‘How can something that burned so brightly
Suddenly burn so pale?’
How I Came To Horror (4 of 4)
by Pablo D’Stair
Just in to my twenties, I had got to that point I imagine so many young men interested in horror get to where a stern delineation seemed to need be made between what I considered Horror Cinema and what Thriller or Suspense or whichever thing. The prompt for my navel-gazing about where I stood came because I’d regularly have my assertion that Steven Spielberg’s Duel was Horror challenged, the consensus among the folks I interacted with being that it wasn’t ‘exactly horror,’ was ‘maybe-kind-of-horror,’ but ‘no really it wasn’t’—Duel was a suspense thriller in the eyes of those I knew who claimed to be in-the-know, regardless of how I might postulate otherwise.
This question of Duel’s status lead in to all sorts of those meandering rhetorical and semantic investigations between me and other ‘film-lovers’—Can a movie be horror if it doesn’t have monsters/supernatural elements? Is Slasher a genre or a subgenre and if the latter what is it subgenre of? Is it attitude, emphasis on ‘this thing’ or ‘that thing’ which makes the difference? Can a movie that does have monsters/supernatural elements be considered not a horror movie, even if it is also suspenseful? Can a movie, really, be honestly of more than one genre?—all of which were fun things to go round and round about but which seemed kid’s games, little to do with arriving at conclusions, all to do with mootly agreeing-to-disagree.
For whatever reason, it was aggressively important for me to term Duel a horror film and equally as violent was my need to understand why I felt that way. This on my mind always in some back-burner way, I encountered a film called Jeepers Creepers, a film I knew nothing about prior to my viewing it except for the fact that I disliked the title, the poster, the tagline, a film I imagined would be bottom of the barrel nonsense, but a film that quickly put me on my guard once it was flickering before me in the dark. Perhaps it was the obvious homage to elements of Duel in the early sequences, perhaps it was the fact that, expecting so little of the piece, the tight quality of the opening held my attention enough to make me watch it with thoughts tethered to Spielberg’s early masterpiece at all—whatever it was, something very pointedly made this film just the thing to be my litmus paper, the perfect specimen to turn my investigative self to.
Now, I admit (and did so at the start of this series) to being a snob, but my snobbery is born of respect for Art—my aesthetic of Horror, arrived at through these films I have shared my personal histories with and one hundred others, is one of awed rapture at the fact that the core tremor of being can be handled by pulp-pushers and artistes, auteurs and paint-by-numbers-craftsmen-having-happy accidents. And with this is mind, for the final of my four part series on how Horror cinema got into my blood, Jeepers Creepers is the filter I choose.
Sitting in the corner back of an otherwise empty auditorium, my preferable way to watch films theatrically, Jeepers Creepers got me right and proper caught up in its narrative spell. It was little things that hooked me, well before proposition or exact scenario were presented. It was the fact that the male and female central characters were brother and sister, no second-tier love-story bullshit to muck things up, this choice of putting siblings in danger making the tension all the more immediate and natural, as far as I was concerned, like ‘something that might conceivably happen’ (also the fact that the writing of the characters actually seemed a fair depiction of siblings rather that just ‘two people who were being called brother and sister’ I dug on); it was the lengthy amount of time spent in chit-chat that served no story advancement, just gave weight and investment to the characters, the danger suddenly on them after an imprinting, a familiarity was genuinely established (I often say the best horror films are ones that start as films I would just watch anyway, ones where I am always a tad disappointed when the turn to horror comes—Wolf Creek, and Forntier(s) being two examples—films that set up a sense of place, character, and inertia such that the infusion of horror actually is an interloping thing, appropriately unsettling the elements in play); it was just the photography, nothing too fancy yet still unique and sharp enough to seem particular, the prologue not just waste-of-time-might-as-well-be-stock-footage claptrap.
Then that goddamned truck—clothed in its shades of Duel—in the extended first encounter, that screeching rig slamming into the back of the heroes’ car, again, again, but then, in a blink, speeding off. It was the horrible vehicle throttling itself in to the mix and just as jarringly exiting stage-left that did it, really made the slow-burn, turn-of-the-screw set up announce itself, the affinity I had for the opening assured to me to be something not built of accident but actual response to a measured, artful hand.
The film pressed on and I labeled it—a touch prematurely, sure—just a perfect little thing, a gem disguised in a kitschy poster and a cheese-ball title.
The heroes witness the driver of the truck tossing something (looked a lot like a body, sure did) down a drain pipe in back of a decrepit old building, the driver of the truck witnesses them witnessing this and viciously gives chase until they are forced off the side of the road and then (again) the driver and his ugly goblin truck just zoom off.
And the decision on the part of the heroes to go back, to look down that pipe? Yeah, yeah, they need to do it (as is so often said) for us to have a movie, but the earnest, un-puffed up conversation leading to the choice struck a real, unforced note, again set this film up as calculated and of a precise mind.
Was there a body down that pipe? Oh, there sure as shit was—and not just one but lots and lot and lots.
The film was good—yes yes, a perfect little thing with an unfortunately piece-of-shit title.
But not so perfect, it was soon revealed. Not so perfect, though by no means bad. And so my antennae wavered sensitive.
Was this film going to take a wrong turn? Was the spell going to be broken?
Seemed like it.
The pace altered, the ‘local police don’t believe the passers-through’ trope reared its head, the weird telephone call from a mysterious party…things were getting a little bit dithering.
But then—did someone say that a strange person had broken in to the heroes’ car and sniffed handfuls of their dirty laundry?
And still no particular violence, no death, still a nice slow creep to the on-screen events?
Well, alright. Like Duel, perhaps this stop off at a diner was just a breath, time for everyone to do their best to convince themselves the shit had passed before the same exact terror returned, the same existential nightmare just slowly rising, nothing to do for it because the menace was smart and patient and impenetrable.
I watched the police give the heroes the benefit of the doubt, decide to drive out to the drain pipe and have a look for themselves. But then, quite all of a sudden, I was watching people having their heads loped off by a monstrous, trench-coated figure with a very large axe. Then, I was watching (which pleased me) this odd curve ball of a bizarrely agile villain being run over by the heroes and (pleasing me even more) being run over not once, not twice, but thrice.
And then (as we all know having seen the film, but just in case: spoiler alert) that whoop of a gigantic, semi-transparent, thick-veined wing squirming its way out of the mangled body’s coat, shoots rigid and stands lightly swaying, neither dead nor alive, in front of the headlights of our heroes’ car.
A cool shot. Nothing wrong with it, nothing wrong at all—stand-alone, it’s certainly quite a moment and a perfectly sound and neatly appropriate time and place in the progressions of things for the film to tack in a new direction.
But it was not stand-alone. And more than being a fine moment it was a distinct bisecting of the film. On one side of that wing we had Duel on the other side we had what came after—and what came after is fine and good in its own right, but was also a definitive break of (one side) Suspense and (other side) Horror.
Or at least I thought so for a minute or two, but as the film played on I thought more.
It was Horror on both sides—the wing’s appearance just a decision inside of the single, overarching genre. What Jeepers Creepers was, I thought (and still do) is what From Dusk Till Dawn tried to be but did not pull off with the same aplomb. It was a mash-up: lure the audience in with one thing, then (slap bang) hit them with another. But where Tarantino and Rodriguez’s offering failed, Victor Salva’s succeeded and for very distinct reason.
It was the venerable Bela Lugosi who so rightly said “You can’t make people believe in you if you play a horror part with your tongue in your cheek,” and the same is true concerning a horror film, as a whole (I would be remiss, of course, to not parenthetically add that Lugosi was no hoity-toity, was always more than willing to lodge his tongue firmly in whatever cheek if the price was right, so much so that to many people this quality is what he is known for).
From Dusk Till Dawn was too entrenched in its fatuous snark to care to be either a good “person-versus-person” film or a worthwhile “person-versus-creature” one, let alone to be anything more than a half-way decent both-at-once, its hipster self-consciousness was comprised too much of slick attitude to care whether its component parts held water and so it weeble-wobbled into the middling romp it is. Jeepers Creepers, though, was able to be two entirely earnest and contained types of film—inseminated, yes, with a dark and violent humor, but not a sarcasm or too-cool-for-school flamboyance—and in so, for me, was a subtle triumph, a thing that, taken as a whole, was not fantastic but that did not lose its overall cohesion. As one kind of film (prior to wing) it was marvelous and as another (post wing) it was alright or even quite-good-for-that-kind-of-thing. Personally, I could do without the psychic character (really still see little point to her) and much of the man-against-monster set-ups were quite forced, though only as forced as such set-ups cannot avoid being. And the ending was neither cop-out nor cool-kid gloom: it was just a fair, dark, and appropriate way to end the murky tale. People cannot beat monsters, so Jeepers Creepers doesn’t have that happen, the internal logic holds up through all of the more schlocky moments and, in this, these moments were allowable to me, were ‘of quality’, didn’t sap the good-will and inertia built from the truck first blaring its horn.
When I learned that there was going to be a sequel to Jeepers Creepers, I was excited, but not for the film, exactly. Knowing the “rules of the game” the first film had established and the tactful, even erudite, way it trod two roads I got giddy with expectation for more of the same, another mash-up of what had previously been two at-odds types of cinema in my eyes, another not-quite-art-house but certainly not fan-boy/squeal-girl celebration of Horror.
My mind latched on to what could be done not only with sequel, but with a triptych: the idea put forward that the creature is allowed to wreak its havoc for twenty-three days made it, to me, self-evident that Film One (already extant) took place in the first few days, Film Two would be the mid-point (day fifteen or something) and the Film Three would, of course, be The Last Day—thus the beautiful horror proven out in the first offering (that survival is the only possible thing, it’s just a matter of who survives and how) would be extended across three self-contained and complementary examples. My mind churned up an idea of what the sequel should be and I yammered this idea to anyone I came across whether they knew the first film or no. (NOTE: just for fun, I include HERE the screenplay I recently wrote, more than ten years after Jeepers Creepers, based on my idea for the proper second installment of my hoped-for three part series–not set in the world of JC, of course, but more-or-less the exact film I thought up so long ago)
Then a very, very unfortunate thing happened—Jeepers Creepers Two happened. How in Christ’s the same writer and director of the marvelous original decided this was the way to proceed was beyond me. Instead of a thoughtful, just irreverent-enough-to-be-genuinely-interesting game play of homage and newness, the sequel was a witless, hokey, retread of a million things that had come before, no kind of mash-up, just a lifeless creature-feature which seemed hell bent on destroying its namesakes integrity.
I don’t even want to go into it, honestly, because there is no point. Having brought it up, though, let me just briefly express that if Jeepers Creepers was instrumental in my arriving at my firm opinions of what made Horror and of what Horror could be, across the board, then Jeepers Creepers Two was exemplary of just exactly what Horror certainly was not. As long as there is intelligence, as long as there is purpose and steadfast execution of storyline-as-expression-of-this-intelligence, the superficialities of genre and well-worn tropes can be set on one side—Horror is Horror—but drain the thoughtfulness, supplant it with nonsensical tripe meant to momentarily satiate a listless viewer who has nothing better to do with an hour-and-a-half and you do not have Horror Cinema, you have…a Scary Movie, a Creepfest, a Fright Flick and nothing a stitch more of value than that.
Jeepers Creepers and its unfortunate sequel remain a perfect illustration of my aesthetic thoughts on the genre which has been in this series under such scrutiny. Horror Cinema is never a search for genuine originality, because it is an exploration of the least original thing that there is, it is an iteration of a collective unconscious mythos, an expression of a story we all know, the one stamped in our DNA at conception—we are going to die and we are never going to understand why or wherefore. But, this is not to say it can be approached lightly—knowing we are born to die and being afraid of that is not the same as being horrified by it, not the same as recognizing Horror as elementally Us, a thing that needs expression, be it jarringly supplicant or be it scoffingly lashging out, but not something, in the guts, to be made mock of.
Pablo D’Stair is a novelist, essayist, and interviewer. Co-founder of the art house press KUBOA, he is also a regular contributor to the Montage: Cultural Paradigm (Sri Lanka). His book Four Self-Interviews About Cinema: the short films of director Norman Reedus will be re-releasing late in 2012 through Serenity House Publishing, International.