Jeepers Creepers” has a bugaboo, fun house freakishness to it. It’s a pared-down horror exercise whose sole purpose is to shock its audience with a series of sneaky, well-timed scares. Pic does, at least for a while — with a welcome absence of teen matinee idols and a preference for Johnny Mercer over Britney Spears on the soundtrack — until illogic gets the better of it, catapulting it into that horror/fantasy wasteland of other celluloid specters. Trying but ultimately failing to surmount a number of the hokey genre hallmarks its self-aware characters teasingly skewer, pic emerges as the most conventional and least imaginative of the recent crop of high-class fright movies that includes “The Others,” “Session 9” and “Wendigo.” Late-summer returns for this first release from Francis Ford Coppola’s new, low-budget production pact with United Artists should be modest, and pic will undoubtedly find its most faithful viewers on the small screen.
In a classical set-up, Trish (Gina Phillips) and brother Darry (Justin Long), driving home during spring break from college, decide to take the “long, scenic route,” which involves traveling through rural farm country on a stretch of two-lane blacktop. We’re in the milieu of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” here — a world of hidden terrors lurking beneath sunlight, heat and dust. And before long, the siblings find themselves terrorized, “Duel”-style, by a speeding, ramshackle cargo van whose bronzed, rusted-over appearance and blaring, bleating horn create a jolting blast of carnival-sideshow madness.
After a narrow escape, another genre staple: an abandoned roadside church, where the driver of the van appears to be dumping something (could those be bloodied corpses, rope-tied and covered in sheets?) down a menacing drain pipe. Now, even though they know better, even though Trish flat-out reminds us that in horror movies people always do unwise things that the audience ends up hating them for, she and Darry make a U-turn and go back to inspect the church grounds and to determine whether any of that drain pipe’s denizens are still kicking. It’s a choice that, more than earning the ire of the audience, really gets under the skin of the church’s unseen, anthropophagic inhabitant, who proceeds to pursue Trish and Darry from one under-policed hick county to the next over the course of one very long night.
Refreshingly, “Jeepers Creepers” owes more to the “Twilight Zone” and “Outer Limits” anthology series of the 1960s than to the mid-’90s spate of teen-centric slasher pics. (In fact, pic resembles a land-set version of Richard Matheson’s “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.”) Perhaps this has something to do with why pic doesn’t quite work at feature length, but Salva’s preference for creepy, unnerving atmosphere over calculated sledgehammer shocks works to pic’s credit. Salva’s best scares, like the slow revealing of a corpse-strewn underground tomb, blind side you. Smartly, pic holds off on divulging the identity of its bogeyman villain for quite a stretch, but once it does, the built-up tension escapes like so much helium from a punctured balloon. Once he lets go of this element of unknown, Salva also relinquishes much of the gritty, “Texas Chainsaw”-esque atmosphere he has established to a supernatural conflagration of ancient demons, prophecies and apocryphal psychics, and pic becomes increasingly silly.
Some of this fantasy jabber is played for laughs, and Salva makes an admirable effort here to keep a sense of humor about pic, without delving headfirst into Wes Craven post-modernism. But by the final, climactic pursuit, it’s as certain that we’re expected to take things seriously as it is that Salva’s characters have forgotten everything they once knew about what not to do in a horror movie.
Though thesps are on hand mainly to serve as available pieces of meat for that which is out to get them, newcomers Phillips and Long serve well in the leads, affecting a believable brother-sister bond. Pic’s real stars, however, are the gymnastic Jonathan Breck and the eye-popping make-up and creature effects that bring his character (credited as The Creeper, but never named in the movie) to life.