Forgotten Horrors: The Deadly Spawn
The 1980’s were a time of major change for low budget horror fans. We witnessed the death of independent releases at the box office as movie theaters were purchased by the same studios that provided them with films. Smaller distributors could no longer get their titles booked in the majority of theaters and could not survive on what remained. Independent films that were intended for theatrical release ended up gathering dust on studio shelves unless they were lucky enough to see a one week release to buy time for a major production. Thankfully we also saw the birth of the home video market around this same time which would help level the playing field but could not replace the experience of seeing smaller films on the big screen. One of the final low budget films to receive a wide release during these dark days was a plucky little horror show about interstellar slugs and their attempt to invade the planet, one block at a time.
The Deadly Spawn was the creation of Ted Bohus, a life long fan of horror and science fiction movies who had learned the film making trade first hand working with cult director Don Dohler on Nightbeast and Fiend. His ambitious first cinematic outing takes a page right out of the typical 1950’s teen sci-fi production book with plenty of creatures on the loose. To satisfy film patrons of the 80’s splatter generation, it also includes a healthy dose of graphic violence and even a bit of nudity. The end result is a fun little picture which holds up under repeated viewings.
The film begins with a classic science fiction catalyst – a meteor carrying a nasty cargo crashes in a wooded mountain area. Two campers who witness the crash quickly end up the first victims of the alien eating machine. The following morning, the creature sets up residence in the basement of a home in the valley below, thanks to an unlocked cellar door. This just happens to be the home of young Charles (Charles George Hildebrandt – son of artist Tim Hildebrandt who did the artwork for the film’s poster) a character Fanboys everywhere can identify with. Not only are the walls of Charles’ room adorned with vintage horror movie posters (the genuine article from the collection of Ted Bohus) and his room scattered with monster memorabilia, the boy is also an aspiring special effects artist.
After a pretty impressive early body count that effectively eliminates all the adult characters in the cast, the remaining film concerns four teenage friends and younger brother Charles trying to fend off the rapidly multiplying spawns. With the exception of one memorable scene at an afternoon luncheon in one of the neighboring abodes, the action is restricted to the one house but the most is made of this claustrophobic environment. As the “mother” spawn leaves the basement in search of food, the teens are forced from room to room until the survivors square off for a final showdown in the attic.
What could have been a typical “the killer is in the house” slasher movie or a less impressive single alien on the loose science fiction film ends up a fun thrill ride as the producers squeeze every penny out of their limited budget. The fertile mind of John Dods, who went on to work on Poltergeist, Alien and Ghostbusters sequels as well as the X-Files, gives us the toothy creatures in all shapes and sizes from tiny swimming tadpoles to the three headed gigantic “mother”. While the creature effects don’t always work, there are so many of them that the audience barely has time to register one before the next appears.
The cast is mostly comprised of amateurs, unknowns, friends, and family – all of whom never went on to much more but provide acceptable performances here. As mentioned earlier, Charles Hildebrandt does an especially enjoyable turn in his one and only film role. As the reluctant hero that most of the audience can identify with, Hildebrandt displays an understandable mixture of fear and curiosity with some appreciable ingenuity thrown in as well. While the other characters are more broadly drawn, they respond to the situation in an intelligent manner, even attempting to dissect one of the creatures, that flies in the face of most 80’s teen horror casts who are just there for monster fodder.
After a near miss with a major studio, Deadly Spawn was picked up for national release in 1983 by 21st Century Distribution Corporation. They were already well known in the industry for their catalog which featured a combination of similar low budget horror films such as Scalps and Nightmare in a Damaged Brain plus foreign pickups like Manhattan Baby (released as Eye of the Evil Dead) and The Beyond (released as Seven Doors to Death). The distributor retitled the film Return of the Aliens: The Deadly Spawn to cash in on current rumors about a sequel to Ridley Scott’s Alien, which was still a few years away. Unfortunately, 21st Century was headed into legal trouble due to some shady business dealings and Deadly Spawn would be one of its final releases. By the end of the decade it had been acquired by Cannon Films.
While many people never got an opportunity to see Deadly Spawn in the theaters, it proved to be a popular rental with the blossoming home video market. The film was released in the US on VHS by at least three different companies including Continental, as Return of the Alien’s Deadly Spawn, and Studio One, under the title Return of the Deadly Spawn (anyone confused yet?). It finally received the quality treatment it deserved when Synapse released a DVD version a few years ago. The Synapse version boasts the original director’s cut of the film, multiple feature length audio commentaries, behind the scenes footage, and a lot more. For a low budget film that barely scraped its way into theaters in the dying days of independent releases, Deadly Spawn has proven that it still has teeth!