Last week Jeepers Creepers 3, the third entry in the horror-flick franchise, opened in theaters for one night only. The Fathom Events premiere unleashed The Creeper in 635 theaters, grossing more than $1.7 million. The film was so successful that the one-night-only event has been expanded to Oct. 4 encore showings across the country. But Jeepers Creepers 3 will forever be tainted by writer-director Victor Salva’s deeply disturbing criminal past.
In 1986, Salva’s 35-minute short, Something in the Basement, so impressed legendary filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola that he came on as a producer of Salva’s first full-length feature, Clownhouse. Salva, then 28, cast the 12-year-old Nathan Winters, who he had also featured in Something in the Basement, in Clownhouse. The movie centered around three young brothers whose suburban existence transforms into a waking nightmare when their house is occupied by psychopaths dressed as clowns.
During filming, the sixth grader’s mother, Rebecca Winters, began to suspect that her son was being terrorized both on and off the set. “Victor said I couldn’t go to the set,” she told the Los Angeles Times. “He said Nathan couldn’t work if I was there. I just had these feelings. I confronted Nathan and he admitted it to me, he said, ‘I have a secret and I can’t tell anyone.’” Police raided the director and former child-care worker’s home, where they found child pornography—including a homemade pornographic tape that showed Salva engaging in oral sex with his pre-adolescent star. “He spent the better part of a year grooming me and my parents,” Nathan Winters recalled in an interview earlier this year. “Developing the trust. It was very calculated, and a long process, as it is with most pedophiles.”
In April 1988, Salva pleaded guilty to five felony counts—lewd and lascivious conduct, oral copulation with a person under 14, and three counts of procuring a child for pornography. He was sentenced to three years in prison, and was released in 1989 after serving only 15 months. The Winters family sued Coppola’s Commercial Pictures for $5 million; Rebecca Winters said that hey eventually settled out of court for “barely over $100,000.”
Meanwhile, Salva, who was in prison by when Clownhouse premiered at Sundance, was allegedly being beaten “beyond recognition.” He told the San Jose Mercury News that, “I was never more scared or closer to death than I was in prison… I received no therapy there. Prisons are not places for rehabilitation or learning to understand yourself or your actions. They’re monster factories.” The paper further reported that the director wrote five scripts during his involuntary stay; one was Powder, which was produced by Caravan Pictures and distributed by Disney’s Hollywood Pictures in 1995.
Salva’s career post-conviction is defined by a push-pull between Hollywood amnesia and the sense—alternatively articulated by journalists, boycotting consumers, and the Winters family—that the director’s crimes should not be forgiven or forgotten.
In 1995, the Associated Press reported on the backlash to Powder—how “grim-faced Hollywood executives leaving the theater” after an industry screening were met by the now 20-year-old Nathan Winters and five of his friends. The protesters came armed with leaflets that detailed Salva’s criminal past. “Please don’t spend your money on this movie,” the fliers read. “It would just go to line the pockets of this child molester.” They also held up signs blaring, “Victor Salva: Writer, Director, Child Molester'” and “Support the Victim, not the Victimizer.”
According to the AP, producer Roger Birnbaum “was tipped about Salva’s history halfway through Powder’s filming and confronted him” (Salva insisted that he was completely upfront with everyone, including Disney, about his past). After he was made aware of the situation, Birnbaum said, “Key production people were told to keep an eye out for anything.” Salva was not removed from the project, despite the fact that the producer “could not state definitively whether all others in the youthful cast were 18 or older.” Variety reported that, “Two crew members said Salva hung around minors, employed as extras. The children were invited to sit in the director’s chair, and Salva frequently lunched with them, the crew members said.”
Rebecca Winters vowed to fight against the registered sex offender’s career resurgence, telling the AP, “I can’t believe it. It just makes me sick… I’m not going to stand by. He should not be allowed to live his life as if nothing happened.”
When asked to comment on the Powder controversy, Francis Ford Coppola released a statement describing Salva as a “talented young director.” Salva released the following statement through his lawyer: “How deeply I regret my actions. I paid for my mistakes dearly. Now, nearly 10 years later, I am excited about my work as a filmmaker and look forward to continuing to make a positive contribution to our industry.” Powder ultimately grossed $30.8 million at the domestic box office.
In a 1999 interview, Salva told San Jose Mercury News that, “I think [studio execs] saying, ‘He’ll never work again’ was all for show. My God, if they were to take the [arrest] records of every filmmaker or actor, they’d have to shut this town down… Let’s face it, anybody can work here who makes money.”
Salva went on to write and direct Jeepers Creepers (2001) and Jeepers Creepers 2 (2003), which were both executive produced by Francis Ford Coppola and made a combined $122 million worldwide. He also helmed the features Peaceful Warrior (2006), Rosewood Lane (2011), and Dark House(2014).
In 2015, Jeepers Creepers 3, now financed by Myriad Pictures, was set to begin filming in Vancouver when the local actors’ union decided to intervene. The controversy was sparked by a sketchy casting call for the film. According to Deadline, the bulletin “sought an 18-year-old actress for the role of Addison, who at the age of 13 had been sent to live with her grandmother after her stepfather ‘started making overtures’ to her.”
The Union of British Columbia Performers took it upon themselves to publicize Salva’s past to local talent agents, writing, “It has recently come to our attention that a casting breakdown has gone out for a feature film entitled Jeepers Creepers III, and that the director of the film, Victor Salva, was convicted of sexual misconduct in 1988… The conviction allegedly resulted from misconduct involving a minor whom Mr. Salva was directing at the time. At this time we would like to remind our members and their agents that, under Article A2702 (Safety & Welfare of a Minor) of the BC Master Production Agreement, a performer has the right to refuse work if they believe that the nature of the work is unsafe.”
The casting website subsequently removed the posting, releasing a statement that, “Upon learning of this notice and our own verification of the facts surrounding Salva’s conviction, Breakdown Services has removed this project from its files… All submissions made by any agent on this project are no longer available to the casting director nor any member of the production staff.”
Principal photography for the film began a year later after filming was moved from Vancouver to Baton Rouge.
But that was just the beginning of the backlash to the controversial film. In March, IndieWire reported on a Change.org petition urging consumers to boycott the horror flick. The petition read: “Jeepers Creepers 3 is currently in production. The director and creator of this franchise, Victor Salva, used his position to rape a 12 year old boy in 1988 during the filming of the movie Clownhouse. He was convicted and served a measly 15 months in prison. As the three largest movie theater chains in the US, I urge you to not show this movie at your theaters. The profits from Jeepers Creepers 3 line the pockets of a pedophile. Monsters belong on the screen, not behind the camera. I also urge other members of the horror movie community to take a stance. Spread the word and don’t watch this film!”
As the film’s impending release continued to stir up controversy, Nathan Winters issued a statement in which he said that Salva molested him “for six years of my childhood.” In August, Jeepers Creepers 3’s planned September premiere was canceled by the theater, possibly fearing protests. Winters subsequently clarified that he did not call for the cancellation, explaining, “Due to the nature of the controversy which led to the cancellation of the premiere of Jeepers Creepers 3, we would like to make it known that we had no part in the events which took place. While we are humbled, it should be made clear that we believe that it is the viewers’ choice whether to watch a Victor Salva film. We want Jeepers Creepers fans to know that we understand their frustration. Our purpose in this isn’t to stop Victor from working, only to let the truth be brought to light.”
Winters is currently crowdfunding for a nationwide speaking tour bringing awareness to the issue of child sexual abuse, and a subsequent documentary about “my journey from victim to survivor.”
While Jeepers Creepers 3 did eventually make its way to theaters, it’s been called out by critics who noticed some truly frightening content in an early cut of the film.
According to IndieWire, “Jeepers Creepers 3 does not depict any kind of child molestation, but it does include one moment where two characters are discussing why Addison no longer lives with her stepfather. One of the two characters is romantically interested in Addison and seems to understand why her stepfather would make ‘overtures’ on her. ‘Can you blame him though? I mean look at her,’ the character says. ‘The heart wants what it wants, am I right?’” This disturbing “joke,” which appeared in the screening link that was sent to critics, has reportedly been removed from the theatrical cut.
Salva’s apparent urge to make light of his character’s trauma—not to mention including the sexual abuse of a 13-year-old as backstory in the first place—brings an added layer of horror to an already disturbing story. And if that weren’t enough, he is currently in pre-production on his next feature film. It is not yet known if any children will star.