Josh Phillips as Vic Savage (AJ Nelson)
Jodi Lynn Thomas as Lois Nelson
You may or may not know (I didn’t) that the cult classic, The Creeping Terror was not just an exercise in bad filmmaking and eventual fodder for the guys of Mystery Science Theatre 3000, but also a real life, behind-the-scenes tale of spousal abuse, drug use, sexual deviant behavior and one helluva God-complex in the form of director Vic Savage.
Savage (aka AJ Nelson) dreamed of being a filmmaker. He was going to make “the biggest and best monster movie ever” and was able to convince a lot of people that he could do it. By conning, sleazing and sexing his way into their lives and pocketbooks, he actually did make the film, but it was one of the biggest pieces of crap in the history of cinema.
Schuermann’s film tells the tale of the making of this classic clunker, and all of the wacky, scary and jaw-dropping events which unfolded behind the camera. For instance, there were cars in the original film, borrowed from none other than a soon-to-be infamous Charles Manson (here played by a gap-toothed and freaky Kyle Amann). And that’s just one of the WTF bits waiting to be enjoyed. All of this has to be seen to be believed.
The film is chalk full of great performances. But aside from the slithering carpet creature itself, the picture belongs to Josh Phillips as Vic Savage. At once charming, then alarming, then downright brooding and frightening, he runs the emotional gamut. In both appearance and mannerisms, he’s reminiscent of Bill Paxton (at his most Aliens neurotic). It’s a real tour-de-force performance and worthy of greater attentions. His “drop of the hat” mood swings are creepy and sudden. It’s a testament to Schuermann as well as Phillips that the quick turn-arounds are just as unexpected and horrifying as they must have been for Lois. We’re put in those shoes and it’s not terribly pleasant. We find ourselves longing for a return to the happy-go-lucky interior of the monster puppet and the suffering, sweaty kids inside. Josh Phillips is the real deal.
Per Schuermann, “I knew very quickly Josh was the perfect choice for Art Nelson, although there were about four strong contenders. During the audition, Josh literally leapt across the desk I was taking notes on, and ultimately he was the only one that actually scared me. Josh and I always had fun exploring how to make Vic real, but at the same time someone with little depth. I kept saying the same thing over and over – ‘Your job is to bring us a three-dimensional performance of a two-dimensional character.’ In many cases, we drew references to other films as a source of motivation. I think that was apt, given that so much of AJ Nelson’s existence was in reality a performance.”
Mission accomplished, boys!
As Lois Nelson, Jodi Lynn Thomas gives us a sweet, put upon girl with not a backbone to be found. She’s a rag doll and the film makes it obvious that she always was, even before Vic sauntered up to her in that community center and swept her off her feet. Thomas, in a Q&A following the screening, spoke about her research for the role. She read Lois Nelson’s book about her life with Savage (all names in the book were altered). Per Thomas, the horrors Lois tolerated go much deeper than what was shown on the screen. Thomas’ Lois is sympathetic and sad. As someone mentioned in the Q & A, it was a relief to see the real-life Lois in the documentary scenes. It confirmed that though she may be scarred, she made it through. You root for Lois, as did most of the audience on Sunday night. Vic returns some time later following Lois’ departure from their marriage. Putting on one of his usual “woe is me” performances, she finally takes a stand, to the delight of the audience.
I can’t move out of the acting categories, without mentioning Mark Lee as creature designer, Jon Lackey. With his towering figure, strange jaw-moving tic and young Orson Welles appearance, he steals all of his scenes. His awkward garb in the first meeting with Vic Savage is hysterically priceless. He gives us one of the most memorable characters in a sea of memorable characters.
Visually, the late 50s and eventually the early 60s are splendidly authentic. Not a detail was missed, and the lighting (both in the sunny meadows of Simi Valley and in the dark moments of the time spent in Savage’s head) are incredibly effective. Kudos must be given to the artists behind the inspirational visions Savage experiences in the church (which was the only true poetic license taken by Schuermann. Everything else was factual and confirmed by the cast and crew who participated). Fantastic!
The film goes back and forth from laugh-out-loud funny, as Savage ineptly directs his cast and crew and his actors are continually swallowed up by the vaginal opening of the creature, to terribly disturbing, as Phillips nails those violent outbursts. Basically, the film had everything!
Seamlessly interspersed throughout the narrative portion of the film, are interviews with cast members and producers from The Creeping Terror, critics like brothers Michael and Harry Medved (their Golden Turkey Awards further pushed The Creeping Terror into painful focus) and several heart-breaking moments with Savage’s real-life, long-suffering wife — recounting some of the more humorous and romantic times as well as plenty of the more ghastly and demeaning events in their difficult life together.
Again, per Schuermann, “Lois at the time was quite approachable, flattered and eager to bring her story to the public. In fact, she had written the book (“Hollywood Con Man”) as a beacon to women under similar circumstances: abusive relationships that offered little hope and personal belief in oneself to escape. All of that said, the interview experience was an emotional one for her and for us behind the camera.”
At Sunday night’s showing, producer Nancy Theken and Schuermann stated that the film was originally envisioned as primarily a straight documentary. But frankly, I can’t see it being as much of a success without the sprawling narrative that is the majority of the film. As is, the documentary portions are just yummy icing on the cake, lending that authenticity, ‘cause – well, this story is for real.
As a side note, it was an amazing thing to find FX legend and multiple Oscar winner Richard Edlund (Ghostbusters, Poltergeist, Star Wars) among the documentary chunks of the picture. He was the title designer for The Creeping Terror!
Schuermann keeps the story and frequent time-line jumps well in order with inspired visual cues, in the form of script headings (i.e. INT/EXT) and bold narration (obviously snatched up from the format of the original film). All of these fun touches keep the screen alive and kicking and except for the harsh scenes of domestic violence, a hoot to watch!
Up next for Schuermann? “I’ve got an idea I’m fleshing out that has very little humor — something I always seem to incorporate into my narrative work and would like to NOT play with — and it’s very dark. I like the idea of a horror film that uses little to no jump scares. What I’ve got is tentatively titled “Going Down”. It’s not pornographic, rather it deals with literally going to Hell.”
Based on the brilliance of Creep, put my name on the list for tickets immediately!
No DVD/VOD release date has been announced. But keep your eye on the festival circuit schedules in your neighborhood. And visit www.creepfilm.com for further goodies as well as news and forthcoming screenings!