The Creep Behind The Camera (2014) Screamfest Review
As we all know in from DVD audio commentary tracks, every bad movie likely has a far more interesting story taking place behind the camera. Such is the case with 1964’s The Creeping Terror as demonstrated by Pete Schuermann’s docu-drama, The Creep Behind the Camera, which played at Screamfest in Los Angeles at The Chinese Theater on October 19th.
If you look The Creep Behind the Camera up on IMDB, you’ll likely be confused by their categorization of it. “Documentary/Animation/Biography” doesn’t exactly sum this film up very well. This is indeed (mostly) a narrative biopic, a la Ed Wood.
But it didn’t start out that way. During the post-screening Q&A, Schuermann said the initial intent was to make a documentary. After uncovering a wealth of unsavory behind-the-scenes stories, mostly revolving around the film’s “director” and lead actor, Art “A.J.” Nelson (aka, Vic Savage), Schuermann and his producer, Nancy Theken, knew they had a twisted story to tell.
Unfortunately, one of their potential interviewees – Nelson’s daughter, who apparently had a great wealth of information about her father’s dark behavior – dropped the ball when she declined to be involved with the documentary. By that time, however, the ball had already started rolling forward. On-camera interviews with some of the film’s original participants and people like Michael and Harry Medved (authors of the 1980 book, The Golden Turkey Awards) were already in the can.
So Schuermann and Theken opted instead to make a narrative film that occasionally cuts to the aforementioned interview clips with (among others) Creeping Terror’s screenwriter Robert Silliphant (brother of screenwriting legend Sterling Silliphant), actor and (uncredited) producer William Thourlby, actor Byrd Holland, and Nelson’s ex-wife, Lois Wiseman. That tactic of reinforcing historic tale with eyewitness testimony was used to great effect by Warren Beatty in his 1981 film, Reds. Here, those clips provide the greatest insight into the bizarre psyche of Nelson.
Con-man tactics are nothing new to Hollywood biopics. While The Creep Behind the Camera certainly has more than a few of its moments, it’s no Ed Wood (a comparison this film will inevitably face). That film, as directed by Tim Burton and brilliantly written by Scott Alexander and Larry Kareszewski, perfectly treaded the line between comedy and poignancy while lovingly paying tribute to the creative process.
The Creep Behind the Camera himself, Art Nelson, wasn’t just inept; he was also – according this film – a wife beater and womanizer who at some point also dabbled in child pornography. Bad filmmaking is all fun to laugh at until we’re watching a man beat his wife, and this film goes back and forth between the comedy and the dark moments pretty quickly. Actor Josh Phillips delivers a performance that’s appropriately frightening and a quite hammy as well.
Much of the movie feels more like one of those true-crime re-enactments running at feature length. While the interview clips are among the film’s best assets, the performances are mostly strong. Jody Lynn Thomas as Nelson’s wife, Lois Wiseman, and Desert Storm Veteran-turned-model-and-actor Bill LeVasseur provide the best performances by far. Both underplay their roles quite nicely without hamming up an already tall tale.
To her great credit, Thomas revealed during the Screamfest Q&A that a chunk of her research for the role of Lois Wiseman included reading her book, Hollywood Con Man, a first-hand account of the abuse she endured while married to Nelson. That’s far more research than Sarah Jessica Parker did when she was cast to play Delores Fuller in Ed Wood.
In addition to the presence of Harry Medved, the screening was appropriately introduced by Trace Beaulieu and Frank Conniff from Mystery Science Theater 3000, which is probably more responsible for Creeping Terror’s cult following than the Medveds’ book.
Actor and makeup artist, Byrd Holland, who played the ill-fated sheriff in the film (one of the Creeping Terror’s first belch-worthy victims) also dropped in and posed for some photos for me with a large, life-sized version of The Creeping Terror in the lobby of the theater.
Despite its flaws, however, it’s hard to fault a movie that’s obviously such a labor of love devoted to such an obscure film. Overall, The Creep Behind the Camera is a fascinating, if uneven, portrait of a sickeningly dangerous man and a bygone era. Behind every monster from this period is a man in a rubber suit. And behind the camera of this film lies an engrossing story of the dark depths of 1960s independent filmmaking.