Don’t go in the basement
Ever since the advent of 16mm movie “home movie” film, and continuing on through until today with digital video, feature film production has been affordable for the average Joe and Josephine. Few adults had the time or imagination to use this technology for anything besides preserving memories of vacations, holidays, and other family events, but eventually a generation of youngsters came along that tried making their own shorts and features. Most of these amateur backyard productions went nowhere, dissolving in disappointment or disinterest, but some of the more ambitious projects were of sufficient merit to actually acquire distribution. A surprising number of what are now considered horror movie classics were made in this manner by groups of enthusiastic and talented individuals who refused to quit until their little epics were in the can. Night of the Living Dead, Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Evil Dead were all first films made by young people with more determination than business savvy.
On a rung of the ladder below these classics is The Deadly Spawn, an energetic monster movie made over the course of three years on weekends by a ragtag group of grown up East Coast Monster Kids that has earned its own place in the hearts of horror fans. Its plot couldn’t be simpler – basically, a monster crawls out of a meteorite to raise havoc in a small community (just like in The Blob). Hundreds of movies have been made with pretty much the same plot, but as we all know, it’s what is done with that plot that makes all the difference. Budding writer Ted Bohus came up with the storyline and fleshed it out into a scenario with budding special effects artist John Dods and budding stage actor/director Douglas McKeown, but a key factor in the project was added when illustrator Tim Hildebrandt got involved. Tim, who with brother Greg was already somewhat famous for their striking movie posters and book covers, signed on as both producer and art director. What this really means, most significantly, is that Tim designed the monsters and the poster – certainly the film’s most important asset. Also, Tim volunteered his home as the main shooting location, and convinced his son Charles to take on the lead role, with various other friends and family filling in on minor roles.
The monster resembles a big tadpole crossed with Audrey, Jr. from Little Shop of Horrors, all big slimy mouth and teeth. This design has gone on to inspire quite a few other creature features, including Godzilla vs. Biollante. Soon after emerging from the steaming rock, the creature takes refuge in the basement of a typical New Jersey suburban home, where soon after it devours mom and dad and starts spawning fierce little monsters. Plenty of visiting relatives and neighbors are brought in to be monster fodder along the way. A kind of side conflict develops between the two sons, one of which is a science student and tries to face things in a purely logical fashion. His little brother Charles (Hildebrandt) is a Monster Kid who uses more imagination in creating weapons and gadgets with which to fight the aliens.
But what makes this particular movie so beloved to monster fans is all the little details that one usually doesn’t see in this type of movie. For one thing, it’s relentlessly gory – working with the budget available, the decision was made early on that the only way to compete would be to pour on as much blood as possible. The toothy monsters graphically chaw off the heads of several characters, and when alternated with more tasteful portrayals of mayhem, the effect is delightfully dreadful. They were so successful that Deadly Spawn eventually ended up on Britain’s video nasty list. Also, logic is applied to some situations where others might have made do with “movie logic”. Blood splatters in the basement are still there when one character goes looking for their missing mate, but a can of paint is shown to allay suspicion. No one suspects that that anything was wrong for quite a while simply because the mother left a note explaining their absence.
Also, the fact that the film doesn’t take itself too seriously gets audiences on its side, with plenty of little bits of humor to help sell the attitude that, “yes, it’s all in fun.” Monster fans are won over by Charles’ monster fan hero – his room is full of Famous Monsters merchandise, and there’s a whole scene in which he’s interviewed about his hobby by his psychologist uncle.
To everyone’s surprise, Deadly Spawn got a regional theatrical release, with the distributor tacking on the title Return of the Aliens to make people think it might be an Alien sequel. But most people caught it when it was given a video release soon after. Heck, you couldn’t avoid it – it seems like every video rental outlet in the country had one of those big Continental Video boxes. But after having been expanded to 35mm and transferred to video, not to mention any cuts that might have been made along the way, Deadly Spawn hasn’t really ever looked that good. Synapse does a great job with the transfer to DVD, and though it’s still nobody’s idea of cinematographic genius, the movie still looks better here than it ever has before.
Tim & Charles Hildebrandt, McKeown and Dods sit in for a chaotic commentrak in which they all discuss behind-the-scenes details on all the work, fun and arguments that went into making the film. They constantly interrupt each other in their excitement, but manage to get their stories told. Ted Bohus gets a commentrak of his own, and without the distraction of having to share the microphone, his talk is quite a bit more coherent. He tells some of the same anecdotes, but his version is easier to follow and he also fills us in on how the project started, and how it came to play in theaters.
The disc goes on to give us quite a bit more material. There’s about five minutes of behind-the-scenes and outtake footage, which is silent and could have used one of the filmmakers providing commentary. An alternative opening sequence has a few more effects but its timing is a bit off. A blurry 8.5 minute tape from 1982 is a sort of a show & tell trip through Dods’ home studio. There are 15 minutes of actor auditions, photo galleries, the original trailer, bios on the filmmakers, and a short comic-book prequel story that will be too small to actually read on most monitors.