Reviewed by Johnny Butane
Starring Charles George Hildebrandt, Tom DeFranco, Richard Lee Porter, Jean Tafler
Directed by Douglas McKeown
Released by Synapse Films
A handful of movies, without ever having to unspool before my impressionable virgin-like eyes, haunted my childhood. Long story short: growing up during the video age it was often the gaudy box art alone that terrified me. And you know the kind of boxes too. Oversized. Bulky. The kind of shabby cardboard packaging they put porn in these days. Utterly disposable, bad for the environment. The photo on the box for The Deadly Spawn always freaked my shit out. But it’d probably make you mess your Empire Strikes Back undies too: the image featured a blood-slicked floor and a something lurking in the dark that could best be summed up as a lesbian’s worst nightmare – a triad of giant penises on wheels with mouths full of razor sharp teeth. Fuckin’ scary stuff, kids.
Suffice to say I never did get a chance to see The Deadly Spawn on video until Synapse recently issued the 1983 film in this Special Edition DVD package. Not surprisingly the flick is every bit as lovingly gruesome as that cover promised so many years back. Furthermore, Synapse’s presentation, like the independently financed Spawn itself, is something of an accomplishment; the disc’s producers have been at work on it for close to two years and with the bonus materials at hand they put together an enthusiastic look back at the down ‘n dirty process of making a film that’s nothing short of being a cult gem awaiting consumption from a new generation.
It’s amateurism may be a turn-off for some, but Spawn‘s ambition can’t be denied, it sinks its teeth into your attention span like one of the titular bite-sized creatures nibbling on a tea party guest’s ankle. Shot on the super-cheap over the course of two years – sometimes only on the weekends – the story fuses a ‘50s sci-fi formula with splatterific ‘80s gore effects as a small town finds itself overrun with space born, water-lovin’ funky tadpoles eager to feast on flesh. Focus falls on a small farm house in which the “main spawn” (that’s the big poppa) finds residency in the damp basement and proceeds to make a meal out of anyone who happens to head down there (and the basement becomes a pretty popular place). This makes for some repetitive plotting but the pace eventually quickens as a laid back science student – who lives in the house and whose parents are immediately dispatched into the gaping maws of the spawn early on – and his friends begin to catch on that there are monsters in their midst.
Writers Bohus, Dods and McKeown (also directing) keep the script – written on the fly during production – alternately over-the-top and nostalgic by recalling the atomic, black and white, cinematic creature feature vibe birthed in the ‘50s. Unlike those flicks, however, Spawn let’s the blood flow as thick as spoiled gravvy so everyone hungry for a chunk-fest will get their fill and find themselves reaching for a box of toothpicks later. Wild continuity, so-so performances and a multitude of jump-cuts (gotta love the Bolex camera!) contribute to the visually vile, unpredictable and simple charm of Spawn‘s independent bite. And this is all, of course, covered in both of the disc’s audio commentaries. Track one features crew member Tim Sullivan (also writer/director, 2001 Maniacs) moderating a discussion which includes McKeown, actor Charles George Hildebrandt (all grown up) and other crew members. They’re a raucous bunch who have plenty to say, even if it means talking over each other, as they go into detail about whose house they used for the key sets, how they got the cat motivated (a joke) and essentially how the motivation remained high enough to get the film in the can. On track two you’ll find writer/producer Ted Bohus’s commentary (which this reviewer is saving for a later date).
Although there’s no new disc-exclusive featurette on the making of The Deadly Spawn there’s enough extras, combined with both commentaries, on this presentation to give the viewer a clear notion as to how this film came together. A blooper and outtake reel (4m 55s) is full of home video gags and revealing behind-the-scenes FX shots; also, there’s an exceptional amount of ads, concept art, photos and premiere pics to be found in the Stills Gallery. A Visit with the Deadly Spawn (8m 37s) is a goofy show-and-tell home video focusing on the FX of John Dods with a young Sullivan as our guide. And finally, a comic book prequel to Spawn is also included along with an unnecessary alternate opening sequence with “enhanced FX” (but no one to spell check the word “starring”). Picture quality and sound are tolerable given the fact that the film was originally shot on 16mm. You get used to the windowbox transfer and you’d probably benefit from cranking up the sound a tad as the dialogue levels are varied.
The Deadly Spawn (1983)
Directed by Douglas McKeown
Starring Michael Robert Coleman, Charles George Hildebrandt, Elissa Neil, James Brewster
Director and crew commentary
Producer and writer commentary
A Visit with the Deadly Spawn featurette
Comic book prequel
Alternate Opening with updated FX
Cast and crew biography
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