Victor Salva's "Jeepers Creepers" has the scariest opening sequence of any horror picture in recent memory.
Trish (Gina Philips) and her younger brother Darryl (Justin Long), on spring break from college, have decided to take the long way home through sparsely populated farm country.
They indulge in the usual brother-sister banter, with Darryl bugging Trish about why she isn't going off somewhere with her supposed boyfriend. Trish in turn razzes him about his bringing dirty laundry home to Mom. In short, they're perfectly normal siblings with a basically affectionate relationship.
Out of the blue an immense, rusty old van bears down on them, threatening to ram them or force them off the road. After a few terrifying minutes, the danger passes, but as they drive by a boarded-up, long-abandoned frame church, they see the infernal van again.
A dark figure emerges from it and dumps what appears to be a corpse bound in a white sheet down a wide corrugated pipe that protrudes from the ground near the church's front steps.
Trish and Darryl are spotted, and the van gives chase, but they again elude it. In the natural course of horror movie scenarios, Darryl's cell phone has run down and he has no way to charge it.
Trish wants to get going as fast as they can, but Darryl wonders whether what they saw going down that chute was in fact a human who may be still alive.
"This is where girls are smarter," Trish says, but Darryl counters: What if it were she who was enshrouded in that sheet and still alive?
Of course they go back, and of course Darryl, peering as deeply as he can into that canted chute, loses his footing and slides to the bottom. What he discovers won't be revealed here; it's enough to say that it's gruesomely weird and not for the weak of stomach.
To this point, Salva has expertly built up enough sheer terror that his film is becoming uncomfortable to watch.
He shifts gears momentarily but then goes over the top, injecting a note of pitch-dark humor that turns "Jeepers Creepers" into yet another amusing horror-comedy, spooky and jolting but too literally preposterous to regain its initial aura of suspense.
The result is a clever thriller-chiller combining laughter with creepiness that should satisfy horror fans looking for a late-summer diversion.
Philips and Long are appealing and capable young actors, with Jonathan Breck supplying menace that is alternately scary and campy. Eileen Brennan plays a crazed recluse holed up in a dilapidated old farmhouse with cats too numerous to count but no phone, just when one is needed most.
Patricia Belcher is genuinely unsettling as a rural woman with psychic powers. Brandon Smith is the most prominent of a number of lawmen who are no match for the evil forces unleashed in the course of the film, which has been photographed by Don E. FauntLeRoy and scored by Bennett Salvay for maximum scariness.
As stylish as it is grisly, "Jeepers Creepers" has cult film written all over it, and it's not for nothing that Francis Ford Coppola has been a staunch Victor Salva mentor.
MPAA rating: R, for terror, violence/gore, language and brief nudity. Times guidelines: The film is far too intense and horrific for youngsters who may not be able to comprehend that what they're seeing is all make-believe.
Gina Philips: Trish
Justin Long: Darryl
Jonathan Breck: The Creeper
Patricia Belcher: Jezelle Gay Hartman
Brandon Smith: Sgt. Davis Tubbs
Eileen Brennan: The Cat Lady
A United Artists Films presentation of an American Zoetrope/Cinerenta-Cinebeta production in association with Cinerenta Medienbeteiligungs. Writer-director Victor Salva. Producers Barry Opper, Tom Luse. Executive producers Francis Ford Coppola, Linda Reisman, Will Baer and Mario Ohoven, Eberhard Kayser. Cinematographer Don E. FauntLeRoy. Editor Ed Marx. Music Bennett Salvay. Key makeup & creature effects design supervisor Brian Penikas. Visual effects supervisor Bob Morgenroth. Costumes Emae Villalobos. Production designer Steven Legler. Art director Kevin Egeland. Set decorator Barbara Peterson. Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes.
In general release.