The Horror, the Horror

Jeepers Creepers has scary surprises; Together is Swedish, but happy anyway; Woody Allen runs on empty; Kevin Smith gets revenge on Web dweebs.

Jeepers Creepers
Directed by Victor Salva
United Artists

Directed by Lukas Moodysson
IFC Films

The Curse of the Jade Scorpion
Directed by Woody Allen

Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back
Directed by Kevin Smith
Dimension Films

The opening of the bogeyman picture Jeepers Creepers has a creepy-crawly flatness, like the first sequence of Night of the Living Dead (1968) filtered through Steven Spielberg’s truck-amok Duel (1971). As in George A. Romero’s classic shocker, writer-director Victor Salva begins with a brother and his older sister driving in daylight in an old car on a remote country road. The Spielberg touch is how the blacktop dips and rises, so that the car drops out of the frame (the voices drop off the soundtrack, too) and re-emerges a few seconds later: The perspectives signal—unnervingly—a world in which the ground can open up at any second.

It does. Darry (Justin Long) and Trish (Gina Philips) are on the scenic route home from college, and their barbed rapport (she has a surly prettiness; he’s a tightly coiled geek) suggests the novelty of each other’s company has begun to wear off. Impatient, Darry passes a motor home, which gradually recedes in the rear window and then suddenly swerves off the road: Behind it, coming on fast, is a rust-red something with a massive grille, bearing down on the brother and sister as they bicker obliviously—closer … closer … closer …

Get off the road, you dummies!!!!!!!

Jeepers Creepers hurtles in on the latest wave of crappy slasher pictures like I Know WhatYou Did Last Summer (1997) and Urban Legend (1998), and it has elements in common with both, especially the tendency of its attractive young protagonists to allude, between screams, to the conventions of the horror genre. But Salva has some of the young Spielberg’s graphic ingenuity, and he’s aiming for a more fairy-tale, dreamlike, irrational dread—a child’s dread, not of psychos in hockey masks but winged demons who hide in the shadows at the other end of drainage pipes, waiting—for no discernible reason—to carry you off and do despicable things to you in a clammy cellar.

Salva has learned from The Blair Witch Project (1999) that suggestion can be as potent as image, but the movie abounds in mythic images, too: a subterranean ceiling studded with preserved blue-white corpses (the young protagonist calls it “a psycho Sistine Chapel”); a scarecrow that, backlighted by the moon, is wider and taller than it should be, as if, maybe, something is standing in front of it; and “The Creeper” itself (Jonathan Breck), a gargoyle out of Goya that daintily, almost soulfully sniffs its future victims’ dirty laundry. Why? You don’t want to know.

Is Jeepers Creepers a horror classic? It certainly aims to be (this is no mere B movie but the first of several Francis Ford Coppola-executive-produced pictures under the joint United Artists/American Zoetrope banner), but the plotting is a tad generic, and the film feels long at a scant 90 minutes. But the movie is good enough to put a chill into the late-summer air. Salva has nasty surprises in the grim, minor-key last third, during which the feeling dawns on you that sleep for the next few nights won’t come easily. He gives new meaning to the question, “Where’d ya get those eyes?”

The enormously likable Swedish ensemble comedy Together attempts to demonstrate that the hippie-commune concept of the ‘60s and ‘70s is wasted on the doctrinaire (Marxist-Leninist-vegetarian) left and ought to have been (and still should be) the province of the liberal-humanist bourgeoisie. As there aren’t many Marxist-Leninist-vegetarian communistas around to argue the other side, the demonstration is a heartwarming success. Set in 1975, the movie begins with the death of Franco (arguably the last thing the far left has had to cheer about) before getting down to the main story: the arrival of Elisabeth (Lisa Lindgren), sister of one of the commune’s residents, with her young daughter and son. She isn’t a convert to Marxism; Elisabeth is fleeing her abusive alcoholic husband, Rolf (Michael Nyqvist), and so her mild-mannered brother, Göran (Gustav Hammarsten), has naturally offered her a place to crash.

That doesn’t sit too well with everyone in the household, however. Utopian generosity is one thing, and it’s a drag that she and her kids have no place to live, but they, like, need that extra room to meditate, man. And, unlike children brought up in the commune (who bear names like Tet and Moon), myopic cutie Eva (Emma Samuelsson) and little Stefan (Sam Kessel) have bourgeois needs for privacy and a two-parent family. Gradually, subtly, the fragile ecosystem of the commune is disrupted. Hard-core Marxists who have previously argued that, say, washing dishes is bourgeois, are now irreparably wounded by the appearance of a TV set, the occasional presence of meat, the lack of a firm socialist mandate, and, as a last straw, the defense of Pippi Longstocking from charges of bourgeois materialism. (“Pippi only cares about things, things, things,” complains one blond ideologue.)

And yet, for all its problems, what a marvelous place this group house is. Sexuality isn’t a dark secret but may be explored in the open, in a relatively safe and constructive arena. The children don’t play the politically incorrect cowboys and Indians—they take turns being Pinochet and a prisoner tortured with electric shock. Narcissists have their comeuppance while zealots are expelled as if by natural law. The movie’s counterexample is a neighbor of the abandoned husband, Rolf: an old man who, longing for privacy, independence, freedom, once drove his wife out and has now discovered that “loneliness is the most horrible thing in the world”—and the most enslaving. He and Rolf, miserable failures as individualists, can only be healed in the communal bosom.

If I were going to write a parody of a dour Swedish art film, I could hardly come up with a better name for the director than Lukas Moodysson. What a relief that Together isn’t moodysson in the least. If anything, the director needs to curb his animation: Must every shot be a breathless zoom? That in-and-out lens does remind us of counterculture cinema, but not especially fondly. Together is otherwise a scruffy delight, a movie with the happiest sort of family values.

Those of us who once watched Woody Allen work his way up through funny but second-rate Broadway-style insult comedies to madcap free-form classics are dismayed to see him, in The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, again doing second-rate Broadway-style insult comedies. No, worse than that: second-rate Broadway-style insult comedies in the mode of lousy, bottom-of-the-double-bill ‘40s mysteries. The new film has some momentum and an intermittent comic drive—it’s better than last year’s enfeebled Small Time Crooks. But it’s still depressing as hell. Thirty years ago, Woody Allen could goof on the Bogart persona because, as short and schnooky and Jewish as he was, he radiated comic potency. Now, he looks like a little old shuffleboard-court dictator running on nothing but anger and misanthropy; and, even at its wittiest, his sexy/nasty banter with tootsies Helen Hunt and Charlize Theron curdles in the air. It’s evidently important to Allen to work, work, work, but he’s starting to make his movies by rote instead of passion. Could he handle—psychologically—a year or two off? Could he afford—creatively—to keep grinding them out?

Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back is almost as low-wattage as the Allen picture, but here at least we have today’s dumb gags instead of your grandfather’s. And Kevin Smith has never pretended to be more than an inspired amateur, the video clerk as auteur. I admit to enjoying—in a drunken, half-asleep kind of way—parts of this ramshackle road movie with its running Miramax guest stars and its endless homo jokes. (The film isn’t homophobic, but these characters are desperate to prove they don’t “love the cock.”) I laughed when Jay’s bad conscience gave him advice on seducing a bodacious babe: “Don’t pull your dick out until she asks—or until she’s sleeping”; and when Miramax security guards complained about having to remove dead hookers from Ben Affleck’s trailer.

Most of all, I enjoyed the picture’s subtext, which is that Smith has become so sensitized to Internet abuse (on such sites as Ain’t It that the cathartic climax consists of tracking down bellicose posters (all of whom turn out to be adolescent dweebs) and pummeling the crap out of them. Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back is his way of saying, “I can spend tens of millions of dollars to make a movie with stars, luscious babes, explosions, kung fu, and unfunny in-jokes about my own films—and all you can do is sit in front of your computer screen and play with yourself. Ha-ha.”

It’s as good a reason for making movies as any.