Back in the 1990s, a magazine company I worked for published a highly-regarded horror title called Fear, from which I recall one short story for its final line: “make it one for my baby, and one more for the toad.” The whole piece had been building up to that magnificently cheesy, but also horrifying, pun.
Thinking of that story always reminds me of Victor Salva’s Jeepers Creepers, the first and by far the best of the movies bearing that name. Its entire 90-minutes might have been conceived solely to give an outrageously grim double meaning to Johnny Mercer’s lyric at the end of the film (performed here by Paul Whiteman): “Jeepers creepers, where’d you get those peepers? / Jeepers creepers, where’d you get those eyes?”
The concluding shot that accompanies that lyric is macabre and hilarious in equal measure, and the same goes for most of Salva’s film. The storyline’s simplicity itself: brother and sister Darry (Justin Long) and Trish (Gina Philips) are driving home from college through the backwoods of Florida when an ancient rusty truck, its driver invisible, tries to force them off the road—in unmistakable echoes of Steven Spielberg’s debut Duel (1971).
Shortly afterward they see the truck parked next to an abandoned church, and an oddly-garbed figure apparently dumping a body from it. There are traces of Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) here as well, and more generally in the suggestion that deeply rural America’s a dangerous place for outsiders, being almost a different country full of inbred rednecks and fire-and-brimstone radio preachers.
Though Trish wants to just call the police, Darry insists they investigate (“this is why girls are smarter”, she opines). This proves to be a big mistake, as their attempts to get help after a terrible discovery go awry, and the strange driver of the truck is soon pursuing them.
To this extent, Jeepers Creepers is hugely unoriginal, but that’s frankly the point: it’s not a parody or a spoof of teens-in-peril slasher movies (and the model clearly is the slasher rather than monster genre, even though a supernatural element does emerge), but it’s a kind of homage to their silliness as well as a horror film in its own right. It’s serious and tongue-in-cheek at the same time and with a shocking, expectation-defying bleak conclusion.
It’s straightforwardly shot and written, mostly only showing us what Darry and Trish know, and concentrating on their experience almost to the exclusion of other characters—with only one, psychic Jezelle (Patricia Hartman), at all developed. And even she seems largely a narrative convenience to provide some quick explanations. The story itself is the highlight all the way, adorned but not overwhelmed by plenty of humour, both obvious and subtle.
The threatening truck’s licence plate reads ‘BEATNGU’ (and no, it doesn’t translate into “beating you”, as Darry first imagines). There’s a wonderful revamp of psycho-killer urban myths with a killer on a car roof, with a beautifully crafty early shot where we glimpse, through the back window of Darry and Trish’s car, a middle-aged couple’s camper van that’s been following them now turning off the road to reveal the fearsome truck behind it. There’s also some banter about Darry’s boxer shorts turning pink in the washing machine, and soon we see him using a pair of them to tie up the car’s damaged trunk.
And, of course, there are knowing references to the genre itself. “Do you think he’s dead?” Darry asks, hoping they’ve managed to dispatch their pursuer. “They never are”, Trish replies. Writer-director Salva never lets these dominate, though. Jeepers Creepers may invite us to chuckle at the conventions of the scary movie, but it’s determined to be scary itself too.
In aid of this, the true nature of the truck’s driver (played by Jonathan Breck and referred to only in the credits as ‘The Creeper’) is carefully and slowly revealed, and when we see him fully we recognise him as truly loathsome. There are no gimmicks about him, no Freddy Krueger striped jersey or Jason Voorhees hockey mask… he’s just malevolence personified. A supernatural folk horror monster with cannibalistic tendencies.
Long and Philips as his intended prey are essentially wholesome kids— likable, plausible, and well-acted in an unshowy way, with an uncomplicated and affectionate relationship. The insults they constantly exchange are only joshing. The genre norm may dictate boyfriend-girlfriend rather than brother-sister, but by removing a sexual undercurrent it makes the contrast of the normal and the abnormal, the good and the evil, all the more obvious in Jeepers Creepers. Here there are none of the troubling suggestions that victims might somehow “deserve it” because they’ve been sleeping together.
None of the other cast is important, though Eileen Brennan is certainly memorable as the ultimate cat lady. Jeepers Creepers doesn’t have much time to dwell on its secondary characters, and though a couple of scenes drag a little, for the most part, Salva propels his film briskly forward. Indeed, the sheer speed of The Creeper’s truck is exhilarating in itself.
As one might expect, Jeepers Creepers performed well at the 2001 box office, in appealing both to horror/slasher fans and to ironically-minded cineastes, but critics were divided. And even those who appreciated it often had mixed feelings. “Even at its most puerile, Jeepers Creepers has bite,” Ed Gonzalez wrote for Slant magazine, but “the film’s consistently tense mood is compromised somewhat by a climax more campy than scary”. A more adamant thumbs-up came from the BBC’s Nev Pierce, who called it “the best picture of its kind since Scream”, blending “the postmodern sensibility of Wes Craven’s slasher satire and the rawness of… The Texas Chain Saw Massacre to fearsome effect.”
Like The Creeper himself (and he, like the film, “needs to scare you”), a Jeepers Creepers franchise popped up intermittently in later years. Jeepers Creepers 2 (2003) was greeted by poor reviews but was actually an even bigger hit than the first, only to be followed much later by Jeepers Creepers 3 (2017), an ill-received straight-to-TV flop. Both were, again, made by Salva—but a further sequel due later this year, entitled Jeepers Creepers: Reborn, will be directed by Finnish filmmaker Timo Vuorensola.
There’s nothing the slightest bit complex about Jeepers Creepers. It is absolutely what meets the eye, and no more. But it is, for the most part, a tale so efficiently and unpretentiously told, so cheerfully dark, and so willing to follow the logic of its own horrible premise (not only with the collateral damage to secondary characters along the way but also with its brutal final image), that it’s a perfect little bloodthirsty delight.
“Children, have you ever met the Boogieman before?” Henry Hall sang in 1932; and by the time his jovial little ditty is playing over the end credits, you’ll be pretty sure you have come face to face with it.
USA • GERMANY | 2001 | 90 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
Cast & Crew
writer & director: Victor Salva.
starring: Justin Long, Gina Philips, Jonathan Breck & Patricia Belcher.