a.k.a. Return of the Aliens: The Deadly Spawn
country: United States
director: Douglas McKeown
cast: Charles George Hildebrandt,
Tom DeFranco, Richard Lee Porter,
Jean Tafler, Karen Tighe
James Brewster, Elissa Neil,
Ethel Michelson, John Schmerling,
Judith Mayes, Andrew Michaels
writers: Ted A. Bohus, John Dods,
Douglas McKeown, Tim Sullivan
cinematographer: Harvey M. Bimbaum
music: Paul Cornell, Michael Perllstein
and Kenneth Walker
special effects: John Dods, John Mathews,
John Payne, Kevin G. Shinnick,
Arnold Gargulo and Gregory Ramoundos
disc company: Synapse Films
release date: October 26, 2004
retail price: $19.95
disc details: Region 0 / NTSC / dual layer
video: 1.33:1 / pictureboxed / progressive
audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 mono (English)
special features: Two feature-length audio
commentaries, production photo and still galleries,
comic-style prequel short, outtakes and audition
tapes, new alternate opening, original trailer,
cast and crew biographies
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Plot: A monster crashes to Earth in a meteorite and crawls into a damp basement, where it slowly eats its way through the members of the family living in the house above.
The Deadly Spawn is the sort of film that could only have emerged from years of heartfelt hard labor on the part of good friends, a grimly imaginative bit of gross-out monster horror that’s at least as much fun as it is rough around the edges. The brainchild of writer and producer Ted A. Bohus and special effects man John Dods, the film touches base with just about every science fiction monster romp of the preceding 30 years, from It Came from Outer Space and The Blob to the then-recent Ridley Scott mega-hit Alien, while retaining a unique low-budget magic all its own. Made for about the cost of my second car The Deadly Spawn is far from perfect, but that doesn’t stop it from being a hell of a good time.
The premise is simple: A monster crash-lands in the New Jersey countryside and finds a nice wet home for itself in a family’s basement. Once there it grows, sending baby monsters out to conquer the surrounding town. People are eaten, families destroyed, and a monster movie obsessed boy becomes on unlikely hero.
It’s best gotten out of the way early that the script by Bohus, Dods, director Douglas McKeown and production assistant Tim Sullivan, has its fair share of low points. Long sections of the earliest two thirds of the picture are devoted to slow slogs of exposition, none of which is terribly interesting. The main cast of high school kids is a welcome change from the traditionally irritating monster-chow variety, at least. They spend the picture worried about real-world things – grades, studying, a dead uncle in the recliner downstairs – though a brief bit of romantic interest between two of them is better left skipped. In the end the teenagers exist only to be threatened by the title monster, dependent on the real hero of the story (an eleven year old) for their survival.
The biggest problem with the drama is just how superfluous most of it is, though the true star of the picture – the toothy, multi-headed brainchild of John Dods – and its crafty implementation more than makes up for it. The Deadly Spawn‘s extensive displays of monster-oriented death, mayhem and destruction are certainly its biggest selling point, and with good reason. The chief creature, roughly a man’s height with three heads and fleshy stalks protruding from its back, spends quality screen time with the young hero in the basement in a series of wonderfully shot scenes. There are moments where the low key lighting and imaginative framing seem positively inspired. The most memorable of the scenes by a fair margin is when the child and spawn first meet, the boy watching as the monster vomits up his mother’s disembodied head!
While fans of the new breed of bargain basement monster horror (now industrialized and dominated by a few awful straight-to-video companies) will be accustomed to gore, the violence of The Deadly Spawn was quite graphic and intense for the time. The many monster attacks are quick-cut and bloody, and rendered all the more effective by the free-for-all nature of the scripting (the film happily abides by Joe Bob Briggs’ rule for horror, that anybody can die at any time). The Deadly Spawn opens with a classic cult scare, with the monster devouring not one but both of the parents of the household. Later a teen-aged love interest is unceremoniously beheaded and tossed out of an upper floor window! An attack on a vegetarian luncheon provides some welcome bad-taste laughs while the schlocker ending takes the “?” finale of The Blob to its logical conclusion, with a gargantuan spawn devouring the countryside.
The John Dods directed special effects, made for little more than the price of the 16mm stock they’re filmed on, are generally excellent. The full-sized spawn puppet is a magnificent creation, even if it does look a little too much like a trio of razor-toothed cocks perched atop a bulging scrotum base. Some of the simplest techniques manage the most impressive results, like the tiny tadpole spawns wriggling along barely submerged tracks or two-dimensional paper and foam puppets filmed in silhouette. There’s little doubt that CGI would be used for such effects these days, but I’ll take the foam-and-rubber work of Dods and company over that newer method of doing business any day.
The Deadly Spawn was quite a success when 21st Century Film Corp. released it theatrically in 1983 (after nearly three years in production), making back ten times its production budget in its opening week in New York. It was on home video that the film found its real cult following, both in America and especially in mainland Europe (it was banned as a “Video Nasty” in England), and I remember passing by its graphic over-sized Continental Video box many times as a child. It looked terrible to me then, the cover showing the full-size creature surrounded by dismembered limbs, but it was one of the first videos I rented when I went to work at my hometown’s own (and now defunct) Video Spectrum years later.
The home video market has come a long way since the time The Deadly Spawn was released, and Synapse Films deserves no small amount of praise for doing such an exceptional job of bringing the film to its long-awaited digital debut. Working from the original 16mm camera negatives, Synapse has delivered the most definitive video release of the title to date.
The 1.33:1 progressive transfer presents The Deadly Spawn in its originally intended aspect ratio, and while the pictureboxing (to compensate for overscan on traditional television sets) limits the available resolution a bit my complaints about the transfer otherwise are slim. In fact, I don’t think I have any! The wonderfully grainy image presents with strong detail and accurately captures the highly variable nature of the photography. Extensive color correction makes for exceptional results, and the frequent reds (seen in blood, bath robes, and even a telephone) really pop. There is some minimal damage, limited to infrequent dirt and speckles, but nothing distracting – I’d wager this looks better than many of the 35mm blowups that played theaters in the 80s. Audio is a healthy Dolby Digital 2.0 monophonic track that faithfully reproduces the highs and lows of no-budget recording. There are no subtitles.
Proving that The Deadly Spawn was as much a labor of love for Synapse Films as for the original creators, the supplements are stacked. First up are two audio commentaries, one with writer and producer Ted A. Bohus and another with special effects man John Dods, writer / director Douglas McKeown, production assistant Tim Sullivan, executive producer Tim Hildebrandt and actor Charles Hildebrandt (the 11 year old hero of the film). The cast and crew track makes for tremendous fun, while the Bohus track tends towards the more serious and informative, covering the troublesome nature of the lengthy production as well as the distribution issues with 21st Century Film Corp. Other supplements are more traditional, including a theatrical trailer (sourced from tape), extensive stills galleries, filmmaker biographies, and even a bloopers and outtakes reel, though there are some standouts. We get audition tapes for the cast, a contemporary John Dods introduction to the creature listed as “A Visit with The Deadly Spawn 1982″, an alternate opening with some new effects added, and even a comic book prequel to the film.
I’ll never be one to call The Deadly Spawn a great film, but it’s certainly a fun one and I’ve been a fan for a long while now. The reasonably priced Synapse Films disc was released on my birthday, 2004, and I picked up my copy as soon as I was off work that evening. It’s a great disc by any estimation and comes highly recommended to both fans of the feature and monster horror buffs in general. As for the film, it may be a little shabby but I love it all the same. This reviewer says see it!
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