Review: The Deadly Spawn (15) / Director: Douglas McKeown / Screenplay: Douglas McKeown, Ted A. Bohus, John Dods / Starring: Charles George Hildebrandt, Tom DeFranco, Richard Lee Porter, Jean Tafler / Release Date: March 19th
For those of you old enough to remember browsing video shops in their pre-VRA heyday, and the lurid, often sleazy gems found within, The Deadly Spawn may well be familiar. Made in 1983, and made on less than a shoestring budget, this slice of Sci-Fi/horror should be welcomed like an old friend. How does it stand up today, though?
After a meteorite falls near a small town, strange creatures congregate in the basement of an average family. Science student Pete (Tom DeFranco) is awaiting his study buddies, and horror buff Charles (Charles George Hildebrandt) is trying to scare his visiting Aunt, and answering the probing questions from Uncle Herb who is a psychiatrist trying to find fault with Charles' fascination with monsters. “Do you ever think you'll really see a monster?” he asks. Oh boy, you soon will! The parents are due to be going on a trip, so their absence is not really noticed until much later on when Pete sees that their car is still in the garage. Young Charles, meanwhile goes down to the cellar to scare an electrician on the job. What he finds down there is the mother alien, with hydra-esque multiple heads, and tadpole like babies swimming away on the flooded floor. The story, such as it is, is almost a single location horror, as the boys try to escape the ravenous aliens. When the radio announcer states “it looks like it's going to be a bad day..” you know he ain't kidding! The final shot of the film is a doozy!
With a budget of a mere $20,000 and shot on 16mm, the limitations of the actors and behind the scenes 'talent' show from the first scene (a howling continuity error where a shirt sleeve changes colour right before your eyes!) but there is one place the film does not scrimp – in the special effects. The makeup and creature effects (by John Dods, whose basement is used in the film) managed to make the gore and aliens look as good, if not better than many films that cost millions more.
The young Charles - who is the precocious hero of the film – was under 13 years old and is actually quite good, and not at all annoying. It was wonderful to see his bedroom – all full of monster models and classic horror film posters (there's even a copy of Denis Gifford's seminal A Pictorial History of Horror Films on the floor). It is even better that this was his real bedroom, as the main house was that of his father, executive producer, Tim Hildebrandt – who, along with his brother Greg, were the illustrators behind the famous 1977 Star Wars poster (you know, the one with the large Vader head and Luke and Leia looking all heroic and the arc of X-wings). This thrifty way of film making allows every cent to be up there on screen.
If this was made with today's digital formats the result would be a sterile, false looking mess. The grainy, dark look of blown up 16mm gives this so much more credence and validity. I'm glad Arrow didn't attempt to release the film on Blu-ray as the film does show the limitations of the source material, but speaking as someone who remembers seeing this on VHS, you really will not get better than what is on display here. You can actually see what's going on in the darker scenes for a start! While The Deadly Spawn is no classic, it is fun and worth seeing if only for the great effects.
Extras: A fantastic lot of bonus features to enjoy here: two separate commentaries, a comic strip style prequel, alternate opening sequence, a vintage video film visit to John Dods' effects workshop, a selection of off air recordings of the film makers on American TV, a lengthy audition reel, an out-take/blooper reel (which is actually a very interesting selection of behind the scenes footage, which looks like it was filmed on 8mm but is great), the obligatory trailer and a collector's booklet with essays by Calum Waddell and Tim (Chillerama) Sullivan (who provided “additional dialogue” to the film).