Thursday, August 3, 2017

Junk Cinema Salutes "The Creeping Terror" of Art J. Nelson

It's Arthur White! No, it's A.J. Nelson! No, it's Art J. Nelson, director of "The Creeping Terror".

Hi-dee-ho, movie lovers.

Today we travel back to the not-so-distant past to visit the sleepy burg of Glendale, California.

Like so many small towns the world over, Glendale was a place where people never locked their doors, neighbors knew each others' business and life followed the familiar path of home, work, family and church.

Then a cool rockin' daddy from La La Land (aka Hollywood) arrived in town and blew everything to bits.

Art J. Nelson is a man known by many names--especially in court documents: Arthur Nelson White, Vic Savage, Arthur White, A.J. Nelson. Whatever name he chooses to be called by, Art J. Nelson was the genius behind 1964's "The Creeping Terror". Begun in 1962, "The Creeping Terror" is a 14-carat Junk Cinema Jewel about an alien carpet sample that threatens to eat all the residents of a sleepy California town.

Truth in Advertising?: a clip from "The Creeping Terror"s trailer.

For over 50 years, this moronic monster movie has delighted legions of bad movie fanatics. However, the back story of how this cinematic suppository came to be is just as ridiculous as the flick itself--perhaps even more so.

First, let's go back to sleepy, quiet Glendale, circa 1962, and the fateful arrival of Art J. Nelson. Like so many dreamers and schemers in Junk Cinema, Nelson was a picturesque fellow with a mysterious past and a colorful personality. According to The Son of the Golden Turkey Awards, some people thought Art was from Chicago or Connecticut; others believed he was of Native American descent and hailed from Oklahoma. Nevertheless, he introduced himself around town as the head of "Metropolitan International Productions" and as the director of  the the film "Street Fighter". Who he really was, where he came from and what skills he truly possessed, however, became irrelevant once the citizens of Glendale learned the Hollywood hotshot had chosen their town as the site of his next blockbuster. What's more, Glendale wasn't just going to be the back drop of the movie; Nelson was going to hire actual residents for roles in front of and behind the camera!

For a fee.

See, Nelson convinced the folks of Glendale that paying to participate in his picture was simple Hollywood economics. Interested parties would be investors in the project as well as on-screen talent. As Nelson's movie was destined to be a smash hit, such an arrangement was a win-win for everybody.

"What would Orson Welles do?": Director Art J. Nelson as Vic Savage as Deputy Martin.

Thus, like ants to a sugar cube (or flies to a dung heap), the citizens of Glendale began forking over their cash in order to participate in this once-in-a-life-time opportunity. One such individual was Dr. Frederick Kopp, a local music teacher and would-be composer. For a mere $600 bucks ($48, 286.40 when adjusted for inflation), Kopp was given the task of writing the film's musical score. Whether anyone got their money's worth is debatable. Then there was Jack King, a full-figured gent cast as "Grandpa", who meets his end while out fishing with his grandson Bobby. This privilege cost King $2, 500 or $20, 119.33 in 2017 dollars. That's small change, however, when compared to the $16,000 shelled out by male model William Thourlby to play the heroic "Dr. Bradford"--which would be $128, 763.73 in today's values. And remember: these people handed over their money a time when money was a lot of money!

Some parts were not up for sale, though. "Deputy Martin", the lawman called upon to save Angel County shortly after arriving home from his honeymoon, was one. To ensure the actor chosen had the right combination of talent, looks and charisma needed to carry the film, director Nelson chose Vic Savage...that is, himself, "Vic Savage" being one of Mr. Nelson's various stage names. For the equally important role of "Brett", Martin's wife of "two wonderful weeks", newcomer Shannon O'Neil was tapped. Coincidentally, Ms. O'Neil was rumored to be the off-screen cuddlemate of Nelson; some even thought she might have been his wife (in court documents, Mrs. A.J. Nelson was one of her many aliases). Still, I'm sure her personal attachment to Nelson had nothing to do with her casting.

My Aunt Fanny.

One of the few people getting paid to work on "The Creeping Terror" was Alan Silliphant, the 18-year old half brother of screenwriter Stirling Silliphant (who earned an Oscar for "In the Heat of the Night" and would later pen the bee movie "The Swarm"). Given $200 bucks--$1, 609.55 in 2017 values --by Nelson, Alan churned out a screenplay in three days; he later told The Son of the Golden Turkey Awards that Nelson thought "it was the best script since 'Gone With the Wind'".

OK, the script was ready, the actors were ready and the director was ready. Bring on the creeping terror! Then it was discovered that the monster--the centerpiece of the film-- was nowhere to be found. What happened? Turns out the F/X man hired by Nelson hadn't been paid. In a fit of pique, he absconded with the monster and hit the the road. Under ordinary circumstances, this would be a disaster. However, to the quick thinking Nelson and his crew, it was no big deal; they merely cobbled together some odds and ends, threw some old rugs over it and--presto!--instant monster. Yes, the resulting creature looked like a decaying Chinese dragon float smothered in Granny's old afghans, but, hey, it's a monster! In the world of Junk Cinema, where a gorilla wearing a deep sea diving helmet is considered state of the art and sweat socks fitted with plastic teeth are seen as highly imaginative, the Creeping Terror's resemblance to a heap of discarded throw rugs out for an afternoon stroll would not raise any eyebrows...or red flags.

Looks aren't everything: The Creeping Terror in all its glory.

What would be become a problem--a big one, in fact-- would be the sheer number of people the Creeping Terror consumed. According to the script, the monster came to Earth with the expressed purpose of collecting human DNA samples. Logically, that would require only a select number of victims. After all, how many DNA samples would a bunch of aliens need? Anyway, because so many people had paid to appear in the film, director Nelson was forced to accommodate them--or lose his funding. Thus, viewers were treated to the Creeping Terror gorging himself on police officers, necking couples, a busy housewife, a portly grandpa, all the participants of a neighborhood folk-fest and every guest twisting the night away at a community dance. Of course, the more people the Terror ate, the bigger the Terror got. Not knowing the real reason behind the monster's bottomless appetite, audience members were left to wonder if the critter had a tapeworm or was "stress eating" to cope with unresolved personal problems.

Now, about the Creeping Terror itself: is it male or female? This subject has been viciously debated amongst bad movie fanatics for decades. The evidence for each side is far from conclusive. A key part of the Terror's physique is the rather large hole/maw/opening/portal/thing-a-ma-bob where victims are sucked in. Does this "opening" double as the Terror's primary female pleasure receptacle? Meanwhile, several long tube-like objects dangle from the Terror's "face". After the beastie eats someone, they often become, shall we say, erect. Are these accouterments meant to represent the manly body part found "below the belt"? Could the Creeping Terror be both male and female? Or is its mysterious center opening just a tracheotomy scar? The world may never know.

Back to the action. To keep his production on schedule and on budget, Art J. Nelson employed a cost-cutting measure favored by many Junk Cinema auteurs. "The Creeping Terror" was shot without sound. The actors would mouth their lines on screen and then dub them in later. Unfortunately, once the movie was in the can, the cast--and their scripts--went their separate ways. When it came time to add in the dialog, Nelson couldn't find his actors or his script. Under ordinary circumstances, this would spell disaster. But remember: "The Creeping Terror" wasn't filmed under ordinary circumstances, so director Art J. Nelson came up with a novel solution.

Larry Burrel, narrator of many driver's ed training films, was hired by Nelson to narrate the movie. This decision turned out to be a stroke of "genius in reverse" that would go a long way in cementing "The Creeping Terror"s reputation as a Junk Cinema Jewel ne plus ultra. How so?  Because no matter what kind of mayhem was unfolding on screen, Burrel described the proceedings in the same measured, detached and unemotional manner he regularly used to explain the protocol required at a four-way traffic stop.

Imagine, if you will, the sight of the Creeping Terror viciously scarfing down necking couples in their convertibles while Burrel blandly observes, "The monster next appeared at Lover's Lane. Anyone who witnessed that catastrophe and survived would never go there again."

One picture is worth a thousand words.

Shortly before a housewife, a randy couple in the woods and all the members of a neighborhood folk fest are devoured by the Creeping Terror, Burrel casually notes, "The first of a series of tragedies (take) place. Tragedies that could have been avoided if the public had been warned."

Hey, you win some and you lose some, right?

Because Burrel's voice is the only one we hear for 95% of the movie, he must expel large chunks of exposition to keep the audience engaged. One example of the humongous chunks of dialog Burrel is forced to deliver occurs when deputy Barney arrives unannounced with Martin for dinner: "Barney and Martin had been bachelor buddies for years. But now that Martin was settling down to marriage, they were slowly drifting apart. Barney, naturally, was still dating all the girls in town, and he couldn't understand why Brett and Martin didn't pal around with him more than they did. He couldn't comprehend that married life brought with it not only new problems and duties, but the necessary togetherness of husband and wife as well...since time began, this change in relationships probably happened to all buddies in similar circumstances. Life has a way of making boys grow up, and with marriage, Martin's time had come. His life was now Brett, a life he thoroughly enjoyed."


Or consider this passage, spoken by Burrel in a tone usually reserved for reviewing the check-out procedures of motels, while a cast member staggers back from a Creeping Terror attack: "The Sergeant, a shaken man, returned babbling about what had happened. Realizing the full danger of the situation, (Colonel Caldwell) decided he had only one means left to stop the monster: grenades! Now Bradford made a drastic move. Acting on his superior authority, he forbade Caldwell to destroy the creature. The Colonel, more concerned with saving human lives than advancing science, told Bradford to go to hell."

"Ready, aim, fire!": The National Guard confronts the Creeping Terror.


However, after a shooting schedule that stretched out to nearly two years, location temperatures that often hit 100 degrees, a missing monster and a hasty new-hire in Mr. Burrel to complete the dubbing, the latest and greatest Art J. Nelson production was finished. All that was left to do was release the film to the waiting public. Cue the rave reviews and boffo box office!

Ah, not so fast...

Alas, when "The Creeping Terror' and its creator left Glendale, the residents never saw them again. The movie, which so many people had paid good money to participate in, would never be screened at any movie theater, anywhere. Not even Skid Row triple-feature movie houses were given a crack at "The Creeping Terror". It would not be until 1976--twelve years!--when investor/actor William Thourbly (who would go on to write You Are What You Wear  and advise Richard Nixon on his wardrobe) would get a hold of the footage. He promptly sold the flick as part of a syndication package to UHF stations. However, it was in the nether world of late, late, late night TV that "The Creeping Terror" began to acquire its loyal army of followers. Appearances at "Worst Film Festivals" and receiving the full "Mistie" treatment on "MST3K" (episode 606) only enhanced the film's stature. Today, "The Creeping Terror" is proudly considered one of the worst films ever made, second only to Ed Wood's 1959 mess-terpiece "Plan 9 from Outer Space."

And what of Art J. Nelson, the man who made this all possible?

Have you seen this couple?: Art J. Nelson and his "discovery" Shannon O'Neil.

He completely disappeared off the face of the Earth, which seems entirely appropriate. Fanciful rumors about his whereabouts--such as his being the editor of George Stevens' "The Greatest Story Ever Told"--have sprung up from time to time, but Art J. Nelson never worked in the motion picture industry again. His disappearance puts him in league with Herbert Tevos, James L. Wolcott and Hal P. Warren (directors of "The Mesa of Lost Women", "The Wild Women of Wongo" and "Manos: The Hands of Fate", all reviewed on this blog) fellows who sank their hearts and souls into a single film and then vanished.

Another way to look at it: their movies were such corkers, there was no need for them to make another one!

Thus I declare: Art J. Nelson, wherever you are, living or dead, for creating an audaciously awful monster movie, for shaking things up in Glendale and for proving that old throw rugs can become violent hell-beasts, Junk Cinema Salutes you!

God bless and good night.

Hair-raising: an extra reacts to the Creeping Terror.

 The author wishes to acknowledge the following sources that made her research and this post possible:



The Son of Golden Turkey Awards by Michael and Harry Medved

"Mystery Science Theater 3000", the greatest TV show EVER