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Joy Ride (John Dahl) 2001 & Jeepers Creepers (Victor Salva) 2001

Here are two films, released weeks apart, that are so similar in setup that one must suspect a previously undocumented national anxiety of highway terror exists. The first, and better, film Joy Ride follows three young people as they drive across country and are terrorized by a faceless trucker by the name of Rusty Nail. The film begins as two brothers (Steve Zahn and Paul Weller) send a crank CB message that the villain responds to. They pretend they are a woman and arrange a meeting at a hotel, sending the trucker to the room next door. Naturally, bad things ensue. The film ratchets the suspense level throughout always teetering between a sense of horror that the Rusty Nail's truck will appear and a sense of relief (often comic, thanks to Steve Zahn) that the reason for alarm was false. In one scene, the heroes are pursued for miles in a reckless off road chase by an ice truck that is, of course, simply returning a forgotten credit card. When a second truck smashes through the first, you half expect the driver to offer to return their wallet. Needless to say, it's not an entirely plausible scenario, but to the film's credit, it doesn't try to make the event plausible by offering motivation or explanation of its antagonist. The three leads all deliver solid performances, and the scary scenes genuinely scare. The director is playing with the audience as much as Rusty Nail plays with the kids but never pretends to be more.

Jeepers Creepers, like Joy Ride, opens with siblings (this time a brother and sister) as they travel across country. The film is an even further distillation of the genre than the other film, which bothered with some mild scenes of character development. Instead of a unrevealed trucker, this film's teens are chased by an evil swamp beast (who naturally drives a truck). Like Joy Ride, it manages to be quite effective at scaring us when it wants to, though the sense of goofiness that made Joy Ride fun somewhat dissipates this film's effect. The film has a much higher body count than the other, but the deaths are a bit less chilling here. Perhaps, it's because the director (Victor Salva) opts to show us the villain. Perhaps it's because a story about an underwear sniffing monster is somewhat disturbing when it has been directed by a convicted pedophile. In any case, like Joy Ride, it deserves credit for not trying too hard to explain the film's events. The films are pure in that they function as simple roller coaster rides. Jeepers Creepers' performances are not as sharp as Joy Ride's however, and the script is much looser. Both films obviously owe a great debt to Spielberg's TV movie Duel, but neither seems convinced of its own originality or ambition, so that's okay. Here's to small victories...

Joy Ride - ***1/2

Jeepers Creepers - **1/2