Judge Dennis Prince has just one question: What's eating you?
Mankind vs. the ultimate eating machine.
Long adrift in the apathetic world of inferior home entertainment products, The Deadly Spawn has been simultaneously loved and loathed by fans of satisfying sci-fi/horror blends. Fans love the film and its effective low-cost execution, yet have loathed the numerous VHS (and Beta) incarnations that strain the senses and test the limits of consumer patience. Finally, we behold what may be considered the definitive version of this long-admired monster movie.
Facts of the Case
A meteorite crashes to Earth carrying a vicious tag-along, a toothy creature that devours any human within range. After feeding upon two unwary campers, the creature slithers into the dank basement of a nearby home. Here we meet Pete (Tom De Franco) and Charles (Charles George Hildebrandt), two brothers who are unaware that their folks, originally planning to be away on a day-trip, have also met grisly fates at the jaws of the monster, which is growing and thriving from eating its victims. Houseguest Aunt Millie (Ethel Michelson) is off to a luncheon, while psychologist Uncle Herb (John Schmerling) is curious to learn more about young Charles' fascination with movie monsters. As the pragmatic Pete gathers a couple of friends to study for an upcoming Astronomy exam, Charles learns of his parents' gruesome deaths when he stumbles upon the monster in the basement. Frozen in fear, he discovers the beast is actively spawning a horde of creatures just as voracious as it is, and which are now escaping the basement to roam and further reproduce throughout the area. It's now up to Charles to warn the others and stop the monster before it overtakes the entire community.
At its heart, The Deadly Spawn is a pure monster movie—and a good one. Call it a grass-roots effort, call it low-budget, call it guerrilla filmmaking; no matter how you might attempt to label this film—one that could easily have gone unnoticed in the horror and gore heyday of the early 1980s—The Deadly Spawn, like its titular terror, manages to persevere; sometimes daunted, but never dead.
Frankly, it's a film that never should have seen the light of day, much less have managed to become a long-standing home video favorite of genre fans for over two decades. Financed on spare change and pocket lint, the picture was a "labor of love" in the purest sense—nobody involved got paid! Producer Ted A. Bohus happened to meet blossoming illustrator Tim Hildebrandt (yes, he and brother Greg were the duo responsible for the terrific key art of Star Wars, Clash of the Titans, and Ralph Bakshi's The Lord of the Rings)at a LunaCON event, and the two hatched the idea of doing a monster movie. Bohus friend and budding special effects entrepreneur John Dods (famous at the time for the stop-motion Grog character from the Imagine short film) was brought on board, and the three set about to make a movie.
Despite the fact there was no salary to be paid (some involved were offered a percentage of the film's hopeful profits), the producers advertised the project in Backstage Magazine and were greeted with thousands of responses. Hence, out-of-work and on-the-bench actors were screentested and ultimately cast in the roles of Pete, his studious friends, Ellen (Jean Tafler) and Frankie (Richard Lee Porter), Aunt Millie, Uncle Herb, and the fan favorite, Bunny the vegan (Judith Mayes). By and large, these uncompensated semi-professional actors did a fine job giving their characters…well…"character" throughout what would become a protracted production schedule. Tom De Franco maintains an enlightened and educated snobbishness as Pete; John Schmerling nails the role of the professional psychologist attempting to pry into the monster-manic mind of Charles; and Judith Mayes as Bunny is simply over-the-top as the elderly vegetarian who winds up on the chewing end of the spawn's progeny. Everyone behind the camera also ends up in front of the camera on more than one occasion, with friends, family members, and on-the-spot investors also gaining brief walk-on roles.
To imbue the picture with an appropriately claustrophobic atmosphere and accentuate the feeling of mounting dread from which there may be no escape, it was decided that this was to be a location shoot. That is, it was to be filmed within the actual Hildebrandt home as well as deep within the bowels of the Dods' basement (read: who doesn't mind having their homes overrun for the glory of movie magic?). Yet beyond offering up his home to host the ensuing carnival of carnage, co-producer Hildebrandt also ponied up a "spawn" of his own: his son Charles would play the role of the boy hero "Charles" (of course). A live-in set piece (so to speak), 11-year-old Charles proved to be the perfect choice for the role of the monster buff who must battle a beastie, since he was actually living the role already (as proven by many of the contents of the monster lover's own bedroom) and, just as important, was always available on the set, day or night—he lived there! Chalk that one up as a home run in the realm of creative and cost-effective casting. But what about the Deadly Spawn itself?
John Dods presented numerous visions of the creature before settling on a tri-headed, toothy terror with clawed hands and a slug-like slither. Sporting seemingly unending rows of teeth that would make Spielberg's famous fish envious, the "mother spawn" was a mutha of a creation, standing over six feet tall and weighing in at nearly 300 pounds. The unique design has gone on to become immediately recognizable by fright film fans, and has graced the covers of genre magazines like Fangoria and the like. Actually built in Dods' basement, the creature was operated manually by Dods, Hildebrandt, director Douglas McKeown, or anyone else on hand who was needed to help orchestrate a sequence. As for the various smaller spawn creatures ("pocket spawn" if you will), Dods created a couple dozen of these tadpole-like critters that he ingeniously "animated" to wiggle across a flooded basement floor, climb walls, or inch-worm themselves into a food processor. Other silhouetted effects were achieved with mere wood or cardboard cutouts. The methods were often crude but the results were consistently impressive.
So, with cast in tow and armed with just a hand-wound 16mm Bolex, primitive sound equipment, and an undying commitment to succeed, The Deadly Spawn was filmed over nearly two years, usually on weekends (considering no one was getting paid here). Despite the fact that Bohus, Dods, and Hildebrandt had some relatively clear ideas about what they wanted to see, they shot without a script, electing to scribble up lines on the day of a shoot. While it seemed an ineffective approach, working "scriptless" allowed the crew to adapt to conditions and events as they occurred. (One example: when an actress announced she had gotten a paying gig and therefore would be leaving the production, her character was summarily eaten.)
The crew pressed on, however, and finally wrapped up production only to be faced with the next hurdle: distribution. As producer Bohus tells it, he was turned down by the "bigs," and had to pursue the small-time outfits instead. While infamous Troma Pictures was giving the film careful consideration, 21st Century edged in front and picked up the distribution rights. Opening in New York on the same weekend as Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead (Dods and Raimi met and exchanged one-sheet posters on opening night), The Deadly Spawn raked in over $300,000 in short order, well beyond its estimated $18,000 final budget. Sadly, conniving accountants at 21st Century (per Bohus) managed to spirit away the lion's share of profits, leaving the Spawn crew feeling spurned and spent.
Again, by all accounts, the film simply should never have succeeded given its no-budget financing and dishonest distributors. It is likely the "never say die" passion of the filmmakers is what served to buoy the production and instill the end product with a rather enigmatic likeability, a compelling allure that ekes out in every sequence and captivates viewers throughout the scant 80-minute running time. Against all odds, the cast and crew had somehow willed this film to succeed—and so it has. Thanks to an entertaining premise, a unique creature, and its being well-stocked with homages to classic creature features, The Deadly Spawn went on to generate a solid fan base during its theatrical stint, and even more so in the home video market, both stateside as well as abroad. As it was shot in 16mm open frame format, most theatrical screenings were artificially matted to achieve a widescreen ratio, subsequently erasing key frame elements during some sequences. On video, the source material, coupled with apathetic mastering, resulted in transfers that were typically lousy, presented as dark and often nondescript video accompanied by murky and muffled audio. Despite the waning quality, horror fans tirelessly dug the tapes out from deep within video rental store shelves. In 2002, the film saw its first DVD release overseas (in Region 2 format) as part of Vipco's "Screamtime Collection;" that release, however, looked like little more than a direct transfer of the studio's former videotape atrocity. Can an honest film ever get a break?
Now, fans can finally enjoy The Deadly Spawn in its best presentation yet (and likely the best it ever will be) thanks to a stellar new Region 1 release by Synapse Films. Struck from an original 16mm camera negative, this transfer has been meticulously re-mastered and presented in a full-frame window-boxed format. Murkiness has been eliminated, detail has been enhanced, and colors have been corrected to squeeze every last drop of visual goodness out of the master print. While there is some grain visible throughout the image, it has been carefully controlled down to levels that are hardly bothersome. The audio is presented in a much-welcome Dolby Digital 2.0 mix that gives us a long-awaited clear and intelligible soundtrack.
What could be better than a special new presentation of the film itself? How about a spawning of special features that will likely satisfy the hunger of enthusiasts from around the globe? Synapse has done terrific work in assembling some very special extras, beginning with two audio commentaries. One features producer Ted A. Bohus who leads us through the picture from a businessman's perspective, explaining the trials and tribulations of pulling off a low-budget endeavor and pointing out the various "oopsies" that afflict just about every picture, regardless of the financing. The other track features a reunion of cast and crew, including Tim Sullivan (production assistant and contributing writer), Doug McKeown, John Dods, Tim Hildebrandt, and Charles George Hildebrandt. This is a lively track through which you may struggle a bit to keep up with the non-stop anecdotes and observations. These folks are so fun to listen to you may wish they would have screened the picture a second time and kept on talking. There's more in store, however, with extensive still galleries that offer behind-the-scenes peeks as well as a look at the New York premiere of the picture. Then there's an interesting comic-style prequel sequence that explains the origin of the Deadly Spawn. Next up is an alternate opening and titles sequence, followed by a gag reel, audition tapes, trailers, a home video featuring John Dods and Tim Sullivan, and, finally, cast and crew biographies. All in all, it's an incredibly well-rounded package that gives fans pretty much anything they could ask for.
I, of course, wanted just a bit more.
Going back to the cast and crew commentary for a moment, it's a bit unfortunate that star Charles G. Hildebrandt gets a bit talked over by his compatriots and we miss out on the kid's-eye view of the making of a monster movie. In his role, Charles embodies the "horror kid" that many of us were; the sometimes reserved lot who loved our monsters but didn't always feel like talking about them. As previously noted, young Hildebrandt was a genre-lover himself (more inclined to sci-fi over horror at the time, though) and it seemed only right to give him a chance to further elaborate on his experiences during the production.
As a bonus feature to this review only, I caught up with Charles George Hildebrandt, the affable and energetic lead who freely shares these additional thoughts and recollections about facing off against three-headed creatures from outer space and other horrors of thinly-financed feature films:
Dennis Prince: Charles, thanks for talking with me about your work in The Deadly Spawn. With so much going on in that audio commentary, I felt there was more I wanted to know from you.
Charles G. Hildebrandt: No problem. I'm always glad to talk about the picture.
DP: Were there any other actors who read for the part of "Charles," or was that pretty much sewn up for you from the get-go?
CGH: No, not that I remember. My recollection is there was not. As you probably know, the film didn't have a script; it was a work in progress at all times. My dad, Tim Hildebrandt, offered it to me and it sounded like fun. That was about it so really, there was no one else to evaluate.
DP: Did you have any apprehensions about playing the part, in that it might eat up your weekends, so to speak, or affect your social life, interfere with homework, and so on?
CGH: No, not at all. I thought it was great fun and, as a kid, I didn't think much about being in a "movie." I figured this was the sort of stuff that everyone does so it never really struck me as being special or different, really. I have to say that I was under the impression it would only last for a few weekends but the production actually ran beyond a year with pick-up shots even after that. Really, it took pretty much all of my time but I loved it. I had friends visiting the set all the time. When the picture finally premiered in New York and I saw my name up on the big screen—I was a freshman in high school by that time—it felt a bit weird then.
DP: Did you rehearse much for your scenes, maybe spirited away in your room during the weekdays, or did you pretty much keep it lightly rehearsed and spontaneous?
CGH: No, there was almost no rehearsal. There just wasn't time—and remember, rehearsal would have implied there was a shooting script, which there wasn't. I pretty much got my lines the day we'd be shooting a scene. It all worked out great, though.
DP: As a sci-fi expert by your own merits, did you offer suggestions to Ted, Doug, or John during the filming?
CGH: Yeah, all the time. It was very collaborative environment. I can't recall anything specific I might have suggested but the entire cast and crew worked collaboratively throughout the production. I spent most of my time, however, working with John Dods. I got to be a Production Assistant and pumped some blood. I also got to operate the monster; I enjoyed that the most.
DP: Did you play any part in the "set decoration" of your bedroom? Was all the memorabilia we see truly yours and do you still own any of it?
CGH: Yeah, that's my actual room. Most of the movie posters you see were not mine—I think they came from John Dods or anyone else who may have had such stuff. The Famous Monsters magazine I throw down was probably from John Dods, too.
DP: I see Denis Gifford's "Pictorial History of Horror Movies" as well as a copy of "Monsters Who's Who" prominently placed in a few scenes.
CGH: Yeah, those books were mine. I don't think I have "Pictorial History" any more, but "Monsters Who's Who" is still mine. I got it while on a summer vacation and studied it thoroughly, of course.
DP: That brings us to the role of Charles himself. There seems to be something genuine about the character, as he appears highly knowledgeable—an expert—in monster movies yet bears a slight tinge of hesitation in discussing his hobby with others.
CGH: Yeah that's pretty much was who Charles was supposed to represent: the sci-fi and horror fan kid who we all were. I think that's why fans relate to him so well.
DP: I assume you're still a sci-fi and/or horror enthusiast. We know from the film you prefer certain classic characters.
CGH: Ah, yeah, The Mole People, Frankenstein, It, The Terror From Beyond Space.
DP: Exactly! Do you have any favorite current films from the genre, since 1980?
DP: Have you followed the home video proliferation of the film leading up to this new DVD release?
CGH: Yes. I mentioned in the new commentary that I saw an ad in the Washington Post a couple years ago about a local movie club that was going to show The Deadly Spawn at a local bar. I called them, they invited me to show up, and after the screening about five people asked me to autograph VHS copies of the movie. It was a lot of fun.
DP: Do you have any memorabilia of your own from The Deadly Spawn?
CGH: Sure. I have the movie poster. I have one of the tiny spawns. I have various newspaper clippings from the film's opening. I'm apparently the only one who has the videotape of the blooper reel; that was the one Synapse used for the DVD. I'm the only one with the original trailer, too, I think. My favorite piece, though, is the original vinyl LP soundtrack of the score. Oh, and I might still have that velour shirt, too. (laughs)
DP: Well, again, it was a great show, it's a great new DVD, and it's been great to talk with you about it all.
CGH: My pleasure. Thanks.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If you've never seen The Deadly Spawn, you might be misled by this glowing review into thinking that this is truly a ground-breaking film. It isn't. That is to say, it simply cannot overcome its low-budget constraints, which often illuminate its homespun roots. Yes, there are plenty of continuity errors on hand, there are some effects that don't exactly come off as planned, and there's more than one occasion where the melodrama runs high while the talent tracks a bit low. If you've followed '80s horror you'll know that Ridley Scott's Alien gave a surge to the genre and spawned (sorry) many similar films by filmmakers from just about anywhere and everywhere. Some efforts succeeded, many others failed; The Deadly Spawn landed somewhere in-between. My usual suggestion is to find the next cozy rainy day and spin the film while you're curled up on the sofa or in an easy chair (the film's events take place in the midst of a stormy day); it's a perfect film for a lazy day of movie-watching.
Now, with your expectations appropriately lowered just a bit, you're set to enjoy the product of a band of industrious filmmakers who achieved something pretty remarkable on a practically non-existent budget. The monster is an Eighties classic and there are plenty of early gore effects on hand to amuse the blood-and-guts fans among us.
Whether you admire the "love of filmmaking" on display or just consider this picture among your guilty pleasures, The Deadly Spawn deserves recognition for what it has brought to the table in the days where science fiction met splatter, offering a well-rounded serving of B-movie monsters, blood-drenched carnage, and yet another pondering of who or what may exist within our own solar system. I heartily recommend this film to anyone who enjoys a rough-edged creature feature and, if you're a lover of horror and science fiction, then this excellent new disc definitely belongs in your permanent film library.
Not guilty. Case dismissed. Can somebody please mop up this basement now?
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