No one expected much from "Jeepers Creepers" when it was released 15 years ago this week, on August 31, 2001. It was a low-budget horror film with no star power, being released at the bitter end of the summer dog days.
Yet, it made a star out of Justin Long, made a success out of director Victor Salva, and, with its record-breaking box-office, made Labor Day weekend into a prime spot for launching horror movies. Most of all, it introduced the Creeper, a winged monster that feasts on human flesh, and the star villain of a franchise whose long-awaited third installment is finally due in 2017.
Even after two hit movies, the Creeper remains shrouded in mystery. But here are some of the startling facts behind the film that brought him to life.1. Is the Creeper legend based on a true story? Salva has said it's a complete fiction, but the movie's first 20 minutes bear a striking resemblance to a 1991 episode of "Unsolved Mysteries," centering on the case of Dennis DePue, a Michigan man who allegedly killed his wife in 1990 and dumped her body behind an abandoned school.
The "Jeepers" opening and the eyewitness account of a couple cited on the show share such details as a traveling man and woman playing license-plate name games, their pursuit by a mysterious vehicle (a van, not a truck) on an otherwise deserted highway, a derelict building (a school, not a church), and bloody bed linens. Even individual shots from the film seem to resemble similar shots from the TV episode. Compare and decide for yourself.
2. Justin Long had impressed Salva with his performance in "Galaxy Quest," but what won him the lead role of Darry was his audition. Salva said it contained none of the false bravado and machismo the director had seen in other male actors who were teens or young adults. Salva knew Long could appear funny or genuinely frightened, depending on what the scene needed.3. Both Long and Gina Philips, who plays Darry's sister, Trisha (above), have said that Salva's screenplay was so scary that they had to put it down after reading the first 20 pages or so and come back to it hours later.
4. Long and Philips are supposed to be college students, but while Long was 22 at the time of filming, Philips was already 30.
5. MGM wanted more bankable names to play the two leads, but Salva's longtime mentor and producer, Francis Ford Coppola, used his clout to stick up for Salva's casting choices.
6. The Creeper's truck was every bit the jalopy it appears in the film. The exhaust system didn't work, and after every take, the driver had to open the door to let out a cloud of smoke.
7.Jonathan Breck scared the filmmakers enough during his audition to win the part of the Creeper. He mimicked the moments where the Creeper gets in the faces of terrified potential victims and starts sniffing them to see if they have any body parts he wants to consume. You can watch part of his successful audition here.
8. Salva likes to make Hitichcock-style cameos in his films. In the sequence where you see psychic Jizelle's record collection, there's a photo of a young man wearing a necktie; that's Salva's high school senior photo. You can also see Salva's head among the bodies of the victims in the Creeper's House of Pain.9. The movie was shot in northern Florida, around Ocala. The highway where much of the film was shot didn't appear deserted enough, so Salva got local homeowners to uproot their mailboxes temporarily.
10. The church above the Creeper's lair was a real abandoned church that, after the movie's success, became a tourist attraction until, in a life-imitates-art moment, it mysteriously burned down a few years ago.11. To Salva, Florida seemed like the jungle. The director, who weighed 400 pounds at the time, found the heat and humidity unbearably oppressive, though he noted that Breck had it worse, having to endure the weather from under mounds of latex. There were so many noisy insects that during outdoor shots, a crew member had to fire a pistol before cameras rolled in order to silence the bugs long enough to capture a take with audible dialogue.
12. When you hear the Creeper whistling the Johnny Mercer standard that gives the movie its title, the whistling voice actually belongs to the movie's editor, Ed Marx. His rendition of the tune was just supposed to be a place filler until Salva could find someone whose whistling he liked better, but he never did.13. The roadside diner was a set built for the film, but it looked real enough that passers by would try to stop and get food and gas.
14. The house where the cat lady (Eileen Brennan) lived was the home of an actual cat lady, though the film's felines were provided by an animal trainer. Initially, Salva had planned for a more extensive sequence inside the house, but budget cuts forced him to trim the scene. 15. Once Salva arrived in Florida, he discovered that $1 million worth of his financing had fallen through, and he was forced to cut some 20 pages of script from the end of the film. There would have been a fiery climax where Darry manages to get behind the wheel of the Creeper's truck and drives it into an oncoming train in a suicidal attempt to destroy the creature.
16. After budget cuts, Salva was left with $10 million to make his movie. When it premiered, it grossed $15.8 million, a record for a four-day Labor Day weekend. Ultimately, "Jeepers Creepers" earned $37.9 million in North America and a total of $59.2 million worldwide.17. While Long had a cameo in 2003's "Jeepers Creepers 2," Philips chose not to return after Salva minimized Trisha's role in the script. The sequel broke the Labor Day record set by the first film, with an $18.4 million debut. It made a total of $63.1 million worldwide.
18. As early as 2009, Salva was floating the idea for a third "Jeepers," one that would bring Philips' Trisha back in the lead.
She was to have grown into a successful businesswoman who marshals her financial resources to combat the Creeper and stop him from targeting her now-teenage son. "Jeepers Creepers 3: Cathedral" finally went before the cameras this spring, though reportedly with a much-revised screenplay and a smaller role for Philips. It's due in theaters next year.