two wrapped bodies being dumped down a pipe by an abandoned church. Darry insists on seeing for himself whether someone might still be alive and, in the process, accidentally slips down the conduit and lands in the basement. There, he becomes an unwitting eyewitness to a nightmarish vision: hundreds of nude corpses splayed along the walls like a nightmarish church fresco. The chase is just beginning.
Writer and director Victor Salva has fashioned a nostalgic horror movie with 21st-century dollops of gore. It’s more (or less, depending on your view of the genre) a monster movie, and a blatant homage to the “Creature Features” the Martinez native grew up watching. The movie also reunites Salva with executive producer Francis Ford Coppola.
More seasoned horror film veterans will find “Jeepers Creepers” mostly mild stuff. Those who reminisce about the early days of fright will appreciate the pacing, which milks fear through anticipation rather than the number of knife strokes. Salva also knows when to pull back a camera and let the landscape, like a desolate stretch of highway, look at once expansive and stifling. He pulls off a Hitchcock-lite sequence by tossing in black crows who do nothing but be ominous by their very presence.
Given the monumental strides in special effects and makeup, making a monster film is not necessarily an enviable task, since the monstrosity itself may turn out to look derivative, silly, or both. That is a make-or-break point with the audience, which either recoils in horror or breaks into helpless laughter. “Jeepers Creepers” somewhat successfully perseveres by deliberately injecting small doses of irreverence. For one thing, the monster takes such an obvious joy in his work that it’s hard to resent him for it, gruesome as his methodology is.
“Jeepers Creepers” also consciously works in the conceptual universe of the savvy horror-film viewer. “You know the part in a scary movie where someone does something really stupid?” Trish asks in frustration when her brother insists on sticking his head down the pipe. “This is it.”
It helps that Philips and Long are believable as bickering but loyal siblings. Before they make their discovery, the two pass the time playing license plate games, telling each other urban legends and, most importantly, not answering each other’s questions. At one point during the ride, Trish reaches into the back for water and recoils at the sight of Darry’s dirty laundry, which he is bringing home for his mother to wash. “It’s not for me, it’s for her,” he says, articulating a delusion of male teendom. They also balance out moments of being mesmerized by fear with their desperation to do the right thing (like go to the police, twice).
There are always moments of implausibility, such as the teen-agers’ apparent resistance to picking up the handiest nearby weapon, slow reaction time, or why the murderous critter has a personalized license plate for his deathmobile. In fact, one part of the formula Salva omits is the pseudo-science babble of how such a monster came to be.
Still, the director sustains a thread of dreadful realism to the very end and restores one of the original objectives of the teen horror film, which is exposing such wriggling anxieties as sex or the loss of childhood innocence. In the last two decades, with the “Halloween” and “Nightmare on Elm Street” sequels and “Scream” parodies, the genre has become self-involved and reflexive. The anxiety in “Jeepers Creepers” revolves around the consequences of being a spectator of too much horror.
Then again, perhaps even that is excessive analysis. Jeepers, maybe what you see is what you get, and that can be creepy enough.