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Jeepers Creepers 2

(2003) ** R
106 min. MGM/UA. Director: Victor Salva. Cast: Ray Wise, Jonathan Breck, Garikayi Mutambirwa, Eric Nenninger, Nicki Lynn Aycox.

"Every 23rd spring...for 23 gets to eat." And every year Hollywood studios seem to devour youngsters with summer sequel jaws. 2001's Jeepers Creepers exercised a confident command of pace and tone to tell its genuinely mysterious, salaciously creepy campfire yarn. Beyond an enduringly punchy visual style, returning writer-director Victor Salva's Jeepers Creepers 2 maintains all of the first film's nastiness but precious little of its self-delighted charm.

The early-going holds some promise, recalling the sunburned photography of the first film as a midwestern farm becomes a feeding ground for the winged Creeper (Jonathan Breck, reprising his role). When not hibernating, the gleeful gargoyle likes to pounce on young flesh, consume the good bits, and creatively reconfigure the scraps into arts and crafts. When the Creeper makes off with farmboy Billy, Billy's dad Jack Taggart (Ray Wise) has his own bone to pick.

What begins with patient, cleverly misdirected scares settles into jolting, emphatically disgusting serial murder, for we shortly join a busload of high school basketball players (accompanied by a trio of cheerleaders and a trio of adult chaperones) hurtling happily down the highway. On the last day of the Creeper's feeding frenzy, they're alluring fresh meat. Insert slasher movie here.

In between the obligatory, gory murders, Salva lays out obligatory "character development." If the high schoolers were anything more than selfish jock caricatures, these scenes might be more than painfully protracted time-wasters. Salva introduces a couple of exceptions to the meathead rule: nerdy and incredibly annoying team manager Bucky (Billy Aaron Brown), high-school paper reporter Izzy (Travis Schiffner), and budding psychic Minxie (Nicki Lynn Aycox), but none of them emerges as an identifiable hero to provide narrative focus or inspire rooting interest. As if to underscore his failure, Salva includes a cameo by Justin Long, half of the likeable sibling pair at the heart of the first film.

The closest Salva comes to a deeply-drawn hero is Taggart, who spends most of the film's middle offscreen. Since his stellar work on Twin Peaks, Wise has become an iconic connossieur of unctuous, insincere big business or glassy-eyed, grieving fatherhood. Here, he's in the latter mode, a Bacon painting come (almost) to life. Mostly, Salva asks Wise to pose moodily in closeup, but Wise gets to bellow quite a bit at the climax.

Though executive producer Francis Ford Coppola has stood steadfastly behind his protégé, Salva continues to be boycotted by many for his convicted-child-molester past. It probably doesn't help Salva to make a film with a busload of muscular, scantily-clad teenage boys being stalked by a grinning flesh-eater in a long, black overcoat. More charitably, Salva might be seen as Izzy, the sensitive nice guy surrounded by jocks and plagued with the homophobic taunt "Izzy or isn't he?" Either way, Salva's latest film is all empty calories; he serves up typical gross-outs and metal-crunching mayhem with joyless and uninspired efficiency.

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