"You know, I have a kind of affinity for older, retro, sci-fi monster movies," confesses Pete Schuermann with a slightly embarrassed look, as if openly discussing this fascination could raise eyebrows in his indie film audiences. "They looked sooo bad. The monsters looked sooo fake. But today, I think we're missing out on the fun of some of those old movies."
Actually, that admission shouldn't surprise those familiar with the local writer-director's work. Sure, his best-known film may be Haze, a sober documentary with actress Robin Wright Penn that explores college-hazing rituals gone wrong. But other credits on his bio reveal his more closely held affections — campy sci-fi tributes and parodies with names like Hick Trek, Star Warp'd and Evil Brain From Planet X.
Schuermann says his preference for the genre was born when, as kids, he and his brother would stay up late watching bad, black-and-white, B-rate flicks.
"We turned the TV on once, and this movie came on called The Creeping Terror," he remembers. "You've heard of Plan 9 From Outer Space — I think everybody has — it's considered one of the worst movies ever made. It's Ed Wood, with strings on the spaceships. Well, this makes that look like a classic."
But rather than remain alone with his bad-film fixation, he's been talking it up.
"There are so many people I'm meeting who have had similar experiences. They grew up with those late-night monster movies, and there was a point when they were really scary," says Schuermann. "And when you're a little older you think, 'I was scared of this?' You can see the zipper on the monster's back, you see how badly people are acting, and you're no longer laughing at the film — you're kind of laughing at yourself."
Though it defies explanation at points, the plot of 1964's The Creeping Terror essentially involves a UFO crash that unleashes a monster resembling a carpet remnant with antennae that look like tiny pigtails. The extraterrestrial creature moves (OK, creeps) through the countryside at a glacial pace, devouring the humans in its path. Luckily for the monster, many of its victims apparently forget that they can stand or walk as the beast approaches. And though they scream distractingly, they appear to crawl into the being's huge mouth-like opening in order to be consumed.
The terror turns up in all kinds of inconvenient places — a "hootenanny," involving folk singing and poor judgment; the backyard of a neglectful mother who is hanging laundry; and an over-packed reception hall where serious partiers in ridiculous outfits are dancing wildly in broad daylight. And, that's just for starters ...
Not surprisingly, that childhood sighting stuck with Schuermann, and as he contemplated his next film project, searching for something that would speak to his deepest sensibilities as an artist, or more possibly, his silliest obsessions, he remembered the carpet monster. Now he has begun work on a project about The Creeping Terror that he describes as "a movie within a documentary about a feature film."
"I think there is incredible comedy just watching this movie," he explains, "so I thought I could do a documentary about the making of the movie. But it's not just an Ed Wood thing where they're stumbling around and they're simply incompetent," says Schuermann. "It was also a scam."
Ever since he'd read The Creeping Terror's behind-the-scenes story discussed in one of the "Golden Turkey Awards" books written by brothers Michael and Harry Medved, the renowned film critics with a similar taste for terrible cinema, Schuermann says he dreamed of seeing the tale on the big screen. Now he has wrapped up the first phase of that vision himself in partnership with Haze producer Nancy Theken, film editor Dave Wruck and cinematographer Jeff Pointer.
The quartet spent months tracking down members of The Creeping Terror's original cast and crew, and captured their memories of the production and its scandal on camera. At this Friday's Colorado Short Circuit screening, the team will give viewers a taste of what's to come with the debut of their teaser for Creep!, the story of The Creeping Terror and the outrageously unscrupulous filmmaker behind it. Punctuating the trailer's interview snippets are laughable moments from the original film, and expert commentary from movie critic and internet sensation Harry Knowles of aintitcool.com, as well as the Medved brothers themselves.
Though the feature-length documentary is in its early stages, the team has plans to add a third piece to it. In addition to interviews and original footage, they will cast new actors and re-create the movie's backstory. In the trailer, Harry Medved describes the scam behind the film: "The guy who made it was a con man who supposedly had escaped from Joliet prison and convinced all these bored housewives and plumbers and music teachers that he was a big time moviemaker named A.J. Nelson."
In fact, Nelson was a man of many names. Born Arthur Nichols White, he billed himself in The Creeping Terror's opening credits not only as director A.J. Nelson, but also as lead actor Vic Savage. Schuermann describes how Nelson recruited victims: "He'd find someone and say, 'Hey, I need you to be in this movie. I can make you a star — but I need $100.' So he got all these people to act, and even more to invest, shot it, and it was terrible, and then disappeared."
Schuermann says the truth finally emerged when the actors realized no one had been called to the set for a week. One of them decided to go looking for answers and drove to the director's house. There he discovered law enforcement emptying the place.
"He wandered into the garage a little dumbfounded and saw a dusty, cob-web laden box filled with various junk and a stack of film canisters. A voice in his head told him, grab it — that's the movie. He casually picked it up and walked out," says Schuermann. "It was indeed all of the unedited footage."
That actor was William Thourlby, who appears in the original film as Dr. Bradford, though his most notable role may be an earlier stint that earned him the credit of the first Marlboro Man. Schuermann describes him as an "Old World gentleman" and the antithesis of Nelson.
"He stitched the film together, just to try to recoup his investment," Schuermann says of the 86-year-old former thespian who the Creep! film crew caught up with in Manhattan. "He'd paid $15,000, and those were 1964 dollars."
With the salvaged film footage, but almost none of the voice recording, Thourlby hired a radio announcer to narrate a soundtrack. The narration, reminiscent of those self-important health-class filmstrips, is one of the qualities that has made the film a cult favorite.
Amidst the monster action and scattered dialogue are long passages of absurd commentary — spoken over scenes as the actors wordlessly move their mouths — such as the one (printed verbatim here) featuring the sheriff and his deputy: "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."
The film's "sincere incompetence" — to use Michael Medved's description — is one of its draws. And according to the grapevine, there are many in the Hollywood film community who are quiet fans of The Creeping Terror. Case in point: it was the Medved brothers who first approached Schuermann and his colleagues about being involved in Creep! (not the other way around) when they learned of the documentary-in-progress via the blogosphere.
"I could talk to you about thousands of films and y'all are asking me to talk about Creeping Terror," says feisty film critic Knowles of his own interview for the documentary. "That's hysterical. It is so fucking ridiculous ... I jumped at the chance to do this."
"Supposedly this is even a favorite movie of Martin Scorsese," confides Schuermann, "but we haven't reached out there ... yet. But we will."
The team says landing interviews with the Medveds and Harry Knowles has been far more than they expected. They've also been pleased to turn up so many willing participants from the original film including Byrd Holland who played Sheriff Ben, screenwriter Allan Silliphant (who later wrote The Stewardesses, the "world's first 3D porno") and Oscar winner Richard Edlund who designed the titles. They even spoke with A.J. Nelson's first wife, Lois (Schwarz) Wiseman, who wrote a fictionalized book called Hollywood Con Man, about the life she lived with the difficult and abusive would-be director.
"It's not just looking at this bad movie and gawking at the ineptitude," explains Schuermann. "It's about the lives that got swept up into it. And some of them are truly moving stories."
Of course, Ed Wood and The Creeping Terror's A.J. Nelson were not the only Hollywood wannabes churning out frighteningly awful films in the 1950s and '60s.
"What a lot of people don't realize is this is not a movie, not art. It's total product," says Schuermann. He compares the vintage B-films to today's movie franchises like Transformers, which may be more technically accomplished, but still cut corners when it comes to the art of storytelling. "It's the same damn thing," he says, "They make these things and they know if there is a certain amount of 'T&A' in it or slasher stuff, it's going to make a certain amount of return."
During the monster-movie era, the strategy was slightly different. Drive-in theaters were known to have a certain percentage of viewers who were generally more interested in each other than they were in the films. "Nobody really cared if the quality was any good," says Schuermann. "Everybody knows, you never make it to the double feature, you're going at it in the back seat.
"So as long as you don't spend too much money making the movie, it's going to make its money back. And that's how so many of these came to be made: You get cardboard sets for your spaceship, you have some cheap monster — in this case it's a carpet — and you only have to chunk in $15,000? It seemed like a very shrewd business venture."
"At the same time you can act like God, and have women throwing themselves at you," says Schuermann, alluding to the benefits Nelson received beyond the money he pocketed.
"Why do we do a lot of things in this world?" he asks, though he's already prepared with an answer. "A lot of it has to do with sex. Guys think they're going to be surrounded by women ... So there's that element. It's a power trip."
Sources tell Schuermann that The Creeping Terror's head guy seduced nearly every woman appearing in the film. He also reportedly dabbled in pimping women, prostituted himself and was "strung out on every drug imaginable." At times, Schuermann says, it seemed as if nothing was beneath the man whom Creep's filmmakers call out with their movie title's double meaning: "He would go in and steal the Muscular Dystrophy [Association's] can of coins. It meant nothing to him."
"That's the underlying thing about Hollywood: for all the humanist posturing they do, it's still kind of a seedy business."
Twist and shoot
This all leads, of course, to talk about finishing Creep! and that's where the tale's most entertaining twist becomes apparent. While the film crew has recorded interviews from around the country; purchased rights to scenes from the original film; created a teaser about to make its big-screen debut; and started buzz via its creepfilm.com website, YouTube and Twitter, Schuermann says they are far from completing the feature.
"We need the next chunk of money, then we'll shoot these re-creations, re-enacting the behind-the-scenes stuff, basically creating our own B-roll," he says. "I'm working on the script right now, we're fleshing out certain concepts, what avenues we want to go down. Then we go into casting, and then a production schedule, then an edit schedule, and we wrap it up."
While the costs for the first phase have totalled about $20,000, the estimate for the final portion will run significantly higher and expand the film to feature-length. "We're looking at a budget, depending on where we come in with the script, between $200 and $250K," he says, emphasizing that the film is looking for additional investors. They'll begin casting as they line up the funding.
This leaves Schuermann with a dilemma. He's now a Colorado Springs-based movie director hoping to recruit money and actors for a film he believes can turn heads in Hollywood about a filmmaking scandal involving a little-known director who scammed the investors and cast members he lined up, for a film he never finished. The parallels have led to a few smirks among those he's approached, says Schuermann, but he assures them that things are different today.
"There are certain things in place now that protect people a little more than they did way back when," he says. "There are ways we're setting up our production structure to make sure that the investor is protected — in that we don't go and just skip town or whatever. They are affixed to a whole scheme to get this done —" then Schuermann stops, laughs and corrects himself, "a whole plan, I should say."