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Movies

Victor Salva's horror stories

In his new film, the `Jeepers Creepers' director trades nightmares for hope. But it's not exactly a happy ending for the convicted molester.

June 11, 2006|Patrick Goldstein | Times Staff Writer

One sticking point to the debate over Salva involves his work as a horror director. Most of his films are populated with young men who are terrorized by killers, convicts and scary monsters. Some critics believe Salva has elevated the youth-in-jeopardy tone of the horror genre. Reviewing "Jeepers Creepers," Slate's David Edelstein compared Salva to the young Steven Spielberg for his "graphic ingenuity," saying "he's aiming for a more fairy-tale, dreamlike irrational dread -- a child's dread, not of psychos in hockey masks but winged demons who hide in the shadows."

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Of one's life and one's art

BUT his detractors find a darker parallel between Salva's crime and his films. At the time of "Powder's" release, a police officer in charge of the Los Angeles Police Department's unit for sexually exploited children was disturbed that Salvo was allowed to be in a position of authority on a movie set, saying "as long as he's in a position to be around kids, he's a threat to kids."

After seeing "Jeepers Creepers" in 2003, New York Daily News film critic Jami Bernard told the San Jose Mercury News, "It's a naked exploitation of Salva's own inner disturbances. He's just rubbing our noses in the very crime he committed."

For Salva, his preoccupation with young men in fearful situations comes from a very different place. "All these films about young men in scary situations are a mirror on my own childhood," he says. "When you're a filmmaker, you make movies about what you know."

When Salva was a boy, growing up in Martinez, Calif., he and his younger brother would play in their room with toy-monster models of Frankenstein, the Mummy and the Creature From the Black Lagoon. It was a "coping mechanism" for dealing with a turbulent childhood. "Home is supposed to be the safest place in your life, so when you live in a scary environment, like we did, that fear made those monsters feel like your friends and protectors," he says. "They were always on your side."

Salva's mother was 18 when he was born. His father deserted the family soon afterward. He was replaced by a stepfather who, as Salva puts it, "rescued us from utter poverty, although there was a huge price to pay."

The stepdad came from an abusive family and was unable to break out of the cycle. "He'd been drinking since he was 14, so it was very volatile -- liquor put him in touch with his anger," Salva recalls. "He was physical with us. He'd hit me or sometimes slam me or throw me across the room. It was like living with a landmine. You never knew when it was going to go off."

Salva's escape was movies. Raised in a strict Catholic household, he was rarely allowed to go, except on his birthday, when he would see the big picture playing in town. When "Jaws" opened, he'd been grounded, but he and his pals sneaked out to see the film at a local drive-in. "I liked it so much that I told my parents how good it was, which only got me in more trouble," he recalls.

By the time he finished high school, Salva had made 22 short films, which he would show in the school cafeteria, doing the narration himself. He says he did well in school but struggled at home, especially after his parents learned he was gay. "I was thrown out of the house at 18 -- they told me to stop being gay or get out," he says. "I've always had a really difficult time with my weight and my sexuality." (In "Powder," the film he made for Disney in 1995, his hero is an albino who is disowned by his father and harassed by school bullies, the role of an albino outcast being a pretty clear metaphor for a tormented gay kid.)

After attending film classes at a junior college, Salva began writing scripts. In 1986, he entered "Something in the Basement," a film he'd shot in his backyard, in various film festivals. One judge who admired the film was Coppola, who gave the filmmaker $250,000 to make "Clownhouse."

After Salva left prison, he eventually moved to Los Angeles, where he worked various odd jobs, including as a telemarketer for 1-800-DENTIST. He would write scripts on the weekend and then, posing as a delivery boy, would take them to various production houses around town. It took years to get hired again as a director. Even then, his jobs have been on ultra-low-budget films; "Peaceful Warrior" was made for roughly $4 million.

"I lost many movies because of my situation," he says. "There are a lot of people who are afraid of me, because they only know what they've read. The past has closed a lot of doors."

"Peaceful Warrior" is being distributed by Lionsgate, which has a history of embracing controversial subject matter, as well as employing baggage-laden filmmakers. The company's most recent release, the horror film "See No Evil," was directed by Gregory Dark, a man with a long history in porn films.

"We knew about Victor's past, so we were aware and concerned," says Lionsgate President Tom Ortenberg. "But he's taken responsibility for his actions, which not everybody does, so we felt he'd paid his dues and could move on."

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