The Deadly Spawn Review
The Deadly Spawn was entirely shot and financed in New Jersey during the early eighties. Much like its contemporary The Evil Dead, this was essentially a film put together by a bunch of friends and/or fellow horror fans eager to see their love of the genre translated into their own production. Producer Ted A. Bohus had previously had a hand in a pair of ultra-low-budget Don Dohler pics, whilst writer/director Douglas McKeown and special effects artist/co-producer John Dods had worked independently on their own amateur horror shorts and become acquainted at conventions. Friends and locals were auditioned for the various acting roles and they would be called upon to supply props and locations too. This was low-budget, labour-of-love filmmaking made for almost wholly the fun of it, rather than a means of reaping financial reward.
In the thirty years since The Deadly Spawn’s release only Dods has gone on to a genuine career within the film industry. His SFX work led to jobs on The X Files, the Back to the Future ride at Universal Studios and sequels to Poltergeist, Ghost Busters and Alien. Bohus has occasionally produced the odd, forgettable genre entry (Regenerated Man, Vampire Vixens from Venus), but to little effect on the public at large. Meanwhile, McKeown’s name would never appear on another feature and neither would the majority of his cast. Handily, if a little unfairly, their respective levels of subsequent success within the industry serves as a nice little gauge of the qualities they bring to The Deadly Spawn. In other words, this film is all about the effects and very little to do with the script or the performances. Plot, character, intrigue - these things don’t really matter.
The spawn of the title are aliens. They arrive on Earth courtesy of a meteorite and have already bloodily dispatched one cast member before the opening credits. From thereon in they’re hiding out in a basement of a house with enough comings-and-goings to ensure a healthy body count. The spawn - who resemble a cross between slugs, piranhas, a newborn alien straight out of John Hurt’s chest and Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors - come in various shapes and sizes which ensures a nice variety to the death scenes. The reverence with which the filmmakers hold the B movies of the past means that we only get a gradual reveal of our extra terrestrial killers. Initially, it’s a splattering of blood and some nicely composed silhouette shots; by the end of the film we’re able to fully enjoy Dods’ impressively toothy designs.
Though never quite enough to overcome the problems whenever they’re offscreen, the spawn make for a striking enough creation to ensure an entertaining enough 80 or so minutes. We’re inclined to overlook the awkward pacing and the so-so performances if the gore’s good enough and The Deadly Spawn joyfully delivers. Dods is able to cope with the budgetary restrictions where everyone else fails, delivering up a number of nicely realised designs and techniques. Whereas the rest of the film looks a little cheap and amateurish - shot on 16mm, non-professional cast, cynical nude scene, etc. - he at the very least provides a bit of quality. To be fair, the whole labour-of-love element also brings with it a certain innocent charm, but then if it wasn’t for Dods then it’s unlikely we’d still be watching the film today.
Ultimately The Deadly Spawn is worth a rental. It’s a one-watch movie - enough to be impressed by the SFX work, but also enough to realise we probably wouldn’t want to sit through the whole thing again given the very obvious weaknesses. Of course, Arrow Video would wish that we do otherwise and this is where the special features come into play. Not only are we getting The Deadly Spawn on disc, we’re also treated to a pair of commentaries, plenty of behind-the-scenes material from the archive plus a few newly commissioned pieces. They’re targeting the collector and the nostalgist, stating that this particular horror flick is worthy of both their lavish attention and ours. We’re left to weigh up whether these additions make that much of a difference.
In truth all of the extras are good fun. The pieces from the past - a video-shot and video-edited look at Dods’ workshop (fittingly he keeps the spawn models in his basement) is goofily enjoyable, as are the audition tapes and the outtake reel revealing the secrets behind the effects. All are brief enough not to outstay their welcome and each provides the right blend of nostalgia and insight. The commentaries could have been encompassed by one audio track seeing how both feature Bohus. He does a solo track and one alongside editor Marc Harwood, though the anecdotes are pretty much the same. (The audio quality is also much poorer on the joint track.) Those anecdotes are generally worth a listen thanks to on-set problems - McKeown was effectively forced off the picture - and the various trials and tribulations of putting together a zero-budget movie. But if you’ve listened to one, then you’ve listened to both. As well as the expected stills gallery and theatrical trailer, the newly commissioned pieces amount to an on-disc scored ‘comic book’ prequel that can be navigated like a slideshow plus the fully illustrated booklet with new essay from Calum Waddell and interview material. Finally, the disc also finds room for an alternative opening sequence.
Whilst the extras are impressive given The Deadly Spawn’s lack of budget - you simply wouldn’t expect the kind of behind-the-scenes and alternate material we’re presented with - the transfer merely does as good a job it can. In the US the film was released onto Blu-ray through Elite Entertainment, though here Arrow have opted for a standard definition release only and it makes perfect sense. The Deadly Spawn was shot on 16mm and blown up to 35mm, whilst it’s cinematography is passable rather than exceptional. The print isn’t in a particularly rough state, but it is a little worn in places. The colours have possibly faded or maybe that’s just a sign of the flat photography - the occasional shot may look wonderful, but such moments are in the minority. Meanwhile the contrast does waver towards the murkier side of things, but again that’s likely inherent in the original production. (Bohus mentions in one of his commentaries that it really doesn’t get better than what we see, though at times he blames the lab rather than his cameraman.) As such the lack of a HD presentation doesn’t really take anything away. The film looks and sounds as good as it can, but at no point are we able to forget the humble origins.