Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #173
Also known as Return of the Aliens: The Deadly Spawn
Number of Views: Multiple
Release Date: April 22, 1983
Sub-Genre: Alien Invasion
Country of Origin: United States
Running Time: 81 minutes
Director: Douglas McKeown
Producer: Ted A. Bohus, John Dods, Tim Hildebrandt
Screenplay: Douglas McKeown
Special Effects: John Dods, Gregory Ramoundos
Cinematography: Harvey M. Birnbaum
Score: Paul Cornell, Michael Perilstein, Kenneth Walker
Editing: Marc Harwood
Distributor: 21st Century Film Corporation
Stars: Charles George Hildebrandt, Tom DeFranco, Richard Lee Porter, Jean Tafler, Karen Tighe, James Brewster, Elissa Neil, Ethel Michelson, John Schmerling, Judith Mayes
Suggested Audio Candy
Michael Perilstein “Soundtrack Suite”
Six degrees of separation. If legend has it correctly that is all that separates pieces of majestic art such as David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive and Douglas McKeown’s sole foray into film-making, Z-movie masterpiece The Deadly Spawn. It helps me sleep at night knowing that the two are linked so closely, albeit through tenuous strands. I’ve been a film buff since the day the family VHS player was unveiled and watch all kinds of movies. Some are about the mental frailty of returning Vietnam vets in a nation all too ready to sweep them under the nearest rug and others are about flesh-ripping mutants from space. For a devout aficionado like myself, both are just as necessary in order to attain filmic equilibrium.
I adore a good old-fashioned eighties schlock-fest as attested by the fact that I once fleetingly considered having the word Xtro tattooed above my ass dimple. They rev my engine and I’m never more content as when slumming it with the reprobates. The Deadly Spawn is one of my personal darlings, a throwback to the alien invasion flicks of the fifties made on a budget of $25k. It is crass, poorly acted drivel, and there’s nothing more appealing than that after a hard day crunching figures. Once you accept that Forest Whittaker isn’t about to pop up and give an academy pleasing turn, you allow yourself to take McKeown’s movie for what it really is – beautiful garbage.
Jordy Verrill had already taught us the perils of exploring meteor crash-sites a year earlier and his ass was promptly fashioned into grass. This is more akin to what would happen if The Crate plummeted to Earth and it is no time at all before row upon row of gnarling gnashers are chomping their way through tertiary cast members. So many teeth, one would imagine the dental prices would be astronomic, if only to cover the cost of Novocaine. It would be a brave hygienist who attempted at flossing these babies.
They set to work and the oddly phallic spawn shuffle to the nearby rural town, taking refuge under the foundations of an old house. After regrouping, they obtain their squatter’s rights and flounder in the dank basement, all flailing tendrils and wriggling toothy tadpoles as they continue to feast on any straggling humans foolhardy enough to check that generator. Until they meet their match that is.
The obstacle to their planned pilgrimage of destruction comes in the form of brothers Pete (Tom De Franco) and Charles (Charles George Hildebrandt), the latter of which is fixated with movie monsters. One of the movie’s standout scenes comes inside the cellar when the inquisitive Charles stumbles upon his parents’ gnawed up remains and faces off against the cantankerous spawn.
What plays out is a low-rent Showdown at the OK Corral as Charles, seemingly unfazed by his seed-bearers’ horrendous demises, shares a farcically elongated moment squaring up from a safe distance while the spawn shows some sort of uproarious respect and stands back. This is what we’re dealing with here, there’s very little about The Deadly Spawn which is borne of logic. It is unashamedly hammy and ludicrous in the extreme, more reason to love it like no other in my book. Thankfully, the awful cast play it as straight as humanly possible, halting it from descending into outright spoof although, make no mistake, there WILL be guttural laughter.
Dare I say?.. there will also be a fair level of consternation. The multitude of poster images for this flick alone is the stuff of recurrent nightmares to a child approaching puberty. Nowadays even vaginas have teeth but, back then in yesteryear, it was all about the space mutants. McKeown must be commended for the amount of tension he creates out of such a ridiculous set-up and there are instances where the willies are very much provoked by this little house of horrors. There is none of the intricate DNA replication of the Body Snatchers and these monstrosities would masticate Critters like fuzzy bonbons.
Given that, at times, The Deadly Spawn resembles a home movie, it is all the more astounding that John Dods and crew managed to conjure up such glorious practical effects. You want to see where the $25k was invested, just feast your orbs on the grue. Somehow they actually mature with age and are still as grisly and macabre now as they were over thirty years back. We are treated to a veritable chow down as hapless dork after hapless dork fall under the spawn’s multiple incisors. Heads are chewed up and spat out, appendages gobbled and entrails used to season the dish. It truly is a remarkable feat. The synthesized score, meanwhile, is of the premium order and if John Williams is the veal then Cornell, Perilstein and Walker are pure spam from the heavens above.
Ultimately, The Deadly Spawn is a love-hate affair. If you expect imperfection then there is unlimited replayability and, in that respect, it is one of the best films of its epoch. Those searching for thespian monologue and multifaceted characterization will be found wanting. The rest of us will simply get chomping and guzzle it up like the meal worms that we are. The heftiest nod of reverence I can push its way is that Keown’s 16mm monster marvel possesses all of the energy and zeal of Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead and there is no finer company to crave that that. It’s amazing how far a little science and a dash of imagination can stretch.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 8/10
Grue Factor: 5/5
For the Grue-Guzzlers: I cannot heap enough praise on Dods and team for their ingenious grue. What they achieve on such a miniscule budget is nothing short of mind-boggling and the film doesn’t skimp in this department. Plentiful latex and prosthetic delights, The Deadly Spawn delivers like FedEx and totally belies its slender budget.
Richard Charles Stevens
Keeper of The Crimson Quill
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