Friday, February 26, 2016

The Creep Behind the Camera (United States, 2014)

I was still in high school when I first saw The Creeping Terror. This was during one of my many late night trawls through that perilous cultural outback only accessible via the UHF dial on my family’s hulking Trinitron. If you can imagine, this was back in the days before The Golden Turkey Awards, MST3K, and Mill Creek 50 Movie Packs, so I was coming to The Creeping Terror fresh, with absolutely no idea of what it had in store. The thrill of that experience was one that is now difficult for me to convey—for this, to my novice sensibilities, was truly the worst film ever made (the previous contender had been Mesa of Lost Women, which I had discovered in much the same way.)

The Internet being many years off (get it? It was a LONG time ago), I did not have the option of conveying my excitement by way of a blog or Facebook post, but instead had to settle for breathlessly haranguing my friends about it at school the next day. These friends expressed reactions that ranged from annoyance to borderline tolerance—and in the case of those friends who were later cajoled into watching The Creeping Terror, rage.

Had this been a Pixar movie, I would have sullenly slunk back home to belt out a power ballad about one day living in a world where everybody was as excited about The Creeping Terror as I was. Little did I know then that, all these years later, I would be part of an international community of people for whom shared knowledge of The Creeping Terror was a given, and for whom The Creeping Terror was even a touchstone of sorts. Face it, nerds; The Creeping Terror is now part of the nerd fabric of our nerd lives.

Given this, it is perhaps not surprising that someone would make a movie about the making of The Creeping Terror. What is surprising, however, is just how fine a film The Creep Behind the Camera is—not only novel in its construction, but much more well-acted, written, and directed than it probably needs to be. The key to this is that Creep is less a film about the making of The Creeping Terror than it is about its producer, director, and star, Arthur “A.J.” Nelson, aka Vic Savage.

As a profile of the director of a notoriously bad film, The Creep Behind the Camera invites facile comparisons to Tim Burton’s Ed Wood. But where Burton endeared Wood to us by presenting him as an outsider version of an enduring American archetype—i.e. the irrepressible dreamer with an unshakeable personal vision--Creep writer/director Pete Schuermann examines a much darker version of that archetype. Because, for every wide-eyed aspiring auteur who arrived in Hollywood during the 50s with a dollar in his pocket and a dream in his heart, there were probably two like A.J. Nelson, a sociopathic grifter who would stop at nothing, and use anyone, to get ahead.

Schuermann takes a unique approach to telling Nelson’s story, crafting a film that unpredictably switches back and forth between drama and documentary. Neither of these elements prop up the other, as is the abiding style of most documentaries made in the wake of Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line, but instead have the depth and power to stand on their own. The documentary portions consist largely of talking head interviews with the likes of Terror producer and co-star William Thourlby, writer Allen Silliphant (brother of Sterling), Golden Turkey Awards author Michael Medved, and, perhaps most important of all, Lois Wiseman, Nelson’s then-wife, upon whose book, Hollywood Con Man, the film is partially based. It is the presence of Wiseman, now seemingly enjoying a ripe old age, that makes The Creep Behind the Camera something of a survivor’s tale—as the film’s depiction of her abuse at Nelson’s hands is harrowing.

The dramatic portion of Creep begins with Nelson arriving in the Los Angeles suburb of Glendale with Lois dutifully in tow. He wastes no time in enthralling the town’s residents with tales of how he is going to make “the best monster movie of all time” and is soon soliciting them for funds in exchange for roles in both the film’s production and the film itself. In Josh Phillips’ intense portrayal, Nelson is a horror movie version of the classic small-time huckster, oozing both oily charm and unhinged menace. Behind closed doors we see that he has made a virtual slave of Lois, whom he savagely beats for, among other things, objecting to his flagrant womanizing. This portrait of Nelson as a psychopathic narcissist is as stark as it is grim, exemplified by a scene in which he admires his naked body in a full-length mirror as Lois (given heartbreaking life in a quiet, empathetic performance by Jodi Lynn Thomas) looks on in terror. “I am God,” he growls.

One of the most admirable things about The Creep Behind the Camera is its evenness of tone, which must have been achieved at no small effort. Schuermann accomplishes this in part by letting the ridiculousness of The Creeping Terror speak for itself. The introduction of its titular beast, surely one of the most threadbare and misbegotten creations in all of B monster cinema, is handled with delicious deadpan. For truly, no elbow to the ribs is necessary with a sequence like the one where a pickup truck carrying that costume, a leafy tarp crowned by an unholy construction of paper mache and radiator hoses, careens through the streets of downtown Glendale, disrupting a parade and sending a troop of Girl Scouts scattering in panic. Equally side-splitting is the scene in which we are shown what awaited those compliant actresses who so gamely pushed themselves into the Terror’s vagina-like mouth—i.e. that they came under threat of being vomited on by one of the several heat stroke suffering teenagers charged with giving the beast life.

By leaving the job of discerning Terror’s innate comedy in our quite capable hands, Schuermann frees himself to be unforgiving in his portrayal of Nelson as a hateful piece of shit. We are spared nothing, from Nelson’s increasingly sadistic abuse of Lois, his stalking of female celebrities, and his eventual heroin addiction, to his implied involvement in kiddie porn. There is even an anachronistic-seeming encounter with Charles Manson to put him in the proper sinister context. All the while, Josh Phillips—as if reveling in the seething contempt of his potential audience--brings his A game to showing us, not only Nelson’s towering self-regard, but also his monumental self-pity. Clearly this is a man who is as shameless in getting his way through abject weeping as he is by brute intimidation.

As The Creep Behind the Camera draws to a close, Nelson, pursued by creditors from the worlds of both high finance and organized crime, abandons The Creeping Terror, leaving its completion in the hands of his bilked investors. I don’t think that anyone knows what really happened to the film’s audio tracks, but here it is posited that Nelson destroyed them, thus necessitating that the finished product be wallpapered with the stentorian-yet-somehow-still-nattering narration we know and love today.

But will it still be possible to love The Creeping Terror after seeing The Creep Behind the Camera? I don’t know. It certainly seemed to me like Schuermann was positioning the film’s monster—in all it’s tacky, audacious shittyness—as an expression of Nelson’s tacky, audaciously shitty, and ultimately empty soul. That’s an association that will be hard to shake. On the bright side, though, something I did not know as a teenager, but know all too well now, is that there are many more captivating oddities—and, dare I say it, worse films--where The Creeping Terror came from. It’s just that now I might not be as curious about the people who made them as I once would have been.

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