Although we were inundated with hockey masks, knives, and axes in the early ‘80s, there were some horror filmmakers looking to do something against the grain; people like Sam Raimi conjuring undead demons in The Evil Dead (1981), or in the case of Douglas McKeown’s The Deadly Spawn (1983), giddily updating Monsters from Space to include voracious face ripping and gallons of the red stuff.
Upon release in April, Vincent Canby of the New York Times called The Deadly Spawn an “amateurish, resolutely unscary, low-budget horror film”, and while points one and three are objective statements, the middle depends on the viewer; if one has a fear of flesh-eating, three-headed, multi-fanged space visitors, this will do the trick.
Amateurish and low-budget go hand in hand; made for a little under $20,000 and filmed on weekends over the course of a year, The Deadly Spawn falters in some regards where others of its ilk normally do. But it also has great energy, terrific practical effects, and gets great mileage from its toothsome intruders.
Once upon a time a meteor came crashing down to earth; when a couple of campers check it out, they soon find that it has brought along some unwanted travelers. The slime-ridden creature makes its way to a house, and mom and dad (who are leaving town that day for vacation) find their basement has issues other than flooding. The kids are awakened by their just arrived aunt and uncle, who assume that the couple have left early for their trip and set up shop babysitting for the weekend with the kids. One of our main protagonists is Charlie, who’s a horror nut and, when not creating masks or cool traps, is busy watching horror movies.
His older brother has some friends over to study, and after the electrician meets his maker in the flooded basement, it’s discovered that the creature multiplies through little slugettes it spews out. Trapped in the house, the kids have to figure out a way to not only save themselves, but possibly the world. Are they up to the task?
Sure they are; it would be an even shorter film otherwise (it only runs 81 minutes), and writer and director McKeown does a good job of establishing the characters in between attacks, so they’re slightly more than just food for the beast. Not super deep, but they have enough of a flavor to get us on their side; Charlie (Charles George Hildebrandt) especially resonates as the horror super-fan, which may have been an influence on Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter’s Tommy Jarvis. It’s possible that the slugs as well may have incubated in Night of the Creeps’ mouth as well.
This isn’t to say that those films ripped off The Deadly Spawn; there are only so many ideas to kick around, and horror has a tradition of sharing the best ones. The film itself uses the template of Invaders from Mars (1952) and H.P. Lovecrafts’ story The Colour Out of Space for inspiration, spinning the small-town-upended vibe right onto the plasma plastered pages of Fangoria magazine (which is where I first heard of it).
The film is very much of its time; one gets the feeling that every meager cent went towards achieving the special effects, which burst forth from the screen without a trace of irony. The film was clearly made by people who love horror films, both of the then new school while still honoring time worn tropes with affection.
It is this glow of appreciation that fuels The Deadly Spawn (by the way it was rereleased as Return of the Alien’s Deadly Spawn to cash in on Aliens’ success, even though it isn’t a sequel) from start to finish; a love letter to sci-fi of the past and gross-outs of the present. (Pretty much the sub-genre’s blueprint from Alien on.) McKeown offers up some nice camera moves and gets enthusiastic performances from the mostly green cast, who, at the very least, are trying.
And that’s the thing about The Deadly Spawn; it really tries, and the good will is earned. Every face removal inspires cheers, and each impressive appearance of the tri-domed and incisor-filled beastie fills the audience with wonder, or at the very least several knowing smiles. The Deadly Spawn offers what any good horror film should – a rapport between filmmakers and audience that lasts regardless of budget. Micro shouldn’t be a dirty word in horror, especially when the heart and talent exceeds it.
The Deadly Spawn is available on Blu-ray from Elite Entertainment.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: LUST FOR A VAMPIRE