Victor Salva and ‘Jeepers Creepers 3’: Can we separate the man from the monster?

09.11.15 2 years ago

When news broke this morning that “Jeepers Creepers 3” was ramping up production 12 years after the second film hit theaters, my thoughts almost immediately drifted to director Victor Salva, who helmed the first two “Jeepers” films and is also, as a number of tweeters have already pointed out, a convicted child molester.

The crime in question occurred during the shooting of Salva's 1989 feature debut “Clownhouse,” when the then-29-year-old director filmed himself having oral sex with the film's 12-year-old star, Nathan Forrest Winters. After the tape was discovered during a police raid (Winters had informed his mother of the abuse), Salva was jailed and served 15 months of a 3 year prison term before being released on parole. He is now (and will forever be) a registered sex offender in Los Angeles County.

Those are the facts; and despite them Salva has continued to work in the industry, helming a total of eight feature films since his release from prison. One of the most prominent was the 1995 drama “Powder” starring Mary Steenburgen, Jeff Goldblum and Sean Patrick Flanery, who starred as a bullied albinic teenager with supernatural powers and a genius-level IQ. During an industry screening of that film, the then-20-year-old Winters protested outside the theater, handing out leaflets bearing the lines: “Please don't spend your money on this movie. It would just go to line the pockets of this child molester.”

Salva's criminal past — all the more ironic for the fact that “Powder” was released by Disney, whose brand is the very definition of “family entertainment” — attracted major press attention at the time, and there should be no question whatsoever that Winters' outrage was absolutely justified; despite counter-statements from the film's producer and studio that Salva had paid his debt to society (a more-than-dubious claim considering his inordinately brief prison term), the young actor's life, as is the case with every molestation victim, was irrevocably damaged by his abuse at Salva's hands (Winters has not appeared on screen since “Clownhouse”). Despite the media attention, “Powder” managed to gross over $30 million in the U.S. — an astonishing feat when you consider that child molestation is held on a par with murder (and perhaps even worse) in the American psyche.

After the turn of the century — aided by “Clownhouse” producer and mentor Francis Ford Coppola — Salva enjoyed his greatest commercial success with “Jeepers Creepers” and its 2003 sequel “Jeepers Creepers 2,” which grossed over $120 million collectively on a total  budget of around $27 million. In the years since that one-two  punch Salva's career has dimmed somewhat (his highest-profile post-“Jeepers” release was the critically-panned 2006 book adaptation “Peaceful Warrior” starring Nick Nolte), but it now appears headed for a “reboot” with the announcement of the long-awaited horror threequel.

Knowing everything that I know about Salva, it's difficult to know how to feel about today's news. Fans of the “Jeepers Creepers” franchise have been voicing their excitement on Twitter, though I would venture that most of them aren't aware of the director's criminal past (it will be interesting to see how this news plays out in the court of public opinion circa 2015; indeed, Twitter wasn't even invented when Salva's last studio-backed film hit theaters).

For the rest of us: how to square Salva's latest career revival with his sordid history? Do we continue to decry his every move because he committed a terrible crime nearly 30 years ago, despite zero evidence of recidivism? Can we forget about his crime long enough to enjoy one of his silly monster movies? Would that be fair to Mr. Winters? Can we truly separate the man from his art? And perhaps the most controversial question of all: aren't pedophiles — even convicted child molesters — deserving of compassion too?

These are not easy questions, and there are no doubt those who would just as soon see Mr. Salva starve than be allowed to make another film. This, to me, screams of a mob mentality. Unlike, say, Roman Polanski — who in 1977 pled guilty to a charge of unlawful sexual intercourse with a 13-year-old girl before fleeing the country to avoid further jail time — Salva faced the consequences of his actions and served his time. His astonishingly light sentence is, at this point, moot. We can certainly all agree that Salva should never be allowed to work around children unsupervised. But with the knowledge that he has (seemingly) restrained himself from committing further crimes, does he not deserve to make a living?

I think it's important to remember who Victor Salva is and what he has done. And we should never forget about his victim, who will no doubt suffer the consequences of his abuse at Salva's hands in some form for the rest of his life. It is worth taking into account, too, that Salva is a public figure, and that his continued relevance as a Hollywood filmmaker could well serve as a painful (and all-but-unavoidable, in the case of his wide-release studio-backed films) reminder for Mr. Winters of the suffering he has endured. For all I know, Salva is unrepentant about the crime he committed three decades ago. The problem is, I can't know that, nor can any of the rest of us. All I can go by are the facts of the case.

Salva's heightened public profile makes this case a particularly challenging one, and I certainly understand the compulsion to demonize him. But I wonder if making a demon out of the man only serves to further mystify and obscure a very real and very serious psychiatric disorder (a condition that has been thoughtfully and compassionately chronicled in films like “The Woodsman” and “Little Children”). And I wonder if that kind of knee-jerk outrage ultimately does more harm than good.

[The Hollywood Reporter]

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