Classic Review: The Creeping Terror (1964)

Director: Vic Savage

Starring: Vic Savage, Shannon O’Neil, William Thourlby

Release Date: 1964 (US)

We’ve all done it. We’ve each of us watched a film right until the lights go up in the cinema, or the TV station previews the next night’s movie, desperate for one last crumb of entertainment from the closing credits. Occasionally, if watching a comedy, the patient film-goer is rewarded with a few gags, as with 1980’s Airplane! (“Worst Boy: Adolf Hitler”) or The Simpsons Movie (2007), where the perpetually hapless Spotty Teenager appears, bemoaning the four years spent at film school just to sweep the garbage-strewn auditorium floor. Mostly however, the only thought flickering through the mind of the credit-watcher is  – “what the heck do all of these people do? Why every film need like a thousand people to put it together?”

The answer is to avoid that film ending up looking like The Creeping Terror.

Some of the truly bad movies, the Z-grade efforts that barely resemble a professional release, are the efforts of what we can politely call ‘enthusiastic amateurs,’ naive individuals with the movie-making bug who wanted to just make something, without letting simple things like competency or a basic knowledge of how a movie works inhibit their dream. Here we find Hal Warren’s Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966), Robert Grounds’ The Weird World of LSD (1967), James Nguyen’s Birdemic: Shock and Terror (2008) and the works of Coleman Francis, most notably The Skydivers (1963). However wretched the final result, these films were at least made of out some degree of love or belief in the film-making process, only to underestimate the work needed in making a film actually look like a film, the reality we accept on-screen to prevent us from rejecting the film as too obviously a fictional construct. In these movies, the relationship between the reality of the viewer and the ‘reality’ of the film breakdown, the process pokes through the celluloid, be it through visible clapperboards and muddy sound quality (Manos), special effects that a kid with a Mac could knock together in ten minutes (Birdemic), or a total disregard for narrative structure (all of the above), where films become ill-fitting, badly-linked set-pieces, with baffling character motivation and no clear idea of what journey the hero or whoever is supposed to take.

And then we come to the ego trips. It’s tempting to place John Travolta’s paean to Scientology, Battlefield Earth (1997), in this pile of piles, but for the fact that the film does at least exhibit the baseline technical competence we take for granted in a film, and also I’m really scared of Scientologists. A more fitting entrant is Tommy Wiseau’s The Room (2002), a film made out of sheer force of will, not to mention crunching gear changes, dead ends, meaningless scenes, redundant dialogue and a hysterical sense of its profundity. Blinkered to the point of blindness to any sense of The Room‘s failings, Tommy Wiseau continues to this day to defend his work and any faults are motes in the viewers’ eye, not his own. Say what you like about Tommy Wiseau however, but at least he isn’t a cheating, swindling, woman-beating Nazi fantasist with a God complex who sought the company of underage girls and conned countless people out of money in order to finance what he called “the best, the greatest, the biggest monster movie of all time!”

Introducing Art J Nelson, star, director and sole reason for the existence of The Creeping Terror, a film so bad it was refused a cinema screening in an era when Ed Wood films were showing in the fleapit picture houses of America. Whereas the likes of Ed Wood and Coleman Francis took much of the responsibility of making their films themselves out of devotion to their ‘artistic vision’ or simply because they couldn’t afford to pay professionals to do the job, Nelson’s devotion was only to himself and the money he could make out of others. Any film he made would be brilliant by default, because he was almighty Art J Nelson, end of.

Of course, as anyone who knows the story behind The Creeping Terror will know that no-one knows exactly who Art J Nelson was to begin with. Nelson is almost certainly a false name he gave himself to protect his real (presumably much-threatened) identity, just as the name Nelson acts under in The Creeping Terror, Vic Savage, is also a pseudonym. Art J Nelson, and Vic Savage, are myths, and it is unknown whether the man behind the false fronts is still alive, or whether he passed away years ago, leaving behind a work of fiction just as monstrous as the man himself.

If the test of the brilliance, or badness, of a film is the myths that have grown up around it, then The Creeping Terror has a place in any movie Parthenon: Nelson lost the film’s soundtrack when it fell into Lake Tahoe; the original monster was stolen shortly before filming began, and what was used was cobbled together at the last minute; actor Jack King, who played ‘Gramps,’ was once a porn star (unlikely given King, as seen here, is practically spherical, struggling to stand from a seated position); Art J Nelson had a vore fetish (look it up and weep for mankind) and that’s why the monster eats so many women. Those who wish explore the myths further should check out Pete Schuermann’s excellent 2014 documentary The Creep Behind The Camera, but in the meantime it’s interesting to note that a work of fantasy so bereft of conviction should generate stories of its own, as if acknowledging its own wretchedness and spinning a mesmeric web onto those who make it through its 75 minutes of almost nothing.

Instead, should you watch The Creeping Terror, let it play upon you as the type of film almost unique in entertainment history, a film that proceeds with the logic of a bad dream, where events happen simply because they happen, presented to with a fractured common sense held together with Scotch tape. Images come and go, like a child’s picture book where the spine has come undone and half the pages have fallen out, the film’s scenes connected only by the most ludicrous monster in film history, an accident between a carpet sample factory, a Chinese dragon and an industrial-sized Spanish omelette.

From the opening, where our two heroes Deputy Martin Gordon (Nelson/Savage) and his new wife Brett (Shannon O’Neill, a teenage runaway and Nelson’s then girlfriend) drive obscured to the viewer by almost total darkness, to the concluding scene, where dying scientist Dr Bradford (William Thourlby, the original Marlboro Man and future successful fashion adviser) informs Martin and Brett the monsters have succeeded in their mission of broadcasting humanity’s weaknesses to their home planet, but we needn’t worry “for another million years or so,” The Creeping Terror is film at a level below its most basic, harking bark to some primordial era of film where all routes where possible. After all, it’s a modern convention that a film must tell a story, but in its earliest days film was mooted as a new art form in the style of sculpture or paintings, showing the beauty generated by pure movement or composition (Virginia Woolf writes of this in her essay ‘The Cinema,’ inspired by a technical breakdown during a showing of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari [1919]).

Sandwiched between these filigree layers, such rare treats. A hair appears in the camera gate on at least two occasions, breezily making its way along the right-hand side of the screen before disappearing. The same shot of the open sky appears three times. Sound effects, such as women screaming, or the monster’s growl, are recycled endlessly, ripples upon the black waves of a nightmare. A band play the same short dance tune as if on a loop, despite the tune including the sound of instruments the band clearly lack.

And there’s the ‘action.’ A platoon of soldiers disembark from their truck, remove a sapling that was ‘blocking’ the road, and get back on again. A housewife puts out the laundry, then takes the temperature of her sickly infant with an anal thermometer, then goes back to the laundry and is eaten by the monster. The baby, clearly stock footage from another film, cries and is not seen or heard from again. During the pivotal dance hall scene, where the monster eats around five dozen people who don’t know how to use a door, an inexplicable fight breaks out between two men which appears to come from another film altogether (possibly the result of a ‘lost’ subplot). The monster attacks courting couples necking in cars along the local Lovers’ Lane, and no-one does anything in response. But, most of all, there’s the dialogue. To all intents and purposes, there isn’t any.

Instead, the exposition is largely conducted by a narrator (Larry Burrel, who according to Schuermann’s documentary, threatened to sue if his name was listed in The Creeping Terror‘s credits), with dialogue given in brief, startling snatches, likely a result of Nelson failing to dub the voices back in during post-production (a common money saving tactic for zero-budget productions), or simply not knowing that double-system sound recording is a thing that exists, leaving most of the dialogue hopelessly unintelligible.

As The Creeping Terror didn’t even make it to the drive-ins, finally arriving on TV screens c.1976 as part of a cheap syndication package of films for local UHF channels, the world had to wait 12 years before hearing such gems as “Now Dr Bradford made a drastic move. Acting on his superior authority, he forbade Caldwell to destroy the creature,” not to mention “Barney and Martin had been virtual buddies for years, but now that Martin was settling down for marriage, they were slowly drifting apart. Barney naturally was still dating all the girls in town and couldn’t understand why Brett and Martin didn’t hang around with him more than they used to.” This latter narration is delivered over a scene where the newlyweds, having invited Barney (Norman Boone) over for dinner, instead make out passionately on the sofa for several weeks until the dispirited Barney gets up and leaves.

Most of all though, there are cars, the rocks upon which every low-grade film director sets their anchor. Aside from actors, cars are the most reliably ‘real’ things any film can feature, with the bonus that people can get inside cars and move them around, providing instant action, of a sort. If a film you suspect is a bomb opens with a shot of a car driving along a highway, evacuate the area, because the bomb’s about to blow. I’ve come to regard such openings in the way literary reviewers must feel when reading a novel which opens with a character waking up with a hangover (and yes, Night of the Living Dead [1968] and Kingsley Amis’ novel Lucky Jim are the exceptions). What seems a secure starting point is in fact a cliche, a lesson that the obvious route is not always the best one to take.

The Creeping Terror doesn’t disappoint in this regard. People get in cars, drive, and get out again at a point that looks no different to where they started. A couple are attacked in a car, which the monster painstakingly flips over until it can get at the yummy humans inside, a sequence which seems to take an hour of screen time. Our heroes are intercepted driving home by a friend in a car, urging them to follow him, and so we see the full three-point turn before they head back where they’ve come from. Cars, the most real thing in America, perhaps even more than men and monsters, dominate the landscape of The Creeping Terror, as they do in some many bad films.

And it’s a car that provides one last abiding image of this terrible man’s terrible film. For many years, the only widely available source of information on The Creeping Terror came in Son of Golden Turkey Awards (1986), where authors Harry & Michael Medved interviewed many of those involved in the film, such as William Thourlby and writer Allan Silliphant. Included is a wonderful photograph of a Chevrolet pick-up truck driving along Hollywood Boulevard, the Creeping Terror itself slumped in the back, looking like the result of a dragon taking a dump while flying overhead, part of a pre-production publicity stunt conducted by Art J Nelson. In the background is the Pantages Theater, then showing the Marlon Brando flop The Ugly American (1963), but on the side of the theater is a poster of the forthcoming feature, and the camera angle is such that it looks like the monster is reading the poster. The forthcoming film? One of the most infamous flops of all time – Cleopatra. A world away from Burton and Taylor and financial excess, is a maniac in a pick-up truck with no money, an insane idea and a carpet for a monster. Worlds away, but monsters of a kind. Something else to think upon when you wade through the closing credits of a professionally made film, wondering who on Earth are all those people, the gaffer, the best boy, the key grip. They’re the people who make sure you don’t know what you’re watching is only a film.