A few days ago, we discussed I Know What You Did Last Summer, and how my penchant for retroactively viewing my earliest scares through rose-colored glasses often causes me to exaggerate a horror film’s potency in the present. Jeepers Creepers, released four years after Last Summer, is arguably of the same era, but it’s important to note the difference: remembering I Know What You Did Last Summer is often a lot kinder to it than watching it. Having seen Jeepers Creepers during the same time frame, and finding myself unmoved by it, a modern-day viewing does it a lot of favors; it’s a late-night tingler in the classic mold, and the insistence on actual mood and scares over close-ups of brimming teen-idol eyes (and boobs — always boobs) removes it from a specific time frame. Jeepers Creepers almost wins in retrospect, simply by being an unfashionable, wicked horror romp.

“You know that part in scary movies when somebody does something stupid and everyone hates them for it? This is it,” remarks female lead Gina Philips, neatly encapsulating the self-awareness and winking meta-commentary the Scream series let escape through the cracks early on. (Elsewhere, she exasperatedly observes that “the point of having a cell phone is that it works when you need it!”, another winking nod to tried-and-true horror tropes, and how modern filmmakers have simply dealt with modern technology by shrugging and saying, “meh, no bars.”) Our protagonists, a brother-and-sister duo portrayed by Philips and a fresh-faced Justin Long, have seen the movies, but there are no hyper-prosaic trivia-stuffed diatribes to that effect; they’re just intensely aware of the culture, and that they may be making some bad decisions on the way.

It’s an important distinction to make for a film that slyly references so many genre touchstones. The opening 40 minutes or so are the most potent, and they deftly revive the little-utilized (but well-loved) “road horror” genre perfected years prior with the likes of Duel and The Hitcher. For the first half of Jeepers Creepers, our antagonist is little more than a specter, a hulking shadow, a faceless driver of an insidiously creepy truck. And that’s what makes it work so well — as the gravity of what’s happening slowly dawns on our heroes, the tension-meter creeps, almost imperceptibly, into the red. It’s all bound together by an age-old Hitchcock principal: the idea that what you don’t see can be infinitely scarier than what you do.

And that’s the very principal that director Victor Salva abandons halfway through by showing his hand and allowing us to see the culprit. It’s what lets a certain amount of steam out of the film’s second half, although to Salva’s credit, it doesn’t kill the movie. There are still numerous dark-country-road horrors to be had, and our fugly baddie could be lurking down any of them; also, I’m a sucker for a movie with a really mean final shot, and Jeepers Creepers concludes with a downright evil one. Regardless of your opinion on the film’s second half — directly after seeing it, I was under the impression that it ruined the film, but further viewings have negated that assessment — if nothing else, the opening stretch of Jeepers Creepers is a terrifying ticking time-bomb of a sequence, full of fear of the unknown, fear of isolation, fear of the open road. It’s a triumph for an intensely troubled director (sadly, Salva’s early ouvre was tarnished when he turned out to be a sex predator).

A third installment in the Jeepers Creepers trilogy is currently in the works, so now’s your chance to get caught up on the first two chapters! And by “the first two”, I mean “only this one”. Jeepers Creepers 2 was just the worst.

Extra Credit: “Road horror” returned in a big way in the early 2000s; a year after Jeepers Creepers, director John Dahl unleashed his inventive, incredibly eerie Joy Ride. I recommend it as heartily as I’ll ever recommend a movie starring Paul Walker; there are some genuine scares to be found in that little gem.

More 31 Days of Halloween:
Day 1: May
Day 2: The Night of the Hunter
Day 3: The Descent
Day 4: Night of the Demons
Day 5: Them
Days 6 & 7: Night of the Living Dead // Dawn of the Dead
Day 8: Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon
Day 9: A Tale of Two Sisters
Day 10: When a Stranger Calls // Amusement
Day 11: A Nightmare on Elm Street
Day 12: The Orphanage
Day 13: I Know What You Did Last Summer
Day 14: Dressed to Kill
Day 15: Deep Red

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