2001 was not a time when horror fans were expecting an old-fashioned monster movie to pop up at the box office. There were plenty of haunted houses and post-Scream slashers making the rounds but very little in the way of traditional things that go bump in the night. However, Jeepers Creepers bucked the prevailing trends of the time and became a surprise hit at the box office as the summer of 2001 drew to a close. Over a decade later, it still remains an effective example of how crafty filmmakers can find new life in a classic trend.
Jeepers Creepers starts nice and simple, with brother Darry (Justin Long) and sister Trish (Gina Philips) on a road trip. It’s peaceful until a nasty truck almost drives them off the road – and they see the driver of said truck appearing to dump a body. When Darry tries to investigate, he unknowingly stumbles into the lair of an ages-old being known as the Creeper (Jonathan Breck) that is in the middle of a feeding cycle. The duo does their best to stay off his menu but discover their foe is as resourceful as the Terminator in chasing them.
At this point, it should be mentioned that Jeepers Creepers is a controversial title because it was written and directed by Victor Salva. He has a criminal past tied to his first film (search his name on the internet and you’ll find plenty of info) and this makes him a divisive figure in genre circles.
However, if you can separate the art from the artist, Jeepers Creepers is a very smart and engaging update of the monster movie. Salva builds his story with care, weaving in a series of effective scare setpieces throughout and figuring out clever ways to build out and reinvent his narrative as the tale unfurls itself. Even better, the film’s central monster is a compelling one, with enough unique elements to draw the audience in but enough mystery to keep them on their toes.
The film’s scary moments rely on skillful filmmaking rather than gore or cheap jump-scares, which gives the film’s popcorn thrills an unexpected substance. Salva gives the film a modern sleekness thanks to slick, crafty camerawork by Don FauntLeRoy and punchy editing by Ed Marx (that said, Bennett Salvay’s full-throttle orchestral score maintains the vintage monster movie mood).
Another aspect of the film that feels modern lies in how Salva makes his college-age protagonists more interesting than usual, using his first act to build up a believably touch-and-go brother/sister relationship between the two leads. The casting for the two heroes is also spot-on. Long has a naturally humorous presence that makes him easy to like yet he also can play fear convincingly when the time arises. Philips is convincing as the tougher, more cynical half of the duo but brings out a carefully guarded emotional depth in the latter half of the film that gives the ‘tough chick’ archetype added dimension. It’s worth noting that there is also an effective turn late in the film by Patricia Belcher as a sad, haunted psychic trying to help the heroes – and Breck is a genuinely unnerving presence as the bestial villain.
In short, Jeepers Creepers is a monster movie that feels classic and modern all at once thanks to its savvy approach to traditional thrills.