May 25, 2015

The Deadly Spawn

After reexamining the classic Lovecraftian stop-motion-animation-driven horror flick Equinox (1970), I got the impulse to watch some more low-budget homemade horror with primitive special effects, and after referencing Stephen Thrower’s NIGHTMARE USA: The Untold Story of the Exploitation Independents (2007), I figured that I would check out The Deadly Spawn (1983) directed by one-time auteur turned ‘queer’ writer Douglas McKeown. Ostensibly a rip-off or Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) as indicated by its marvelously moronic alternate titles like Return of the Aliens: The Deadly Spawn, Return of the Alien's Deadly Spawn, and The Alien's Deadly Spawn, McKeown’s film, which apparently cost only about $27,000 to make, is really a fan-boy fantasy come to life and I mean that in the best possible way, as it is more or less an all-amateur production where genuine love and nostalgia for the horror genre was really what got the film made.  Indeed, much like the kid character Charles in the film, director McKeown spent his childhood years experimenting with horror make-up and attempting to scare his neighbors with his crude creations, which certainly will not surprise anyone that watches The Deadly Spawn, as the film is a virtual filmic love letter to the horror and sci-fi films of yesteryear, albeit dripping with the sort of blood and guts that were beginning to dominate genre films at the time it was released.  Notably, the one thing that the film does have in common with Alien is that the eponymous extraterrestrials have a certain glaring phallic quality to them that is even more flagrant than Scott’s work, which is curious considering that the director is a wide-receiver on the pink team and almost certainly had no fear of big giant cocks, but then again McKeown had trouble with the man behind the curious looking monsters, special effects man and associate producer John Dods, who managed to get him fired at the end of production after bitching to swindler producer Ted A. Bohus. Featuring a cast of strikingly sapless suburbanites that all seem to suffer from some sort of mental illness on the autism spectrum, The Deadly Spawn also makes for an interesting work in that it unwittingly exposes how supremely socially retarded what one might describe as the ‘Star Wars generation’ was. Indeed, I was more perturbed by the characters and their defective behavior than by the giant teethed cocks and sperms from outerspace. Featuring a revoltingly pedantic balding teenage science dork that seems like a castrated middle-aged community college professor as the would-be main protagonist and a prepubescent boy as the only character with any sense or testicular fortitude, The Deadly Spawn is, aside from the special effects, most potent as a piece of suburban impotence. Indeed, even for a horror film, McKeown’s work is loaded with a number of socially and physically inept spastics who cannot seem to be able to wipe their own asses without suffering some sort of major trauma. 

 It all happens when a meteor falls to earth in suburban New Jersey and two hapless teenage dorks camping out in the woods are killed when a mysterious life form emerges from the rock. From there, the aliens invade the basement of married couple Sam (James Brewster) and Barb (Elissa Neil), who have two sons, including a seemingly autistic horror and sci-fi obsessed preteen named Charles (Charles George Hildebrandt) and a preposterously pedantic high school science major named Pete (Tom DeFranco). Also temporarily residing at the house are homely lady Aunt Millie (Ethel Michelson) and her psychoanalyst husband Uncle Herb (John Schmerling), who seems to have an obsession with little Charles’ all-consuming horror fetish. The morning after the meteor landing, Sam and Barb wake up early so they can get ready for vacation. Since it is raining outside, Sam decides to check the basement for flooding and is soon swallowed up my some unseen creature. Naturally, Barb eventually goes down in the basement to look for her hubby and is soon perturbed to see blood on the ceiling light. Of course, Barb is in for a big surprise when she feels her husband’s hand on her back and turns around, only to discover her spouse’s dismembered limb in the mouth of a large semi-phallic-like creature with long sharp pointy teeth that immediately rips her face off and kills her. While Aunt Millie hears the screams of Barb, she assumes it is from some horror film that little Charles is watching. With a note left behind by Barb about leaving for vacation, Aunt Millie does not expect there to be two thoroughly dismembered corpses and an alien monster in the basement. 

 As ironically announced by a DJ on a radio in the kitchen while most of the family is downstairs during the morning, “It looks like it is going to be a bad day.” Before leaving to go wherever, Uncle Herb decides to interview Charles about his horror and sci-fi fetishism. While Herb seems to find Charles’ obsession to be somewhat dubious, the boy’s undying love of all-things-spooky will ultimately provide him with the courage to take on the aliens while his sterilely materialistic older brother Pete acts like a pathetically petrified pansy that almost gets him and his friends killed. After Aunt Millie heads to her mother Bunny's (Judith Mayes) house for a luncheon with her similarly uptight and anally retentive old friends, an electrician comes by the home to fix a malfunctioning circuit breaker in the basement, so Charles decides to put on a cheap Dracula cape and mask and go scare the poor prole worker, only to discover sperm/tadpole-like creatures swimming around the flooded floor. After following around the extraterrestrial sperms for a bit, Charles discovers that they are dining on the electrician’s corpse. Eventually, Charles discovers the ‘mother spawn,’ which has three heads and has presumably given birth to the little sperms, which have invaded every corner and crevice of the basement. Undoubtedly thoroughly desensitized due to his religious viewings of monster movies, Charles stares in disbelief and soon realizes that the aliens respond to sound, thus he wisely remains calm and silent even though he witnesses the out-of-this-world beast gorge on his decapitated mommy’s head. 

 When aspiring scientist dork Pete’s would-be-girlfriend Ellen (Jean Tafler) and best friend Frankie (Richard Lee Porter) come by his house with the dried up corpse of one of the sperm monsters, they decide to dissect it because it seems like no creature they have ever seen before. While Ellen and Frankie believe the shriveled tadpole-like corpse might be of extraterrestrial origin, Peter finds their theory to be absurdly preposterous and bitches, “I give up on you,” adding, “Look…all I know is that a creepy feeling is not scientific. Monsters from outer-space is pure ignorance.” Meanwhile, during Bunny’s luncheon, one of the sperms manages to crawl into a food processor and gets grinded up in a vegetable that the old ladies unwittingly eat. Not long after eating the vegetable meal with a ‘mystery sauce’ that causes all the women make a face of abject disgust, all of the ladies are soon attacked by the sperm creatures in a seemingly unintentionally hilarious piece of quasi-splatter slapstick. When Pete and his pals attempt to get Uncle Herb’s advice regarding the dissected sperm, they find his mutilated and partly dismembered corpse sitting in the living room, with two of the creatures even popping out the psychoanalyst’s stomach in an Alien-esque fashion. Before they know it, the three-headed mother spawn charges the nerdy teens, so Charles heroically rises to the occasion by turning a radio on which the creature soon attempts to eat and ultimately suffers a serious burn from. 

 After their friend Kathy (Karen Tighe) abruptly arrives in a particularly bad case of bad timing after they attempt to warn her to leave from an upstairs window, the teens get slit up in different rooms after they are charged by the monster spawn. In a rare scenario of genre convention breaking, the mother spawn charges Ellen while she is hiding in Pete’s room, bites her head off, and then knocks her decapitated corpse out of a window. When Pete witnesses the death of his quasi-girlfriend and discovers her headless corpse lying in his lawn, he breaks down and heads to the attic where Frankie and Karen are hanging out. Since he has clearly lost his rather fragile autistic scientific mind, Pete absurdly attempts to open the attic door while the more sensible Frankie tries to stop. Clearly the only sane, rational, and practical person in the house, Charles concocts the idea to fill a prop monster mask with explosive flash powder which he attaches to a metal pole and frayed electrical cord that he will use as a fuse to cause to explode after inciting the monster spawn to bite it. 

 After creating the explosive prop head, preteen hero Charles heads up to the attic to save his pussy big brother Pete and his two friends while they do nothing to help except cry like hysterical women. After yelling at the teens to stop crying like bitches so the monster stops focusing on them, Charles makes noise to get the mother spawn to get his attention and then gets it to bite the prop head. After having some trouble attempting to plug the electrical cord that is hooked to the prop head into an outlet and almost being eaten by the parasitic alien monster, Charles finally succeeds and causes the creature to explode into seemingly thousands of pieces. In a seeming homage to George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), various town residents are depicted collectively killing the monster sperms as the alien outbreak is now national news. When Aunt Millie gets home, she finds various cops and paramedics carrying corpses out of the house. Although he was left more or less physically unscathed by the aliens, Pete is hauled away in an ambulance while kid hero Charles stays behind. The film ultimately concludes with a twist ending where a policeman patrolling the area witnesses a virtually mountain-sized monster come alive after confidently telling a comrade via radio that he believes that all of the aliens have been wiped out. 

 A sort of poor man’s take on The Blob as seemingly watched by a fiercely fanatical fan-boy who got off to all the blood and gore of William Lustig’s classic slasher flick Maniac (1980) starring Joe Spinell, The Deadly Spawn certainly literally and figuratively bleeds passion for the oftentimes critically maligned genre it belongs to, thus making it mandatory viewing for any marginally serious horror fan. A pseudo-sequel of sorts was released about a decade later entitled Metamorphosis: The Alien Factor (1990) aka The Deadly Spawn 2: The Metamorphosis, but it should be avoided at all costs as it lacks the passion and fan-boy integrity of the original film. While director Douglas McKeown never directed another film, he did bizarrely direct and co-write two silent film style ‘plantation’ scenes for the independent negress bull-dyke flick The Watermelon Woman (1996), though Sapphic spade director Cheryl Dunye cheated him out of a directing credit (which is ironic since the eponymous ‘Watermelon Woman’ in the film has did not receive credit for her work). It should also be noted that McKeown’s envisioned ‘director’s cut’ of The Deadly Spawn was apparently much more intricate than the film that exists today, but after John Dods got him fired, the special effects man and producer Ted A. Bohus excised, among other things, a more developed romantic subplot between Pete and Ellen. Apparently, Dods was obsessed with showing off his special effects work and hated the way McKeown was directing the film, so he successfully conspired to have the director fired from the film. While the ‘phallocentric’ special effects are certainly iconic in their own primitive sort of way, most of the potency of the film comes from McKeown’s preternatural characterization of the characters, playful tongue-in-cheek humor, glaring horror/sci-fi fanboyism (the film features references to James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931), King Kong (1933), The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), The Mole People (1956), It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958), and Tales from the Crypt (1972), among tons of other films). While not exactly as good or enthralling as Equinox (1970) or Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead (1981), The Deadly Spawn is certainly a classic of its time that brings great shame to similar no-budget ‘homemade horror’ works like Robert Scott’s The Video Dead (1987) and J.R. Bookwalter’s The Dead Next Door (1989). Indeed, I certainly cannot think of another horror flick that makes such a marvelous mockery of suburbia and its autism-inducing effects on its populous and especially its youth. 

-Ty E

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