When people think of a pederast or sexually deviant film director, they are likely to imagine Roman Polanski having sex with a 13-year-old or Woody Allen marrying his adopted daughter. But those stories are a bit tired and cliched now, so, for those with a thirst for horrible stories about film men abusing their power, we present mid-budget journeyman director Victor Salva. In 1989, Salva was jailed after molesting the 12-year-old star of his first feature film, the low-budget horror thriller Clownhouse.
Salva has said that the idea of making a horror movie like Clownhouse had been on his mind for some time, and when you watch it, you can see why. The plot's victims are three pre-pubescent brothers, led by debutant Sam Rockwell, who spend their time running hysterically around their enormous suburban house getting terrorised by sadistic escaped lunatics dressed as circus clowns (the leader is called "Cheezo").
As a concept, it’s pretty basic, though the nightmare's enlivened by a constant, thrumming undercurrent of high school homoeroticism, which manifests itself in lingering crotch-shots and constant close-ups of half-naked teens. It's basically as terrifying as you'd expect a film about murderous, child-killing clowns directed by a pedophile to be.
Things took a turn for the truly awful when Salva enlisted 12-year-old Nathan Forrest Winters to stay behind for extra rehearsals. It later emerged that, during these sessions, Salva forced his young star to give and receive oral sex. All the while, Salva kept the camera rolling to add to his burgeoning child porn collection.
Eventually, Winters told his parents what was going on, and Salva’s house was raided by the cops, who discovered the tapes and sentenced Salva to three years in a California jail and a lifetime on the sex offenders register.
So did slimy Salva slip out of the public eye and off into the shadows like a slippery, slimy seasnake? No, he did not. Sure, when Salva was released on parole in 1992, 15 months into his sentence, he laid low for a while planning his next move. But when the time came to actually make that move, the registered sex offender who'd recently been to jail for nonconsensual sex with a minor was hired to make a film for Disney.
Salva’s Disney film, Powder, was the story of Powder, a freakishly intelligent albino boy with telepathic and telekinetic powers. The film was marketed as a modern day fairytale, starred such household names as Jeff Goldblum and was, at the time, decreed to be a "sleeper hit" after it grossed 30 million dollars worldwide, outstripping its modest ten-million-dollar budget.
Like Clownhouse before it, Powder contains several moments where knowledge of Salva’s past lends it a sinister air. These moments include repeated shots of Powder’s naked body, others that linger on a male teenager’s body as he showers and a particularly unsettling scene in which Jeff Goldblum comes across Powder in an empty cafeteria and says to him: "You touched me and I’ve had better sex than I’ve had in ten years... I want to be a friend." Goldblum then looks tenderly at a shy Powder: "Did you ever have a friend?" he asks, before taking Powder’s hand as his hair, supposedly due to an electric current, begins to stand on end. Goldblum then touches and caresses Powder’s face and bald head for around 20 seconds.
Viewed through the prism of Salva's misdeeds, the experience is even stranger than it would normally be to watch the guy from Jurassic Park fondle a bald albino teenager for an extended period of time.
So how did Salva walk out of jail and into the director's chair for a film made by Caravan Pictures, a subsidiary of Disney, who basically invented the notion of wholesome family entertainment?
During the making of Powder, some minor attention was paid to the crimes Salva had committed while shooting Clownhouse. Nathan Forrest Winters and his family even protested personally at the film’s premiere, but it made little difference. Powder’s producers say they were initially unaware of Salva’s crimes and were then misled by his "people" about the seriousness of their nature. Caravan Pictures' chief exec eventually received a tip-off about Salva’s conviction, but the only action he saw fit to take was to tell key people involved in the production to keep an eye out for anything suspicious and the general consensus was to let Salva’s past remain in the past.
Today, Victor Salva is best known as the man behind the Jeepers Creepers franchise and still makes films in which semi-naked young people are terrorised. In his personal blog, Salva often muses about himself, his place in the world and his "art" in general: "I think my art is just a way for this lost boy to tell the world how he felt, how he feels, and what he hopes for," he once wrote. So I guess, by this definition, Victor Salva is crossing his fingers and wishing really, really hard for an eternity spent terrorising semi-naked youths.
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