October Horrorshow: The Deadly Spawn

At some point around 1980, producer Ted A. Bohus and f/x man John Dods put their heads together and came up with an idea for an alien monster flick. Neither could direct or write a screenplay, so Dods brought in Douglas McKeown, a would-be filmmaker looking for his first break. Bohus somehow found a little bit of money, Dods and his crew built one of the wildest monsters ever to grace horror flicks, and McKeown worked his talents to deliver an amazing experience of low-budget cinema.

Released in 1983, The Deadly Spawn tells the story of a creature that rides a meteorite down to Earth and terrorizes a household in rural New Jersey. Tom DeFranco stars as Pete, and Charles George Hildebrandt stars as Pete’s middle school-aged younger brother, also named Charles. (Charles is the son of fantasy/sci-fi illustrator Tim Hildebrandt. Readers may not know him by name, but they will recognize some of the work he did with his brother, Greg. Tim has a small role in the film, on top of lending his house to the production for filming.)

One rainy day, Pete and Charles’s parents wake up to discover that their basement has flooded. Unbeknownst to them, the nasty alien creature has taken refuge down there in the dark and the damp, and it kills them both in grisly fashion, spawning be-toothed tadpoles the size of koi fish. Upstairs, the family, including an aunt and uncle (Ethel Michelson and John Schmerling) stopping by for a visit while on vacation, are unaware of the carnage below. But, this being a swift film, clocking in at 81 minutes, it doesn’t take long for the monster and its spawn to make themselves known, and spread more bloody good fun amongst the rest of the cast.

The Deadly Spawn was shot in 16mm on budget film stock. It has the kind of look and feel that a lot of companies in the information age have spent a lot of time recreating digitally. It’s warm, grainy, with reds that make the fake blood pop quite well. McKeown and The Deadly Spawn movie postercinematographer Harvey M. Birnbaum also used high contrast lighting and shadow to great effect in the basement scenes, making appearances by the monster sudden and dynamic.

Dods’s creature is very ambitious for a film of such modest means, with about as much realism as one can expect from a gigantic mass of foam rubber. The effects are also very, very gory. The creature and its spawn rip human flesh right off the bone, and blood spatters everywhere. The film managed to get an ‘R’ rating from the prudes at the MPAA, but it must have been a close-run thing.

McKeown has stated in at least one interview that he had a passion for the monster flicks of his formative years in the 1950s. His direction is very much in tune with the films of Roger Corman or Bert I. Gordon, only with late ’70s/early ’80s allowances for blood and guts. This is helped along by a score that does much to evoke the films of his youth.

As for the cast, including 2nd act additions Richard Lee Porter and Jean Tafler, they do about as well as can be expected. There are no future stars and plenty of weak reads. It all fits in to the aspirational nature of the film. This is a little film that could, and did.

Wildly gory, surprisingly watchable, The Deadly Spawn is a production that shot for the moon and succeeded. Rarely will one find a movie that had so little to work with, and delivered so much. This is the kind of diamond in the rough that shitty movie fans live for. We watch dozens of bad films, all for those rare glorious evenings when a film like The Deadly Spawn makes the searching worthwhile.

The Deadly Spawn is shitty gold, knocking Contamination out of the #50 spot in the Watchability Index. Shitty movie fans rejoice, and check it out.

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