Studio: Synapse Films
Director: Pete Schuermann
Writer: Pete Schuermann
Producer: Nancy Theken, Kyle Woodiel
Stars: Josh Phillips, Jodi Lynn Thomas, Bill LeVasseur, Chris Winters, Mark Lee, Lois Wiseman, William Thourlby, Byrd Holland, Allan Silliphant, Michael Medved
Con artist Art Nelson rechristens himself as B-movie director Vic Savage and sets out to make the science-fiction cult film “The Creeping Terror.”
Art Nelson was, by virtually all accounts, a real sonuvabitch. Name practically any crime and someone has a story about Art committing it. Con artist, bigamist, wife beater, drug abuser, and kiddie porn peddler are just a handful of the unfavorable descriptors he can be assigned. Art Nelson was also Vic Savage, the Hollywood-styled pseudonym used while directing “The Creeping Terror,” an otherwise forgettable piece of monster movie schlock that ironically became the only reason anyone even knows Art’s sordid personal history today.
Lampooned on “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” and occupying prominent positions on both IMDB’s Bottom 100 and the Medved Brothers’ Golden Turkey lists, 1964’s “The Creeping Terror” achieved notoriety as a B-movie bomb so inept in execution that it makes Ed Wood’s oeuvre look like Orson Welles’. As a dramatization spiked with talking head documentary interludes, “The Creep Behind the Camera” goes behind the scenes to paint a portrait of a filmmaker so contemptibly sleazy, his movie’s title could have doubled as his nickname.
If the tales told are to be believed, then Art Nelson may have been the most interesting miscreant to ever darken the backstreets and alleyways of Tinseltown. According to anecdotes recreated as well as recounted by familiars who knew him when, Art’s nefarious misadventures include shooting the actor who played Alfalfa on “The Little Rascals,” entertaining unscheduled visits from L.A. crime kingpin Mickey Cohen’s legbreakers, stalking both Lucille Ball and Mamie Van Doren, and even being introduced to his assistant director by none other than Charles Manson at the infamous Spahn Ranch, a particularly amazing feat seeing as how Manson wouldn’t reside at the ranch for another five years. It’s a small wonder that no one speculates a connection between Art’s late 1963 disappearance and the JFK assassination.
Less name-droppingly colorful, but more serious in terms of ripple effect, are the close-to-home horrors Art perpetrated against his first wife Lois. While the world at large would come to perceive Art as a goofy footnote in creature feature lore, Lois came to know the real Art via the strike of his fist and a proclivity for putting prostitutes in their bed while she contemplated suicide. His movie may be regarded as a joke, but the real-life story behind the man who made “The Creeping Terror” is indeed not funny at all.
As a film, “The Creep Behind the Camera” takes a bigger bite than can reasonably be chewed with the format. Structuring itself as both a documentary and a dramatization is a novel approach, yet the irregularity with which the film bounces between the two makes it feel like two projects colliding instead of one smooth thread. Stepping out of chronological order to ping-pong throughout a multiyear period in Art’s life adds to a disjointed narrative.
For instance, mention is made of Art absconding with the box office take from his previous film “Street Fighter” to elope with an underage childhood sweetheart. But the event itself is never portrayed, so where/how it fits into Art’s timeline is unclear. More prevalently, Art’s marriage to Lois and the making of “The Creeping Terror,” which are the film’s two primary stories, are told concurrently even though they didn’t actually overlap in Art’s life.
A handful of interview subjects, Harry Knowles and an acquaintance of creature creator Jon Lackey spring to mind, are included so briefly to utter single sentences that their placement reads as random and unnecessary. Though for the most part, the personalities are endearing and their recollections fascinating enough to foster wonder if a straight documentary might have made a more compelling feature. Of particular amusement is the screenwriter who, 50 years later, still hasn’t let go of the fact that Art Nelson filmed a Lake Tahoe-set script in a dirty Simi Valley pond. (Director Pete Schuermann revealed in a post-Screamfest screening Q&A that the project did in fact originate as a pure documentary, but a lack of on-set stills and visual material prompted the meld with traditional movie.)
Where “The Creep Behind the Camera” shines is in terrific performances from both leads. Josh Phillips as Art Nelson resembles a lanky Craig Sheffer bearing Bill Paxton’s evil bully sneer. Jodi Lynn Thomas as Lois brings Angela Bettis to mind in both looks and embodiment of a mousy beauty masking deep inner turmoil. In scenes together and apart, Phillips and Thomas breathe authentic dimension into archetypes that could have been standard Lifetime movie abuser and abused, but instead elicit hate, heartbreak, pity, sadness, and sympathy.
Where “The Creep Behind the Camera” trips is with a juggling act that doesn’t always flow fluidly. “Creep” alternates between Art’s story, Lois’ story, and the production story of “The Creeping Terror” so often that its central theme becomes muddled. And fusing the campy charm of “The Creeping Terror” with the dark brutality of Art’s biography makes for a mix of disparate tones that the film confuses as interchangeable.
An overbearing soundtrack is deliberately melodramatic in a manner meant to emulate atomic-era sci-fi sensibilities. But its intentional goofiness undercuts the seriousness of certain scenes when played against shots of Art leveling a strike to his wife, or Lois considering killing herself. Other sequences, like a montage of Art having a drug-addled epiphany following the flight of his first wife, can’t help but draw attention to how much time they take getting to a point that has already been made.
“The Creep Behind the Camera” is a well-intentioned and engrossing project that wears some warts stemming from mixed messages, non-sequiturs, spurious “facts,” and the need for one more coat of polish to tidy its tone together. Nevertheless, the film is a docudrama of high interest for bad movie buffs. And in this modern age of fame for fame’s sake and Average Joes becoming social media sensations overnight, Art Nelson is perhaps more relevant now than he ever could have been in his own lifetime.
Review Score: 65