Never underestimate the power of unexpected success in Hollywood; when a small movie makes a bundle, it can work miracles. Consider “Jeepers Creepers.” When the horror flick appeared in 2001, the hook was that a malevolent creature emerged every 23 years to gobble up a selection of unsuspecting victims over a period of precisely 23 days before returning to presumed hibernation. But after the picture hit pay dirt, the Creeper’s timetable suffered a radical alteration. Though the back story remains the same, the hungry fellow turns up salivating after fresh meat little more than 23 months after his last meal. Perhaps he could be staved off simply by showing him a calendar.
Actually, writer-director Victor Salva gets around the problem by adopting the same device that “Halloween II” did back in 1981–just take up the story a few hours after the end of the first picture and plow on. So the idea here is that after the isolated church under which the creature’s been hoarding the remnants of his many victims over the centuries is discovered, the beast takes wing to snatch up additional victims on the fly, as it were, until his allotted 23 days run out. The result is that “Jeepers Creepers 2” is on a much larger scale than its predecessor. While the initial installment focused on just two kids–a brother and sister–doing battle with the beast along an isolated stretch of highway (though it inevitably brought in other characters down the homestretch), this follow-up has a whole busload of high school basketball players, cheerleaders and adults stranded in the dusty farmland, providing a broad menu of morsels for him to feast upon. Also featured in the proceedings is a half-mad farmer whose younger son was ripped away from the family cornfield by the creature in the picture’s opening gambit, and who obsessively tracks it down to take revenge. The changes have their drawbacks. One can appreciate the desire to achieve the effect Hitchcock aimed at in “Lifeboat,” and Spielberg in “Jaws”–creating unbearable tension within the confines of a small space, though here it’s on land rather than in the middle of the ocean. (Salva seems to have a special interest in aping Spielberg: much of the original “Jeepers Creepers” played as a retread of “Duel.”) But the increase of characters ultimately reduces the piece’s effectiveness. In the first picture, one was actually able to get to know the siblings and care whether they survived. Here, though, all the youngsters are basically indistinguishable, in the fashion of the crowd of horny, rambunctious kids that always populated the “Friday the 13th” movies; at best Salva can assign each of them just a characteristic or two, and can’t spend enough time on any of them to make us interested in whether they live or die. As a result the sole thing that keeps you watching “Creepers 2”–as in so many of these rote horror flicks–is the imagination displayed in the various ways in which the victims are dispatched: the viewer becomes little better than the equivalent of an eager observer at a real-life crash site. The periodic emphasis on the enraged father, moreover, proves a distraction, particularly as that plot thread moves more and more into comedic “Moby Dick” and “Jaws” territory, with Ray Wise growing increasingly bug-eyed as the vengeful parent. The deterioration is easily exemplified by contrasting the prologue, with the initial attack on the angelic-looking kid, with the epilogue, supposedly set 23 years in the future (though you could never tell that from the physical evidence): the former is genuinely eerie, and the latter just a dumb joke.
There are other storytelling failures, too. One is repeated from the first picture: how the Creeper’s back story is eventually revealed. Here the script resorts to visions and dreams to provide the characters with the information they need–never a satisfactory device. The insertion of heavy-handed comments on the evil of prejudice is also problematic. It was an even more prominent element in Salva’s “Powder,” one which, given the writer-director’s rather notorious past, seemed a self-referential and unpalatable plea for acceptance of conduct most would find reprehensible. Here the theme isn’t quite so bluntly used, but its employment at two levels (one racial, the other in terms of those who are apparently “chosen” by the creature for extinction) is still unsettling–as well as dramatically feeble. It’s also a mistake to show the Creeper so often, and in such great detail. Such beings are always more frightening if kept mysterious and shrouded. We see entirely too much too fast in this case, and by the end the explicitness is virtually comic. (Where, by the way, is he storing all his new victims? His underground vault, after all, is no more.)
But in spite of all the difficulties, “Jeepers Creepers” isn’t terrible, just mediocre. It has a few decent jolts and a few humorous moments, though it’s never truly terrifying or more than modestly amusing; the young cast, while hardly composed of master thespians, isn’t as amateurish as what one usually encounters in such strike-and-slash stuff; and visually the piece looks fairly stylish, making good use of light and shadow and managing to create a claustrophobic feel even in the vast outdoors. But it adds nothing to the genre, and, like most sequels, doesn’t top the initial installment. For the undemanding viewer who likes this sort of thing, however, it should prove an adequate time-waster.