The Creep Behind the Camera (2014)
Release date: September 12th, 2017
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
We often say that some movies—usually the not so great ones—have a production history that’s more interesting than the movie itself, but how many actually inspire a full-length docudrama as evidence? Such is the case with The Creeping Terror, a no-budget monster movie cheapie quietly released to rural drive-ins in 1964 that was virtually forgotten until Mystery Science Theater 3000 dug it up in the 90s, putting it on the path of a cult object that’s been collected in various public domain DVD sets over the years. And, truth be told, it’s not all that different from many of the films in this class: for every genuinely unsung treasure, there’s about a half-dozen Creeping Terrors, where an awful-looking spacecraft “crash lands” on Earth and spits out a monstrous entity—in this case, a walking carpet sporting plastic tubes for tentacles and eyes—to terrorize a bunch of poorly-acted locals wandering around in a generally shoddy, uninspiring production.
The Creeping Terror is perhaps a notch below the average, landing somewhere near the bottom of the barrel, if only because 80% of is plot is relayed by overbearing narration and still manages to barely make any sense. Worse, it’s a bit of a meandering bore that wears out its welcome despite a 75-minute runtime since many scenes are interminable and shot without a lick of dynamism. You gather that nobody involved had any business being near a camera, much less using one in a shoot that presumably cost some kind of money, however little it may have been. The drive-in and exploitation circuits are full of productions like these, but only a select few boast wildly outlandish tales that can account for their ineptitude.
Falling very much into that category is The Creeping Terror, a film helmed by complete psychopath in A.J. Nelson, whose exploits are documented in The Creep Behind the Camera. Where most of these tales center on charismatic figures that tread the line between magnanimous huckster and scheming con-artist, this one takes a straight-up disturbed con-man as its subject. Donning the pseudonym Vic Savage, Nelson (Josh Phillips) embarked on a reign of terror that saw him trying to helm shoestring productions in between bouts of abusing his wife (Jodi Lynn Thomas) and running a prostitution ring in Glendale, California in the early 60s. Writer/director Pete Schuermann attempts to capture the madness of it all in Creep, an interesting mixture of talking-head documentary and dramatic reenactment that zigs and zags through various points of Nelson’s life in jumbled fashion (perhaps in an attempt to reflect its subjects manic, drug-addled mind).
While the documentary stretches as far back into the 50s (and ahead to the 70s to capture Nelson’s lonely demise), it’s largely concerned with explaining just how in the hell The Creeping Terror could ever be made. In what feels like some kind of bizarre origin story, Nelson—despite sporting zero credentials or evidence of his cocksure greatness—manages to swindle various folks (including poor moneyman William Thourlby) into allowing him to helm what he believes will be the greatest monster movie ever made. Disaster strikes at every turn: upon approaching eventual Creeping Terror screenwriter Allan Silliphant (Brian McCulley, though the actual Silliphant also appears in the documentary portions), Nelson realizes he’s actually looking for the man’s brother, who had actually completed a screenplay before. Naturally, the mix-up doesn’t stop Nelson from tossing a wad of cash at the bewildered man in an effort to sway him, a tactic that works even though Silliphant had no idea what he was doing (though it should be noted that his script was more ambitious than the mess that ended up on-screen).
So it was with The Creeping Terror, a ramshackle production that often saw its director leering at the scantily-clad female cast members and attempting to sex them between takes. During these scenes, Schuermann treats viewers to humorous Ed Wood-style reenactments of the film’s more infamous scenes, such as the infamously terrible sequences where the creature mauls its victims. It’s also worth noting that the creature’s designer—7-foot-tall novice effects artist Jon Lacky—is one of the film’s more colorful characters and very much in line with the sort of folks you’d expect to see in one of these types of B-movie tributes. Such is the case with many of the figures surrounding Nelson and trying to make some sense out of his chaotic production; for example, you can’t help but chuckle as the narrator for The Creeping Terror rolls his eyes at every line and threatens to kill anyone who puts his name on the picture. Cinematic disasters can be fascinating, especially when there’s a sincerity backing them up, and The Creeping Terror had that in spades, at least from many of its supporting players.
More questionable, however, is Nelson himself, whose sociopathic behavior forces you to question his delusions. At one point, even the film itself makes this explicit when a bewildered onlooker asks if Nelson actually believed in his bullshit or if it was all just a huge con job. Creep never really provides an answer, though it would admittedly prove to be difficult considering just how unrepentantly awful Nelson is. As portrayed here, he was the walking embodiment of Arnold Friend, the sinister fiend from Joyce Carrol Oates’s “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” A 50s greaser with almost supernatural charisma belying his mean streak, he drifts into the life of Lois Wiseman, an unsuspecting girl living under the thumb of an oppressively religious mother. In Nelson, she sees salvation in a leather jacket, a genius guardian angel who will whisk her away to California on the promise of fame and fortune.
The illusion is promptly shattered when Nelson is revealed to be an abusive lout who cheats on her under the pretenses of making connections. “It’s show business” he insists, callously ignoring that her heart is breaking right before his eyes, a revelation that only proves to be the tip of the iceberg to this boozing, drug abusing pile of human garbage who terrorizes her for the next several years. As the title insists, Nelson is a true creep whose illicit behavior knew no bounds: if he wasn’t abusing his wife or harassing his stars, he was stalking Hollywood starlets and luring wannabe starlets with non-existent jobs in exchange for sex. Put it this way: at one point, he falls in with a wild-eyed man who’s all too eager to allow Nelson to shoot on his land. “I’m Charles Manson!” he reveals with glee before also offering the services of a stuntman who can also totally acquire guns for Nelson if need be.
Yes, that Charles Manson—it turns out that some of the cars used in The Creeping Terror may have even been among the number stolen by the madman who would orchestrate those infamously brutal slayings in Hollywood just a few years later. If you really are the company you keep, then Nelson’s character can best be summed up by the fact that he managed to fall in with this crowd without much of a hitch. Redeeming qualities are hard to come by, as the story grows to be more absurd (and disturbing) as it goes along: Nelson abandons his wife and kids to be with a 15-year-old he’d allegedly been courting since she was nine before eventually bottoming out and having an epiphany in a church that inspires him to produce The Creeping Terror.
Perhaps only this instance of divine intervention can really explain The Creeping Terror, which would have rightfully receded into the annals of obscurity without this incredible tale surrounding it. Actually, it might be more apt to consider them tales: sure, the main focus here is on Nelson, though I can’t for the life of me fathom why anyone would want to lionize such a character as the film seemingly does here. The tone here is very much out of the Ed Wood mode: slightly reverent and entirely disbelieving of just how outrageous all of this is without casting any judgment on Nelson himself, who invites condemnation at every turn (even his unceremonial death is treated more as a gag than a cautionary tale). Such an approach is a misstep, or at least a miscalculation since idolizing such a figure proves to be impossible by any measure. Even if Nelson were some misunderstood, ambitious genius like Ed Wood, he’s still an irredeemable charlatan and an abusive creep.
As such, the real story buried in The Creep Behind the Camera isn’t about the title character at all: instead, I’m drawn to the plucky resolve that Lois Wiseman shows throughout her ordeal here. It’s a portrait of courage that I could never fathom, nor can I imagine just how much strength it must have taken to remove herself from a situation that left her on the verge of suicide and carrying demons that still haunt her. When the actual Lois appears in the documentary, you can feel the weight and enormity of her time being tormented by Nelson. In fact, it’s a staggering effect, one that reminds you of that the truth actually isn’t stranger than fiction; in this case, it’s only more haunting and affecting, and Scheuermann’s decision to make an offbeat dramatization undercuts this powerful story. Who cares about a creep like AJ Nelson when his wife’s tale is much more interesting and deserving of being praised?
That’s the story I’m choosing to take away from The Creep Behind the Camera: ultimately, it’s one of hope since this determined woman did find a better life for herself and her children. William Thourlby did finish the picture, even if it was by any means necessary. Allan Silliphant did go on to write more lauded screenplays. Richard Edlund—the poor sap tasked with creating titles for this disaster—did go on to do visual effects work on some of the biggest blockbusters of all-time, earning several Academy Awards in the process. In a roundabout way, Schuermann does capture the infectious, sincere joy that goes into a film like The Creeping Terror, which endures as a total joke but was once a labor of actual love for everyone involved. Well, most everyone—sometimes, there’s no accounting for the creeps.
After bowing at various festivals a few years back, The Creep Behind the Camera arrives to Blu-ray from Synapse Films in stacked release that also doubles as a definitive edition for The Creeping Terror itself. Creep is treated as the main feature and boasts a stellar transfer and a DTS-MA track, resulting in a fine presentation. Several extras are included for Creep as well, including a 25-minute making of featurette and an audio commentary from Schuermann, Phillips, Thomas, producer Nancy Theken. Both an alternate ending and deleted scenes offer a glimpse at the cutting room floor, and there are two supplements dedicated to recreating The Creeping Terror’s cheap effects for the documentary. A couple of trailers, an extra interview with Silliphant, and the a festival screening Q&A hosted by MST3K alum Frank Conniff (symmetry!) round out the extras.
And if that weren’t enough, the disc also boasts an immaculate 2K restoration of The Creeping Terror, thus rendering all of those cheap budget pack offerings obsolete. While the upgrade to high definition doesn’t magically result in a better movie, the effort is appreciated, especially since you’ll want to check out the actual film before watching the documentary that inspired it. I’m sure others would say otherwise: “don’t bother with The Creeping Terror,” they’d say, insisting that Creep provides enough context to understand the gist of it. However, I’d argue that you need to experience the full brunt of The Creeping Terror to comprehend the utter madness swirling around it. Look at it as posing a continual question: “how did this get made?” you’ll wonder before turning to Creep for the unbelievable answer. comments powered by Disqus Ratings:
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