Though made on a shoestring budget and a far cry from perfect, “The Deadly Spawn” is a charming B-movie monster flick worth discovering.
The 1980s was a decade filled to the brim with low-budget creature features.
With the commercial and critical success of films like Jaws (1975), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), and Alien (1979), filmmakers were trying to replicate what made those movies resonate with audiences. Sometimes, the result was an uninspired rip-off of better movies, cursed with a thin script, bad acting, or unconvincing special effects. But once in a while, a movie came along that managed to rise above the tide of its own limitations.
One of these was Douglas McKeown’s The Deadly Spawn, a film of such modest means and grand ambitions that it could easily have failed.
While The Deadly Spawn is not a “good” film, it surprisingly succeeds at giving us a likable protagonist, a fantastic creature design, and a creepy score.
The Deadly Spawn was made for the shockingly low sum of $25,000. This puts it in the category of microbudget cinema, along with such genre classics as Basket Case (1982).
The film’s plot is its most predictable element.
Within the first five minutes, an extraterrestrial object lands in the woods and is discovered by campers.
As expected, these campers are swiftly devoured by the alien monsters. After this prologue, the remainder of the film mostly takes place in one location: the house of our main character, Charles (played by Charles George Hildebrandt).
Charles is a shy but deeply relatable protagonist, at least if you’re a horror fan. Charles is about twelve years old, and he’s a horror nerd who plasters his room with movie posters and loves dressing up as classic horror monsters. He has an older teenage brother named Pete (played by Tom DeFranco) and a psychologist uncle (John Schmerling) who interviews Charles to try to understand his obsession with all things spooky and monstrous.
While Charles says he doesn’t actually believe that his monsters are real, the movie will, of course, prove him wrong.
As Pete’s friends come over for a study date, the man-eating aliens make their home in Charles’s basement. Charles needs to use his ingenuity to figure out how to stop them from eating everyone in the house.
The real attraction of The Deadly Spawn is its grotesque creature design by effects artist John Dods.
As one can see from the movie poster, these aliens are goopy, wormlike horrors with multiple rows of teeth but no eyes.
The film wisely avoids showing us a full view of the aliens until they’re already hiding in the dark basement, opting to show attacks in shadow and half-caught glimpses. But when we finally see the creatures, the film becomes increasingly bloody and gory.
McKeown seems to have spent most of his budget on these attack sequences, which are just as good as similar scenes from movies with ten times the money.
It’s worth waiting through the somewhat boring first act of this movie just to encounter these aliens in their full glory.
The great creatures also distract from the movie’s shortcomings, most of which can be blamed on low funds. The picture quality is grainy, the sound is mixed badly (it’s sometimes hard to hear what the characters are saying), and the acting is barely passable. But we have to remember that basically all the actors in this movie are first-timers, and most never acted again.
One thing that cannot be blamed on the budget is the script, which really can’t justify an 80-minute runtime.
A good amount of the movie’s first half is simply boring; the supporting characters are not interesting enough for us to spend lots of screen time with them. As a simple alien-attack scenario, The Deadly Spawn may have been punchier if it were a short film.
Other aspects of the film work better. For example, the score by Michael Perilstein – which seems to have been entirely composed and performed on a synthesizer – contains some genuinely tense, unsettling moments.
For lovers of low-budget B-movies, The Deadly Spawn is a fun watch. Regardless of its many shortcomings, it clearly knows its audience and doesn’t try to be pretentious or exploitative.
Even if it’s not a great film, it’s still one that I can recommend.