Victor Salva's JEEPERS CREEPERS was an exercise in missed opportunities and one of the strangest horror films to watch so far this century. What made it so odd is that you could literally cut the film up into three separate parts. As the film began, it dealt with a brother and sister who came across an insane driver on the road and eventually his menagerie of mutilation and death. It was the start of classic horror filmmaking. The first half-hour of JEEPERS CREEPERS is about as effective as horror films can get, with DUEL-inspired suspense and a kicker that was just amazing. The second sequence involved them trying to outrun "the Creeper" as he's known in horror circles and trying to get to safety (You'll notice I refer to the Creeper as a "he." Let's face it, the creature is very masculine and seems to be a gender specific embodiment of the boogeyman.). It still provided some decent scares, but seemed to be taking a rest from the high-octane beginning. The third half-hour involved the final showdown at the local police station and sorry to say, it was absolutely terrible. It was hard to reconcile that the final act of this film was handled by the same people who provided such a strong build-up, but it was. Victims were picked off left and right without much creativity. We were introduced to the film's silliest character - a psychic of the 1-900 variety that sought only to provide needed exposition when the script couldn't find any other way to tell us what was going on. JEEPERS CREEPERS became a by-the-numbers shocker and even the surprising ending didn't completely make up for it.
If you could split JEEPERS CREEPERS into three TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE episodes of varying quality, you could split JEEPERS CREEPERS 2 into a one-hour special. But it would still be a terrible entry. Sorry to say the sequel has all of JEEPERS CREEPERS' problems and none of its originality. The film was originally to be subtitled "LIKE A BAT OUT OF HELL." While this sounds horrible, it couldn't be any more transparent than the rest of the film.
Our prologue features a farm family doing the standard chores. The youngest child in the family is putting down scarecrows in the cornfield when he notices one of the figures moving. The kid is picked off in front of his father (Ray Wise - TWIN PEAKS) and older brother.
This sets the stage for the film proper in which a school bus of high school basketball players, excited about their victory that day, breaks down in the middle of a rural interstate. The adults check the damage and find a strange shuriken-like weapon, fashioned out of claws and teeth in the tires. The rest of the film is a waiting game. As night falls, the Creeper (Jonathan Breck, reprising the role) starts picking them off (Why wait? He didn't have a problem striking in daylight before.). Several of the teammates begin turning on one another as the decision is made that the Creeper just wants some of them, and there should be no reason for all of them to die. They also have to decide whether to stay on the bus or dare to make a run for it, for fear that the Creeper will get them.
This may be the first horror film to be inspired by a SOUTH PARK episode. Do you know the one I'm talking about? The kids' school bus breaks down in the middle of nowhere. The unclean and angry school bus driver (a dead ringer for the one I had in the first grade) screams at them, warning the kids that if they dare leave the bus, "a giant monster will come out and eat you!" Turns out she's right. The monster even looks a bit like the creeper, all dark, tall and shadowy - and it does choose to scoop the tykes up and discard the leftovers. By the 45 minute mark of the film, every time someone talked about the safety of the bus compared with the outdoors - and this is often - I couldn't help but snicker. Surely, it was too much of a coincidence.
The greatest failure of JEEPERS CREEPERS 2 is that from the first scene on, the film has nowhere to go but down. In the original, the most effective scenes stemmed from the fact that we had no idea what this monster was. In the beginning, we saw a truck with a bad muffler and suspected there might be a madman behind the wheel. Then the truck tried to kill the siblings. Okay, a murderous madman. Then we saw a tall figure in a trechcoat dispose of a bundled up corpse. A strong, murderous madman. Then we saw him leap on top of a police car. Er, an athletic, strong, murderous madman. And then we saw the wing and I for one, gasped. Every time you saw the Creeper, there was a sense of "What the hell is this thing?" and more importantly, "What is he going to do next?".
The sequel takes it for granted that is has answered all these questions already. The Creeper is flying within seconds of our first glimpse of him. All the cards are on the table. The only new thing we see is that the Creeper is able to pick and choose his victims based on what will provide the most nourishing parts for his long hibernation. But this isn't really much of a revelation. One scene that was never filmed, but is provided in storyboards on the DVD, involves the Creeper manipulating the vocal chords of one victim to "speak" to it's food. Aside from this, we know everything we need to know about the Creeper. The kids are in the dark at first but soon find out in the film's second most ridiculous plot point. A cheerleader (Nicki Lynn Aycox - SLAP HER SHE'S FRENCH) has a psychic dream where Justin Long makes a cameo reprising his role from the original. He tells her all about the Creeper so she can tell her friends. Although, since he basically says there's no escaping their monster, I have no idea what this dream is supposed to do. Oh wait, yes I do. Once again, the script has written itself into a corner and given us exposition the only way it knows how, by way of psychic vision. Aycox is taken to task when she explains their plight. One player says, "Just this morning, you were waving your pom-poms at people." All I could think was, "Hey, I'm with you buddy."
While we're on the subject, we should tackle the characters. There aren't any. A lot of dramatic tension was created in JEEPERS CREEPERS by focusing on two characters, a brother and sister who shared a familial bond that already made the stakes very high. Now, we have two dozen high school students with no real allegiances to anyone but themselves. None of the characters is mapped out very well beyond some basic scenarios. Jake (Josh Hammond - TIMECOP 2), for instance, is a narcissistic homophobe. Izzy (Travis Schiffner) is the object of his scorn. But the worst character is our hero. At least I think he's the hero, but he sure doesn't do anything that can be called heroic. Scott (Eric Nenninger - MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE) doesn't deserve to have that name. When we first see him, he's sulking. The team has one a big championship, but he didn't get to play as much as he wanted to. He huffs that the reason must be he's white, not pointing out that most of the team is white. "Maybe I have the wrong skin color to play on this team," he says. Well, cry me a river! Yes, we're supposed to feel sorry for this guy because he didn't want to be part of the team and he immediately jumps on a racist bandwagon. I wish I could say this is something that he learns to grow beyond in the film, but it's not made nearly evident enough.
Much has been made of Salva's past and I do not want to dwell on it too much. There have been many questionable artists who are nonetheless talented. I cheered when Roman Polanski won the Best Director Oscar for THE PIANIST. Polanski is one of my favorites, in fact. And remember, he never did serve his time, unlike Salva. But then, few people call attention to their previous transgressions like Victor Salva and this is the worst case since CLOWNHOUSE, the film that got him into trouble in the first place. Never once in the film does he miss an opportunity to show perfectly proportioned boys going shirtless. Many times, they will take their shirts off during a scene for no reason whatsoever. True, slasher films of old threw in gratuitous skin on their women and I'm a tremendous admirer of filth. But here, it is impossible to overlook. He throws it right into our faces. This should not be disturbing. I have nothing against him showing off male flesh. But the fact is, even though the actors are doing the old Hollywood trick of playing teenagers despite being in their mid-twenties, these are still supposed to be teenagers. No over 18s in this crowd, unless you're talking about the supervisors who are conveniently the first ones disposed of (Age before beauty, I guess), giving them the chance to run the show. It calls attention not to Salva's public past at being a gay man, but at being a convicted child molester. I may be wrong on this one, but I could have sworn I heard some awfully suggestive lines in their team fight song as well, including the line, "Better not mess with the fighting cock." It's as if he's proudly defiant over a criminal past no one should be proud of. It makes it hard to judge the film on it's own merits.
Now, you'll recall I said the psychic cheerleader was the second most ridiculous plot point in the film. So, what's the first? Well, that would be the reappearance of Ray Wise and son, who go on a vengeance spree to kill the Creeper. This involves making an ARMY OF DARKNESS-like Death Coaster, complete with homemade industrial strength harpoon, out of their pickup truck. The most poignant character study in the whole film, that of a father who has lost his son, is turned into one big joke. Wise deserves better than this.
And of course, on top of everything, the film is dull as a butter knife. Running fourteen minutes longer than the original on roughly one-third of the script, it's a chore to sit through. The only scares come from a couple gory set-pieces. This is one thing the film manages to accomplish, the use of gore to enhance the scares rather than show off. One scene features the Creeper sloooowly removing a javelin from his skull and its the film's high-point. There is also one big surprise, although not so much as the original's last shot. But there isn't much creativity to go around. There is an extensive use of CGI, but none of it is used wisely. Most of it is just blurs as the Creeper whizzes through the sky. Most of the killings are of the "swoop in and snatch 'em off the ground" quality. If DARKNESS FALLS was an imitation of JEEPERS CREEPERS, JEEPERS CREEPERS 2 oddly feels like an imitation of DARKNESS FALLS at times. And why anyone would want to imitate that film, I have no idea.
JEEPERS CREEPERS should have been a franchise with legs. But like so many before it, it has run out of steam all too soon. Maybe a third installment will come by in a few years, and hopefully it will involve a major overhaul. That may unfortunately require Salva to pass the reigns onto someone who will allow the story to grow, and not bring all the baggage to the screen.