Shot on a budget that would be a rounding error on most productions, The Deadly Spawn takes the spam-in-a-cabin approach of its fellow early '80s genre flicks and gives it a slightly different spin. Instead of cramming its hapless victims in a remote cabin in the woods and watching 'em get hacked up one by one, The Deadly Spawn boasts a setting infinitely more terrifying...a completely ordinary house in the 'burbs. The premise is pretty simple: meteors crash to Earth. Flesh-chomping aliens crawl out. Hilarity ensues. The creatures, which look like hyperfanged tadpoles, set up shop in a leaky basement. Growing increasingly large in both size and number, the spawn infest the family's home and start to spread throughout the neighborhood. Slowly clueing into the fact that these odd little creatures have gobbled up most of their family, ten year old horror buff Charles, his older brother, and a bunch of pals who came over to cram for a test find themselves trapped in the house with the ravenous aliens.
There's only one thing that really bugs me about The Deadly Spawn: the aliens don't have nearly enough teeth. Okay, lovingly setting my incredibly weak stabs at humor back on the shelf for a minute, The Deadly Spawn is pretty damn near perfect. I mean, that's not to say that it's going to replace Citizen Kane as the stereotypical point of reference faux-cineastes whip out as the pinnacle of the artform, but I think The Deadly Spawn achieves exactly what its filmmakers set to out to make. First of all, the movie was obviously made by people with a deep and abiding love for vintage sci-fi. The core structure of the plot -- aliens invade the suburbs, and it's up to a young boy to save the day -- is a page ripped out of Invaders from Mars or any of a dozen other movies. At the same time, it doesn't get bogged down with winks or sly references, not taking the Scream approach and making its characters aware they're squarely in the middle of a genre movie. It has a lean runtime, barely breaking the 80 minute mark, and it squeezes the most out of every second. The pacing never has a chance to drag, spending enough time with the movie's characters to give them something resembling a personality, but it doesn't linger long enough for those sequences to feel like filler. If you get the sense that a scene is starting to get stale, give it another eight seconds and someone's flesh will start to get devoured. Promise. Horror/comedies are a combination inevitably doomed to failure, but The Deadly Spawn is among just a handful that manage to pull it off. The humor doesn't come in the form of canned one-liners or slapstick, but in just the absurdity and grotesqueness of what unfolds.
It's not an overtly comedic movie, but when the movie did get me laughing, it was intended. The special effects are the best part, though. The creature design is fantastic -- very original and extremely memorable. A lot of really low-budget movies try to rein in the effects, and even though The Deadly Spawn was very much shot on a shoestring (between $18,000 and $32,000, depending on who you ask), it goes balls-out. The quality of the effects varies somewhat, but they never look bad, and the best of 'em still hold up well today. The movie may be rated R, but it's a hard R, certainly not shying away from the red stuff. Barrels of homebrew blood are splattered everywhere, and it's unflinchingly gory. This isn't the type of movie I can just sit quietly on my couch and watch -- the best of the effects, like the face-ripping in Kill #4, compel me to shout out loud and cackle maniacally. The Deadly Spawn is an infectiously fun flick that doesn't take itself too seriously, and that mix of humor and over-the-top splatter definitely brings to mind some of the earlier films by Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson. It shares some of same sensibilities as the Evil Dead flicks or Bad Taste, and if you're a card-carrying fan of any of those movies (I am, not surprisingly), you'll probably dig this one too. This disc has been in the works at Synapse Films for a while, and although it's taken a little longer than expected to arrive, it's well-worth the wait.
Video: The Deadly Spawn is presented full-frame, windowboxed to protect against overscan and cram as much of the filmed image onto your television as possible. The Deadly Spawn was shot on a shoestring back in 1982, and when gauging the video quality, you have to make allowances for its budget and 16mm origins. You don't have to make too many allowances, though -- the DVD looks incredible, all things considered. Some shots do sport the kind of appearance that probably springs to mind for a 16mm cheapie, looking softer and grainier than normal. Still, an awful lot of it isn't too far removed from DVDs I have of slightly-bigger-budgeted 35mm slashers shot around the same time period, appearing relatively crisp and detailed. Considering how good the bulk of it looks, I wouldn't have guessed at a glance that this was cinematographer Harvey Birnbaum's first and only film credit. There aren't any problems or concerns with Synapse Films' transfer -- some minor speckling is about the extent of it. Oh, and if you were wondering, this is the way the movie was intended to be seen -- the filmmakers didn't shoot the movie with a theatrical release in mind, and it wasn't framed to allow for any matting.
Audio: Not quite as much praise for the Dolby Digital mono soundtrack, tho'. It's just the way things were recorded...dialogue's usually discernable, but it has kind of a muddy quality to it, and there were a couple of lines I couldn't quite make out. There aren't any problems with hiss or distortion mucking up the works, and the retro-flavored score with its whirring theremins comes through pretty well. Not great, but it's serviceable and probably about as good as can realistically be expected. If you're hearing impaired or no habla inglés, you're outta luck -- no dubs, no subtitles, no closed captions.
Supplements: There are two audio commentaries on this DVD, available under the "Audio Setup" menu. The first crams Tim Sullivan, writer/director Doug McKeown, actor Charles Hildebrandt, special effects director John Dods, and executive producer Tim Hildebrandt into a cellar with an array of microphones.
With that many people on one track, it's not surprising that the discussion roars through without any pauses or chunks of awkward silence, although there is some fairly frequent stumbling where everyone talks over each other. It's a pretty good commentary, with notes about how Hildebrandt's house is still stained with blood twenty years later, some on-set tension after a rant to someone who wound up being a reporter, and chats about the enduring popularity of the movie. The second commentary just features producer Ted A. Bohus, and since I thought I'd just listened to a pretty detailed track already, I wasn't really sure what I'd get out of this one. There's surprisingly little overlap between the two, and Bohus covers a lot of ground that's glossed over in the group commentary. Some of his comments include temperatures that were so low that the film froze in the camera, the monstrous spawn being so big that the effects guys couldn't move it out of their basement and get it to the set on time, Sam Raimi pitching Bohus the title The Evil Dead for his own 16mm opus, inadvertently ripping all of the facial hair (eyelashes, eyebrows, and all) off one actress, and the fun and excitement of shooting a splatter flick across the street from a church. Since he was a producer, he talks about the business end of things too, from lining up financing to the chaotic distribution, almost winding up in bed with Troma and ending up getting screwed by the long-defunct 21st Century Films. Both commentaries are very entertaining and worth a listen, though I'd lean more towards Bohus' if you only have time for one.
Although it's titled a "Blooper and Outtake Reel", this five-minute collection of silent footage is more of a behind-the-scene glimpse at production, emphasizing the nuts and bolts of preparing and shooting the special effects. There's also an alternate opening sequence with newly-added effects and spiffed-up titles. The new effects aren't that great, having such a video-like appearance that they don't gel with the 16mm-lensed footage. The movie doesn't go into the backstory behind the deadly spawn, but the fifteen-panel comic prequel included on the DVD fills viewers in on where these ultimate eating machines hail from and how one wound up on our big blue marble. A 1982 visit to John Dods' workshop includes, alongside wizard-gobbling cave monsters and anatomically correct batmen, a peek at conceptual sketches for The Deadly Spawn and a brief special effects demo. There are also more than fifteen minutes of audition tapes, with pre-natal versions of a couple of scenes and even a little role-swapping. A sizeable still gallery is broken up into a bunch of different sections -- eighteen shots of various poster art and home video releases, sixty-one behind-the-scenes images that are heavy on the special effects, eight cast photos, six glances at original concept art, and sixteen promotional stills. The last section, "The Movie Unleashed!", is one of the smaller galleries but may be the most interesting.
There's just something kinda appropriate about seeing The Deadly Spawn sharing Variety's box office list with The Evil Dead, and the photos turn back to the clock to a time when in-theater promotion consisted of more than propping up cardboard stand-ups or plastering stickers everywhere. Rounding out the extras are a red-band theatrical trailer under the mouthful title Return of the Aliens: The Deadly Spawn and a detailed set of biographies for Douglas McKeown, Tim Hildebrandt, Ted A. Bohus, John Dods, and Tim Sullivan.
The Deadly Spawn is packaged in a keepcase and sports a very impressive cover by artist Wes Benscoter. Synapse should really consider selling posters of some of this stuff on their website. The provided insert features the original poster art by Tim Hildebrandt on one side and a list of the DVD's sixteen chapter stops on the other. The disc also includes a set of animated 4x3 menus.
Conclusion: I can't in good conscience offer a recommendation to buy this DVD. No, a recommendation's not good enough. A mandate! An order! If you harbor any fondness for vintage sci-fi and have Bad Taste or Evil Dead 2 lurking on your DVD shelf, you need The Deadly Spawn somewhere in between 'em. I would stake my reputation on it, but I don't think I have one. Anyway, great flick. Great DVD. Very highly recommended.