Taking over the world....one bite at a time.”
THE DEADLY SPAWN
Alternate Titles: RETURN OF THE ALIENS: THE DEADLY SPAWN; THE ALIEN'S DEADLY SPAWN.
16mm (blown up to 35mm); Technicolor.
RT: 80 mins.
Production Company: Filmline Communications/Ted A. Bohus.
Cast: Charles George Hildebrandt. Tom De Franco, Richard Lee Potter, Jean Taffler, Karen Tighe, Ethel Michelson, John Schmerling, Darlene Kenley, James Brewster, Elissa Neil, Michael Robert Coleman, Andrew Michaels, John Arndt, Jack Piccuro, Ted A. Bohus, Ted Bohus Sr, Diane Bohus, Tim Hildebrandt, Rita Hildebrandt.
Ted A. Bohus here. I came up with the idea for The Deadly Spawn in 1979 after reading a National Geographic magazine, about seed pods brought back from the Arctic. They were thawed and grown. The seeds were thousands of years old. Why not put a “seed pod” inside a meteor and have it crash, thaw and grow on Earth?
I had worked on a few films with Don Dohler in Baltimore (Night Beast & Fiend) and thought it was time to start my own company and make a film in New Jersey. I called my partner, John Dods and asked him if he wanted to make a monster movie. He said, “Sure!” The whole thing started as simply as that.
I drew up a few designs (the first one you can see in the Behind-the-Scenes section) and showed them to John. He looked at them and shook his head, “Oh no, not another man in a rubber suit monster.” I told him we were not goingto have much of a budget, but if he could come up with something with that basic design (3 heads, lots of teeth, pincer arms)...and could build it cheaply...go for it!
Within a few days John came up with some cool designs. Some totally unpractical, some cool, but too expensive and then the three-headed, no man in a suit, cool Mother Spawn. Now I just had to find money, a crew, a lab, an editor, equipment, music and actors!
I'm finishing a book called, MAKING LOW-BUDGET SCIENCE-FICTION FILMS: A REAL HORROR STORY. The first chapter is The Making of The Deadly Spawn. I will present that here in the near future. In the meantime, I was sent a review of the film by Iain McLachlan. It is a very nice overview of the film and I hope you enjoy it. Check back every now and then because I'll continually update this site with pictures and text.
Thank you all for remembering our first little film shot for about $20,000 and a lot of blood, sweat and tears.
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The late 1970s and early 1980s are seen by many as something of a "golden age" for exploitation cinema especially in the fields of horror and sci-fi. At this time independent genre filmmakers were finding it relatively easy to secure funding from a variety of private sources and, much more importantly, found it possible for their films to be distributed and exhibited to a wide audience in the era before the drive-ins disappeared along and the independent sector either went under or was consumed by the major studios and their subsidiaries.
Like the rest of the entertainment industry, exploitation movies were subject to fads and cycles. During this period the two most prominent were splatter movies initiated by the likes of Sean Cunningham's Friday the 13th (80) and big-budget reworkings of 1950s SF movies as typified by the international success of Ridley Scott's big budget Alien (79). A number of filmmakers tried to marry these two trends as evidenced by Luigi Cozzi's Contaminazione (81), William Malone's Scared to Death (82) and this 1983 production from New Jersey-based independent producer Ted A. Bohus.
Two campers witness a meteorite crash into some remote woodland near their campsite and go to investigate. They arrive to find that it is still red hot. One of them decides to go back and get a camera. When he is away, something from inside the meteor bursts out and kills him. Shortly after his friend is killed in his tent. The shadow of some bizarre creature is seen on the canvas. The next morning at a house some distance from the impact area a couple wake up to find that they are caught in the middle of a rainstorm. Despite the weather they decide to press ahead with the trip they were planning. As the husband prepares to wash he notices that the hot water boiler has packed in again. He decides to go to investigate. Before this he goes outside and retrieves the morning papers, failing to notice that the window to the basement is lying open and the sound of the storm drowning out noises coming from within. The man ventures into the basement and finds it drenched in water. He puts on some waterproof shoes and goes to investigate further. In the basement he finds that the boiler has blocked up and began pouring water. He also notices a strange smell and ventures further into the basement to follow some strange noises.
He is suddenly attacked by an unseen creature which then proceeds to eat him. The wife meantime has gone into the kitchen and left a note for her children and her relatives who are staying with her that she and her husband will be away for most of the day on a trip. Not having any response to her calls to the husband in the basement she goes downstairs to get him. In the basement she is disturbed to discover blood splatters and a discarded shoe. She is then attacked by a hideous beast which kills and consumes her. Her visiting sister and her psychologist husband are awoken by the sound of screams which turn out to be coming from her young nephew's room where he is watching a horror movie. She tells him that breakfast will be ready soon. She goes downstairs to the kitchen and discovers the note left by her sister next to the open basement door. She closes it and prepares breakfast. Upstairs the older nephew is woken by a phone call from his friend and they agree to spend the day studying for an upcoming biology exam before he they go out for the night in is parents' car when they return. Downstairs the uncle is preparing material for a psychology seminar involving the youngest nephew, whose parents are worried about his unhealthy obsession with horror movies. The aunt says that the boy is perfectly normal. Shortly after he tries to scare her with a monster costume he has constructed but she brushes it off. Later at breakfast the older nephew talks about his interest in science and impresses the uncle. He asks the younger one is he wouldn't mind talking about his horror movie obsession as part of a paper he was preparing. The kid agrees. Nobody notices that the parents' car is still in the garage.
The Deadly Spawn was created by a group of people who were enthusiastic horror and science fiction movie aficionados and keen semi-pro filmmakers. Influenced by magazines such as Fangoria, Cinefantastique and especially Forrest J. Ackerman's seminal publication Famous Monsters of Filmland, their work here was aimed at a very lucrative audience similarly brought up on these and other periodicals. Producer Ted A. Bohus, himself contributed to various small press publications before establishing his prozine SPFX which covered some of the same material as his contemporaries, particularly classic and vintage genre items, but from a more technical standpoint than most of them, although it is fair to say that it owes a fair amount to Ackerman's Famous Monters. [Picture: Kevin Shinnick, Ted A. Bohus, Charles Hildebrandt]
It is surprising that, although he is thanked in the credits, FJA does not actually appear in The Deadly Spawn, since over the years he had walk-on parts in several of his friends and admirers' movies including Ib Melchior's The Time Travellers (64), Al Adamson's Dracula vs Frankenstein (71) and the films of Joe Dante (The Howling 81) and especially John Landis (Schlock 73). Having said that his presence can still be felt from the bedroom of the young nephew made to look like a shrine to Famous Monsters to the obsession with images from older horror and sci-fi movies.
The breadth of movies referenced in The Deadly Spawn is impressively wide with the most obvious being Edward L. Cahn's It! The Terror from Beyond Space (58), the main inspiration for Alien, and Christian I. Nyby's The Thing from Another World (51), where the demise of the alien in that film is echoed in this film's third act.
Other vintage sci-fi movies that have played a part in the creation of The Deadly Spawn include the pulsating meteorite from in Irwin S. Yeaworth's The Blob (58) and the rapidly multiplying asteroid monsters from Kinji Fukasaku's The Green Slime (68), the design of whose creatures may have had a bearing on John Dods' work in the 1983 production. Attentive viewers may also spot some visual cues from Jacques Tourneur's Night of the Demon (57), with the shots of back-lit smoke drifting eerily through the trees at the start of the film.
Bohus, McKeown and their crew also prove to be major fans of the work of Alfred Hitchcock and especially of Psycho (60), the grandfather of the splatter movie, with several shots from that movie recreated here including the blood flowing down the drain, the swinging lightbulb distorting how those standing in the room actually see it and the employment of subjective camera shots as the husband (James Brewster, Maniac 80) explorers the basement. Other material is borrowed from The Birds (63) such as when an eyeless corpse is found the lead characters. Surprisingly for a film from this period, the electronic score by Michael Perilstein (Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers 88) does not feature a recreation of Bernard Hermann's much-imitated "screaming violins", usually a permanent fixture in this genre. Blood spurting onto a naked lighbulb bathing the basement in a sinister red glow suggests that the makers were well aware of the recent success of Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead (82).
Reworking of material from other productions continues with an epilogue that borrows heavily from George R. Romero's Night of the Living Dead (68) where volunteers gleefully round up and kill any surviving aliens before piling them onto a bonfire, while two sequences, one showing a creature crawling out of a waste disposal unit and the other an attack on the grandmother's vegetarian party in her home echo David Cronenberg's Shivers (74) as do John Dods' creature designs which are reminiscent of Joe Blasco's work on the earlier production. Meanwhile the elaborate effects sequence where the mother (Elissa Neil) has her face ripped off by the queen alien is a recreation of effects work from John Carpenter's The Thing (82). The invaders' lack of sight and attraction to sound suggests that at some point the makers had seen Steve Sekely's Day of the Triffids (62).
As stated earlier the real reason for the existence of The Deadly Spawn is to take advantage of the fall out from two very successful trends in exploitation filmmaking. From the science fiction genre the film introduces alien beasts whose main characteristics are jaws-within-jaws and teeth dripping copious amounts of gooey fluid. The basement where the creatures lurk for much of the film is made up to resemble the spaceship set from the 1979 production with its constant running water, steam and strobe effects, this time caused by a shorting fuse box. Of course also included is by the now standard, and clichéd, chestbursting scene. There is even an appearance by a cousin of Jones the cat.
The other cycle that the work is part of is the teen slasher sub-genre typified by Tom De Simone's Hell Night (81) and Mark Rosman's The House on Sorority Row (83) where characters are trapped in a building under siege from someone or something, picking them off one by one. And it is here that some of its most basic conventions are subverted.
First of all the movie dispenses with the usual stereotypes found in this kind of film such as the blonde bitch, the blonde virgin, the practical joker and the rebel with a heart. Instead the three lead teen characters can be best described as likeable enough nerds, more obsessed with studying for their exams than anything else. In any other horror film they would be probably be among the first victims to be sliced and diced. The female (Jean Tafler) in the group is also revealed to be the equal of the males in terms of courage and intelligence and much more imagination when considering puzzles, as evidenced by her enthusiasm in dissecting a strange creature (one of the alien spawn) she has found, in order to discover more about it, while her male friends remain sceptical.
Another convention abandoned by The Deadly Spawn is that often credited with being imported by former porn directors like Sean Cunningham and Roberta Findlay (Blood Sisters 87) into horror, namely characters being punished for any signs of promiscuity, no matter how innocuous. Here the characters remain resolutely chaste, the only romance being a convincingly awkward scene between Tom De Franco (Dr Alien 88) and Jean Tafler that ends in a simple kiss. Ironically the nearest the film comes to titillation is at the start of the film when the mother stretches out in bed and is revealed to be wearing nothing underneath her rather sheer nightdress.
Traditionally children in horror and science fiction cinema fulfil two functions: either to be cute, or in a tradition dating back at least as far back as Mervyn Leroy's The Bad Seed (56) and continued with films like Sean MacGregor's Devil Times Five (73), Richard Donner The Omen (76) and Gabrielle Beaumont's The Godsend (80), threatening. In this production young fantastic film fanatic George Charles Hildebrandt (son of the movie's co-executive producer and miniature specialist Tim) actually proves to be the hero of the piece.
He is the only one not to panic when confronted by the creatures lurking in the basement. He also discovers their weaknesses in the form of blindness and vulnerability to fire and heat, knowledge that, together with his extensive knowledge of sci-fi movies, he puts to good use at the film's climax. Having a love of the fantastic is seen as a positive trait by the filmmakers as revealed when his is questioned by his psychologist uncle (John Schmerling) over his obsession and proved to be entirely normal in every respect, despite his parents' misgivings.
Other surprises featured in The Deadly Spawn involve the rationalist supposed hero Tom de Franco completely losing control at the climax and slipping into shock, leaving his friend Richard Lee Porter and newly arrived classmate Karen Tighe to fend for themselves, and the unheralded death of Jean Tafler, the character audiences were supposed to most identify with.
While this subverting of genre expectation is refreshing in its own right what audiences were really sold on were the special effects employed in the film and, for a film budgeted at under $25,000, these prove to be very ambitious. [Picture: John Dods holding Spawn concept art]
The title characters themselves are wonderfully bizarre and diverse creations. The "queen" which seems to produce all the other beasts in the film is probably the most outstanding and can be best described as a ball with a huge mouth and thousands of teeth. The multitude of incisors seen sported by the queen is a common feature of all the alien creatures seen throughout the movie and are genuinely threatening. The queen's off spring are varied ranging from smaller versions of herself to very phallic snake-like creatures and much smaller tadpole/piranha/salamander hybrids which like to crawl through drains and swim through shallow water. Using a mixture of crude but very effective animatronics and skilful puppetry work, effects director John Dods (My Demon Lover 87) ensures that he avoids many of the pitfalls of those working in low-budget genre cinema, ensuring his monsters are genuinely threatening by allowing them to move about freely in any environment (though how they do this is wisely ignored) while using their body weight and teeth to overcome any obstacles such as doors and barricades. Easily outclassing the traditional "man-in-a-suit" type beast usually found in this genre, Dods' work is a triumph of the pulp imagination. The Deadly Spawn's aliens may arguably have influenced effects work in later movies such as Stephen Herek's Critters and Ted Nicolau's Terrorvision (both 86).
In addition to the creature sfx, the other main selling point of the film was undoubtedly the gore, a staple ingredient of this type of low-budget horror/SF hybrid. Gorehounds will generally not be disappointed with the efforts of designer Arnold Cargiulio (The Devil in Miss Jones Part II 83) which include lashing of arterial blood spurts and chestbursting along with some nasty looking bite marks. Among the highlights are the mother having layers of facial skin peeled slowly off and eaten by the queen and her offspring, creatures eating the contents of a character's eyeball sockets and a graphic decapitation followed by a very realistic headless torso flying out of an attic window onto the ground below.
Since the special effects and the knowing references to past genre favourites are basically the whole show regarding this work, it is inevitable that much of the rest of the film will suffer as a result, especially given its extremely limited resources. As with most low-budget productions the "talk is cheap" ethos is followed here. Thus the viewer has to endure lengthy expositional dialogue scenes such as that occurring at the breakfast table between the two sons and the visiting relatives, the preparations for a vegetarian dinner at grandmother's house and the phone conversation between the elder son and his friend about studying for their biology exam. However, some of these expositional scenes (giving the impression of being at least partially improvised) do occasionally veer off into bizarre areas such as the phone call suddenly becoming an intense argument about alien life-forms and the conversation between the aunt (Ethel Michelson) and the grandmother (Judith Mayes, Carnage 83) where they start discussing the genetic links between apes and humans. While these sequences have their points of interest they do unfortunately break up the narrative flow of the film, which may find some viewers reaching for their search button on their remote controls. Continuity slip-ups within the screenplay (notably regarding the state of electricity supply in the house) are evident.
As a semi-pro production with such an inexperienced cast, the performances are bound to be variable. However, to be fair there are no outstandingly bad performances from anyone and overall the actors remain likeable and the regional accents from some add something to the proceedings.
The rest of the film's production values are very basic. Filmed on 16mm, the resultant footage is often grainy with lighting varying from shot to shot in a number of places, sometimes in the same scene, and afflicted by some very shaky camera shots. In addition, although the two characters are seen together in the first act and apparently feature together at the climax, it does appear that the scenes involving the older and younger brother were filmed at entirely different times and places, something which becomes very apparent in subsequent viewings though was probably not picked up on by first-time viewers.
Despite these shortcomings The Deadly Spawn has a number of interesting features in its favour. The most obvious is having a violent (and loud) rainstorm raging throughout the film, a master stroke which provides the film with a unique atmosphere and makes for a suitably chilly setting for such a film.
Director Douglas McKeown (whose only film this appears to be) injects some style into the proceedings, in particular making impressive use of high and low-angled shots along with some imaginative compositions. He also very efficiently conveys the mounting panic at the climax as all defences against the marauding creatures prove futile. An impressively tense scene at this point has Hildebrandt rig up his special effects kit so that he can electrocute the creatures and only needs to plug it into the mains for it to work - unfortunately one of the aliens has partially swallowed the cable making it too short. Meanwhile a successful shock effect near the start of the film has the mother being shocked by her husband's hand clutching at her shoulder, turning round to confront him it turns out that the arm is sticking out of the queen's mouth. This may also one of the first movies to show a POV shot from inside a monster's mouth.
The film ends rather bleakly for the main characters despite the aliens being apparently destroyed. Survivors Porter and Tighe are badly injured and traumatised while both the sons look as if they are heading into catatonic trances.
In a spectacular twist it is revealed that the threat posed by the titular characters is far from being over with the miniature created by Tim Hildebrandt and Glenn Takakjian for $200 finally comes into its own.
The Deadly Spawn proved a major success (at least for its distributors and exhibitors) in its theatrical run and has attracted a very solid fan base over the years. Surprisingly though, no sequel was ever mounted though one was planned. Ted A. Bohus produced Metamorphosis: The Alien Factor (93) which may have originated as a sequel to this film and was marketed as such in the Far East..
Co-executive producer and miniatures designer Tim Hildebrandt, together with his twin Greg, is best known as a multi-award winning fantasy artist whose work include the earliest Star Wars (76) posters and promotional material for authors like JRR Tolkien and Anne McCaffrey as well as ground-breaking posters, comics and religious commissions. This appears to be his only direct contribution to a production.
[Below is executive producer Ron Giannotto.]