Criminal Kinnema #3 – Jeepers Creepers (2001)

August 28, 2010 by Simon Kinnear in Retro with 0 Comments

Continuing my loosely themed ‘horror weekend,’ is the latest in my naming and shaming of the worst films I’ve reviewed over the past seven-and-a-bit years.  This one might be controversial, ’cause the film got some decent reviews, but… no.  Nuh-uh.  It squanders its promising start so badly it really is criminal.

Jeepers Creepers
(Victor Salva, US, 2001)

First half: Jeepers! Second half: Crap.

It’s rather a sad indictment of the lowered expectations of contemporary horror, that Jeepers Creepers is regarded as one of the stand-outs of the past decade. Whilst I’d be inclined to agree on the strength of the first half, either audiences suffer a collective taste bypass come the half-way mark, or else someone had switched reels on the print I saw.

Effectively, Victor Salva commits one of the most heinous crimes in fictional storytelling – a broken promise. Whilst there’s nothing wrong per se with a tonal or narrative volte-face (in fact, the results can be electrifying), such rug-pulling requires some commitment to structure or sense. It also helps if the change is for the best…but to switch from atmospheric dread into arbitrarily-plotted, poorly realised and defiantly unterrifying schlock is one hell of a stumble.

Certainly, the opening half-hour promises so much. OK, so it’s Duel meets The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but since when has imitation hindered horror? The film stands and falls on its scare value, and this is often very scary. What’s particularly impressive is that Salva conjures up this sinister atmosphere in broad daylight, with a crisp pace and taut visual sense that’s derived from Hitchcock and Spielberg rather than exclusively genre directors.

But brilliant though it is, the hook is built on very shaky foundations. No doubt Salva was thinking of (and, worryingly, has since succeeded in) building a franchise around The Creeper – effectively, Freddy Krueger remixed by Q The Winged Serpent – but, frankly, he’s rubbish. A demon who awakes every 23 years for 23 days to harvest human body parts? Who announces his arrival by playing the old music hall standard, “Jeepers Creepers”? Eh?

If the intro lacks any originality, the resolution has arguably too much. It would be have preferable to leave things unspoken, especially when Salva’s alternative is to use that old standby of sloppy screenwriting, the crazy psychic character, as the mouthpiece for exposition that he could find no other way to dramatise. The old crone’s premonitions are supposed to provide a frightening foretaste of horrors to come, but really it’s just a way of trying to shore up the story’s pitifully weak motivation.

And so the focus and precision of the first act gets lost in a random stumbling through aimless scenes (precisely what is the relevance of the scene with the “Cat Lady”?) and an uncertain tone, which veers perilously close to Python territory as Trish repeatedly runs over the Creeper for a sick, cheap laugh. It’s so rushed that it feels like there’s stuff missing.

Most baffling of all, is that Salva’s direction falls into the same Bermuda triangle as everything else that was good about those early scenes. Now, whilst it’s understandable that a writer’s enthusiasm and complacency might unleash a broken-backed narrative, it’s difficult to accept that an apparently talented director would simply eject every vestige of style, but that’s what happens. It’s as if another guy has taken the helm, as every directorial tic that Salva had so studiously avoided – notably, the attention deficit cutting that it seems no horror movie can do without these days – comes back to haunt him in spurious excess. And he loses his grip entirely on the gauche amateury of his actors, with Justin Long adopting a look of pained stupidity that would be more appropriate in a silent-era potboiler.

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