Filmmaker Victor Salva was convicted of raping a 12-year-old boy. But his new film, ‘Jeepers Creepers 3,’ is now playing in theaters. Why has Hollywood given this monster a pass?
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).