Horror Monsters: Jeepers Creepers (2001)

It’s a well-established fact that Jeepers Creepers is a film of two halves, one which is totally effective and creepy (pun not intended; the perfect word for Jeepers Creepers’ opening act really is: creepy) and one which is totally derivative and hokey. There’s a simple reason: Jeepers Creepers is not just a film of two halves but of two competing and diametric impulses: one is concerned with human psychology (because its purpose is to creep insidiously into audience imaginations); the other is concerned with horror monster mythology and with physical and literal horror monster details. It turns out that these impulses are not compatible.


Think back to Jeepers Creepers’ Duel-inspired opening, particularly the following moments: Trish and Darry’s protracted and drawn out car drive through narcotizing Floridian landscape; the banal sibling dialogue that suggests they’ve been driving through narcotizing Floridian landscape for some time; the misleading first appearance of the truck; the anonymous figure throwing bodies down a pipe; the anonymous figure staring at Trish and Darry as they pass in the car and the subsequent Duel-inspired car chase.There are several reasons why this opening is effective and creepy and insidious (in some ways it’s deeply personal, but more on that shortly). There’s the contiguity between the mundane and the macabre — the way that banal, lonely drives down empty highways coincide ironically and horribly with casual, violent murder. There’s the distance at which director Victor Salva shows these contiguous events — the viewer doesn’t know who’s throwing bodies down the pipe or why, and doesn’t see who’s underneath the ominous clothing/behind the ominously darkened truck windows.

More pertinently, what’s really, truly creepy about the figure throwing bodies down the pipe is not just its congruity with banal, mundane events or the distance at which it happens, it’s that the viewer sees it from Trish and Darry’s point-of-view — the figure is not just staring at Trish and Darry but is staring at the audience. All of which makes the viewer feel involved and watched and leaves her feeling that she’s seen something she shouldn’t have seen. The effect is to leave the unsuspecting viewer unsettled and nervous and freaked out (especially when the ominous truck veers horribly onto the road, kicking up dust and chasing Trish and Darry down the highway).

This is just a long-winded and unnecessary way of saying that what makes Jeepers Creepers‘ opening set-up creepy and unnerving is that it plays on the human psyche; in the best traditions of suspense and horror it sidles insidiously into the audience’s imagination.


What  follows this opening is diametric in impulse and contrary both in tone and focus, and it sees Jeepers Creepers‘ second act devolve into a series of horror tropes and clichés. Recall that, for reasons this viewer is as yet unable to ascertain (except to say that it feels like some omnipotent God-like creature is pulling their strings), Trish and Darry go back to investigate the pipe rather than head immediately for the nearest police station. Recall also that, contrary to the opening’s careful build-up, the film’s second act sees its monster openly flying onto police cars, chopping off police heads and indiscriminately killing secondary characters. Consider also that one of the second act’s most important characters is also one of horror’s most reliable archetypes: the psychic who cryptically explains the plot but is unable to see or chooses not to reveal critical plot details, and who nobody believes despite all the casual head choppy action going on elsewhere.

“Head choppy action”

There is, in short, a simple reason for this shift in tone: contrary to what the film’s opening leads us to expect, Jeepers Creepers is not really interested in psychology or suspense or audience imaginations; it is in reality a monster movie. This is why many people consider Jeepers Creepers a film of two halves, and why many people consider the film’s second half to be a betrayal of the first: the opening 30-minutes is the set-up for a film that never happens. Consider again that this opening half-an-hour leads audiences to expect psychological suspense[^1] but delivers a film heavy on concrete detail, exposition and myth-making. And consider that the film’s devolution into horror cliché and trope, and its focus on fleshing out details about the film’s monster, is ultimately at the expense of logic. In other words it raises a number of troubling questions about the monster’s — and the film’s secondary characters’ — behaviour and motivation.


Unsurprisingly, the troubling lack of logic and the inconsistencies it raises forces both filmmaker and audience to perform mental contortions to justify them. For example, they need to reconcile the casual, open night-time flying with the anonymous truck-driving of the opening; similarly, they must reconcile the monster’s obsessive focus on Trish and Darry and its (meaning the monster’s) explicit modus operandi with the way the monster seems happy enough to casually snack on other characters. Whether the audience manages to bridge these logic gaps is not really the issue: what’s important is that it distracts the audience and forces attention onto concrete, physical details and away from suspense and from the film’s psychological effects. In other words, the audience is being asked to do a lot of mental work to reconcile the casual and clichéd horror violence of the film’s second half with the subtle and psychological violence of the film’s opening, and to do so just to make sense of the film’s incongruities and make it all bearable and watchable. All of which leaves little room for the audience to consider the film’s emotional and psychological dimensions.

It turns out that this distraction is necessary for other reasons. Consider that because the viewer is occupied with reconciling the film’s incongruities she’s not asking why the film’s secondary characters react (or rather don’t react) the way they react. In other words, if the viewer isn’t distracted by the monster’s literal, corporeal form, she’s going to be thinking about the huge inconsistencies between the massive number of casual, open murder and the fact that all of this murder is supposed to be happening ‘under-the-radar’ and without the town’s knowledge. And so the viewer is unlikely to notice that Salva’s secondary characters perform huge mental contortions and are subject to huge levels of denial in order to pretend that they can’t believe what’s happening. To see why this is problematic, just remember all the missing persons reports on the police bulletin board.

Not so “under-the-radar”

All of this puts added pressure on the monster itself, meaning that the monster — once it’s fully revealed — must be both convincing enough to distract audiences from the film’s internal logic and convincing enough to justify the film’s obsession with the monster’s physical, concrete details and with its mythology. For a film with a relatively small budget, this is a lot to ask; it’s no surprise that the monster, when it’s fully revealed, is hokey and unconvincing and clearly a man wearing a costume[^2]. This is not to say that the idea behind Jeepers Creepers is itself completely hokey and stupid, rather that the reality can’t live up to the idea or to the audience’s imagination. As is continually pointed out, there is nothing that filmmakers can conceive that’s scarier than what people can imagine.

It should be no surprise then that, for many people, Jeepers Creepers is a film that betrays its opening concept with hokey monster movie conventions and horror film clichés. It’s probably safe to say that Jeepers Creepers is really two separate and incompatible films.


Notes

[^1]: Recall again how heavily Jeepers Creepers’ opening act is influenced by Duel, which was in essence a vehicle (pun not intended) for Steven Spielberg to prove that he could wring feature-film length suspense out of a truck.

[^2]: It’s also painfully clear that a sizeable amount of the film’s $10 million budget has been consumed by the need to create convincing and workable bat wings.

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