Saturday, September 13, 2008

Jeepers, Creepers, Peepers, and Queer Sequels

Once in awhile, a traditional monster movie comes along between the slashers and trendy horror of the day (torture porn, J-Horror, remakes) and revives the classic sensibilities of the genre. On Labor Day weekend of 2001, Jeepers Creepers crept into theaters with little advance fanfare and made a big splash despite a scandalous behind-the-scenes brouhaha involving the film's felonious writer/director.

Following a stark black and white opening title sequence and ominous music, the film opens on a two-lane highway cutting through what appears to be endless Midwest farmland. We’re introduced to Darry (Justin Long) and Trish (Gina Philips), brother and sister on their way home from college for spring break. After some realistically ornery sibling banter and a few license plate games, the teens experience a frightening roadway encounter with a battleship monstrosity of a truck with a blaring horn that sets every hair on end. Mood is ably further established when Darry and Trish debate the validity of an urban legend involving a couple named Kenny and Darla, who disappeared on the same stretch of road on their prom night back in ’78.

Shortly after, the teens spot the same truck parked outside an abandoned church and spy a tall figure throwing something bulky, wrapped in a bloodstained white sheet, and tied with rope down a pipe. Soon it’s more Creeper road rage à la Duel as the armored truck is in hot pursuit, ramming the teens’ car repeatedly from behind and eventually running them off the road. Not sure of what they saw, they double back to the church—fearing that whoever was dumped down the chute may still be alive. Cue the audience groans. With post-Scream self-reference, characteristic of the time but used judiciously here, writer/director Victor Salva dismisses any annoyance the audience may have by both acknowledging the teens’ poor choice and negating it when Trish—holding her brother by the ankles as he peers down the chute—says to him, “You know the part in scary movies where somebody does something really stupid and everybody hates them for it? This is it.”

The moment of post-modern humor is short-lived though as Darry predictably slips from his sister’s grasp and slides down the chute. A tense sequence follows as Darry finds a victim momentarily alive in the Creeper’s underground lair. Long does an admirable job conveying wide-eyed horror as he takes in the human wallpaper and discovers that the Kenny/Darla urban legend isn’t just a campfire tale.

Wisely, the siblings flee and take refuge at a roadside diner. There, Darry receives a puzzling call on a public telephone from a psychic who delivers a cryptic warning about a “house of pain,” lots of cats, and an urgent plea to run if he hears the titular song. As Darry and Trish relate their surreal story to the skeptical local authorities, the diner patrons move toward the windows in the background in a marvelously executed scene. Outside the diner, the teens find Darry’s clothing scattered on the ground as a waitress hesitantly informs them that she saw someone sniffing them. Cue goose bumps. It’s here that the audience gets its first hint of an aerial element with a terrific shot panning up and away from Trish as she looks skyward.

With a police cruiser escorting them, Darry and Trish head back in the direction of the old church, which we learn over the cruiser’s police band—in alternating scenes between the two cars—is now engulfed in flames. This is a terrific sequence in which Salva uses the contrasting interiors of the two vehicles to expertly build tension. While the audience is focused on the momentum of the conversation between Darry and Trish, they’re soon interrupted by movement atop the police cruiser roof. Through the rear window of the teens’ car, the audience learns that the Creeper can fly just as the familiar strains of an updated version of Jeepers Creepers comes over the teens’ car radio.

The Creeper dispatches with the police officers, sending the cruiser helter-skelter across the road and plowing into the teens. In a genuine gross-out moment that borders on high camp, Trish and Darry watch in horror as the Creeper—whistling that same tune—picks up one of the officer’s severed heads off the roadway, sniffs it, French kisses it(!), and rips the tongue out with its teeth. They hightail it outta there, and end up stopping at the home of a crazy gun-toting, cat-loving recluse (Eileen Brennan) to use the phone. Darry experiences a moment of déjà vu as kitty cats scamper all around him. On cue, Creeper arrives and exhibits some feline allergies that enrage shotgun-cradling cat lady. Creeper versus PETA card-carrying old cat lady; you figure out who wins.

The Creeper takes to the air and a roadway game of cat and mouse ensues, during which we learn of both the Creeper’s surprising agility and its powers of regeneration. Finally reduced to road kill, Darry turns to Trish and asks, “Do you think he’s dead?” Trish, in the film’s second moment of self-referential indulgence, responds “They never are” and proceeds to drive over the Creeper repeatedly until it’s pounded into dust. It’s a classic moment meant for audience cheering in a crowded matinee.

The sibs make it to a busy police station, where they’re promptly met by Darry’s phone psychic, Jezelle (Patricia Belcher). She tells them of a demon that “gets to eat” for 23 days every 23rd spring. But only certain things from certain people: “Lungs so it can breathe, eyes so it can see.” She further relates that whatever it eats becomes a part of it and that there’s something in its victims’ fear that it can smell to determine if he or she has anything it can use. The scene quickly escalates when the police station is plunged into darkness and phone communication is cut off. Jezelle pleads with the teens to run, saying that “he finds you in here.” She starts to sing the Creeper theme song and then says that in her visions she can hear the song playing on an old phonograph while one of the siblings is screaming, “screaming down in the darkness somewhere, screaming the last scream you’ll ever scream.” Belcher delivers the lines with histrionic glee.

The Creeper appears and Darry and Trish are pursued through the police station. There’s a great bit using two-way glass in an interrogation room before the Creeper has both brother and sister by the throat and sniffs them up, down, and sideways to determine who has the goods. A selfless act of sibling love is followed by a classic monster movie moment in which the Creeper crashes through a window and takes flight with the chosen sibling. The scene with the surviving sibling running across the police station parking lot screaming for the other that’s shot as if from the perspective of the retreating winged creature is a surprisingly poignant moment in an otherwise creepy finale.

The cinematic epilogue brings Jezelle’s premonition to life as the camera pans across, and then through, an abandoned factory where the familiar strains of the titular tune co-mingle with the screams of the chosen sibling. In the final frame, the significance of the theme song, always suspected by the audience, is confirmed.

Jeepers Creepers 2

The film’s domestic haul of $38 million guaranteed a sequel. No surprise, then, that in 2003 Salva was back with Jeepers Creepers 2, which would again open on Labor Day weekend and would again break that weekend’s box office record—previously held by the first film. Like the sequels to other surprise hits like Halloween and Alien, Jeepers Creepers 2 tried to go large—larger setting, larger cast, larger body count, more action. And, like Halloween II and Aliens, it both succeeded and suffered at times for its loftier ambitions.

The sequel begins by reminding us of the 23/23 feeding cycle of the Creeper, opening on the penultimate day of the creature’s feeding frenzy in a scene awash in rich gold tones as a farm boy named Billy hangs scarecrows in the cornfield. His father (Ray Wise) is nearby struggling with a piece of machinery called the “Post Pounder” that you just know is going to come into play later, while his older brother (Luke Edwards) works under his car. In a harrowing scene reminiscent of the “taking flight” climax of the first film, Ray Wise’s character’s motivation is firmly established.

The film flashes ahead to the following day, the last in the Creeper’s feeding cycle. While it’s not entirely clear if the demon can stash bodies away like a squirrel preparing for winter hibernation, the Creeper seems particularly hungry this time out, setting its sights on a busload of chanting high school jocks and cheerleaders returning from victory at the State’s basketball championships. Quicker than you can say “I betcha I know what’s gonna happen,” the bus blows a tire, stranding the group in the middle of farm country-turned-Creeper hunting ground.

Again, Salva shows talent for establishing mood and a sense of isolation in these early scenes. As news reports of the events of the first film come over the bus radio mentioning “a human tapestry of torture and sadism,” the three lone adults—a lady bus driver and two coaches—ponder the lack of radio communication and lost cell phone signals, as well as the mysterious spiked object found in the blown tire that appears to be made out of tooth and bone. Still, it’s hard to feel too much dread when half the basketball team promptly strips to their waist to sunbathe atop the school bus.

Now dark, the bus limps back toward town on the flattened tire. Salva’s limitations as a screenwriter show most noticeably here during his attempts at cursory character establishment. Even some intra-team rivalries that hint of racism and homophobia aren’t given much breathing room and do little to solidify the characterizations or help the audience distinguish one young character from another.

Channeling some of Jezelle’s leftover psychic abilities from the first film, one the girls, Minxie (Nicki Alcox), has a dream-vision of Darry from the first film. Both he and a bloodied Billy from the prologue sequence are jumping up and down and pointing into the cornfields where the Creeper runs, shoots, and scores another direct hit. Minxie wakes just in time as the bus lurches violently to the side after a critical second tire blows and the bus is fully disabled. When Scotty (Eric Nenninger) later says to Minxie, “You were waving pompoms at people this morning! Now you’re the psychic hotline?” he seems to be echoing the audience’s thoughts about the lazy plot contrivance.

After one of the coaches goes outside to light flares, he’s quickly Creeper-snatched. (Fun stuff when the group goes outside and his lit flare falls out of the night sky!) We barely have time to attach names with faces when lady bus driver goes airborne right before everyone’s eyes, setting off panic onboard the bus. The remaining adult is also quickly dispatched and the teens are left to fend for themselves. One of the best shots of the entire film is when the camera slowly pulls back from the rear of the bus, where the teens are pressed up against the glass and looking up as the school bus lights flash endlessly.

Unfortunately, the film deteriorates from there. Ray Wise is monitoring the police band and traces the Creeper’s location to a neighboring county. With his remaining son and a geri rigged piece of weaponry (more fitting for a Tremors sequel) strapped to the back of his pick-up, he sets off for some fatherly vengeance. The teens argue (there’s even a feeble attempt at social commentary on classism) in between being picked off one by one by the Creeper before scattering. Even the Creeper is less scary here, decidedly more playful when it hangs upside down at bus windows, winking, smirking, and pointing out its intended targets with campy abandon. The finale involves car crashes and some cornball theatrics during which Ray Wise tries to spear and reel in the winged man-creature with his post-punching, giant fishing pole thingy. It’s actually hard to keep track of who lives and who dies—even harder to really care.

The flash forward epilogue falls flat, with Ray Wise now an old man who sits in armed watch over the crucified remains of the Creeper while his now middle-aged son collects five bucks from local kids who want to see a genuine demon.

Queer Subtext

There’s a faint homoerotic vibe to Jeepers Creepers, with the clearly male-gendered creature focusing primary interest on Darry, the film’s teenage male protagonist. But aside from a tantalizing glimpse or two of Justin Long’s taut, tattooed tummy beneath his strategically ripped t-shirt, the most overt homoeroticism occurs when the creature sniffs the boy’s jockey shorts.

If Salva went for subtlety in the first film, he lets loose in the sequel. The queer subtext is decidedly stronger here, beginning with the casting of Nenninger, a Queer as Folk’s Randy Harrison lookalike, right through to the proliferation of ripped abs and constant gay speculation between the jocks. (One character whose sexual orientation is in question is named Izzy, to whom his teammates refer to him as “is he, or isn’t he?”) Nenninger’s Scotty, in particular, seems to be toting some heavily repressed baggage when he taunts another player and repeatedly asks if he wants to be “cock of the walk.”

Like the archetypical slasher movie heroines who either shower or walk around in some state of undress before their inevitable on-screen demise, these boys urinate together, lay around shirtless, and exchange gay barbs. Even Dante’s (Al Santos, whose character was also the object of his predatory TV dad’s sleazy affections in the short-lived 90210 spoof Gross Pointe) headless corpse is displayed seductively post-mortem—shirtless, with jeans tantalizingly unbuttoned. (I won’t even go near the subtext of what the creature does with Dante’s severed head; suffice to say it lends new definition to the idea of “giving head”!)

But there’s something even creepier at work in Jeepers Creepers 2, an example of how life can infiltrate art. Salva—who is a convicted pedophile and registered sex offender following felony conviction and serving a baffling 15-months of a three-year jail sentence for engaging in oral sex with a 12-year-old child actor on the set of his first film, Clownhouse, and videotaping the act—seems to be commenting (consciously or subconsciously) on his own predatory nature here. The Creeper seems to be lavishing an almost voracious sexual interest on the basketball players, licking its lips, winking, and gesturing seductively at them at one point in the film. The boys, in turn, are horror-struck when it identifies them as worthy targets of its own perverse affections.

Not knowing Salva’s real-life history, one might be inclined to categorize this as the director ably capturing the fear that some boys and young men have of their gay counterparts. The personification of homosexual panic, perhaps. But taking into account the man behind the lens and the fact that Salva seems to bestow the same lascivious attention on his young male actors, with his predilection for shirtless torsos and homoerotic innuendo, it may be more accurate to say that he’s successfully captured the portrait of a sexual predator in this Creeper.


Pax Romano said...

I thought that Jeepers Creepers was the perfect horror film.

You had two believable and likeable heroes, a terrifying premise, and just a slight dash of sexual perversion (the creeper sniffing Darry's underwear, or French kissing the head of one of his victims).

Absolutely with you on the "Duel" homage. That scene alone set my nerves on edge.

I also thought that Long and Phillips were perfectly cast, they nailed that brother and sister vibe.

I had high hopes for the sequel since the same director was going to be involved ... and yet, it did nothing for me. Hey, I had no problem with the exposure of all that hunk-flesh, but this installment pretty much lost all of the scares and mystery. Victor Salva should have left well enough alone.

As for Salva's record ... I did not know about that when I saw the original film, but it much like Woody Allen's problems, I try not to let my personal feelings about an artist interfere with my feelings about his or her art.

Anonymous said...

I liked Jeepers Creepers, but not nearly as much as other people did. The characters were highly irritating at times. As for the sequel, I only got around to seeing it when it was on television, that's how little I cared.