Thursday, March 1, 2012

Blu-Ray Review: THE DEADLY SPAWN (1983)

Somewhere in a rural section of New Jersey, a couple of camping enthusiasts/possible life partners are shaken from their sleep by the sudden impact of an asteroid just a few hundred yards from their campsite. They go to investigate, and soon find themselves serving as an all-you-can-gnaw buffet for the meteorite's passengers: a bevy of space worms with multiple heads and more teeth than an Osmond family reunion. Needing a cool, damp place to rest, the Big Mama Worm lays down a slime trail toward a nearby house, slithering into the basement and settling down to a cosy life of popping out baby worms and messily devouring anyone who happens to come down looking for an extra jar of jam preserves.

Rightly considered one of the most ambitious micro-budget monster movies of its era (or any era, for that matter), The Deadly Spawn was a mainstay of video stores throughout the big-box VHS era. Produced by Ted A. Bohus and directed by Douglas McKeown (at least partially--more on that below), the movie was made on a truly paltry budget of about $25,000, yet boasts one of the most memorable and effective creatures ever to grace a video cover. And now Elite/MVD Entertainment has released a Blu-Ray edition of this essential slice of American indie-horror history, and graciously sent a copy to the Vicarage for review.

First, the movie itself--if you're a fan of cheesy sci-fi from the 80s, a celebrant of shoestring ingenuity and champion of the cinematic underdog such as the Duke and myself, then here is a movie tailor-made for your enjoyment. As the Mother Spawn grows larger, ickier, hungrier and ferociouser in the basement, a familial comedy of errors starts taking shape upstairs. The mother and father of the house are planning a long getaway of some sort, and have invited Aunt Millie and Uncle Herb to look after the kids while they're away. Because of their early planned departure time and Mom's conscientiousness about writing instructive notes before getting ready to leave, no one thinks it strange that neither parental unit is around when the rest of the house awakes--which is unfortunate, because they both have of course become Spawn-food in the interim.

On the fortunate side, though, is the fact that the orphaned-but-oblivious kids are uniquely well-suited to deal with the alien menace festering in their root cellar. Elder son Pete is an astronomy major just waiting for a radioactive bug bite to turn him into a superhero--nerdy, scrawny, but incredibly knowledgeable about all things to do with SCIENCE! His younger brother Frankie is a borderline autistic Monster Kid who enjoys wandering around the house in a devil cape and ape mask trying to scare Aunt Millie (and failing miserably). While Pete invites his school friends over for a study session and Pete talks to psychiatrist Uncle Herb to see if monster movies have warped his brain, a surprising number of expendable extras wander into the basement to be eaten by the Slimy Spawn.

Once Frankie discovers the toothy worm and its sperm-like spawnlings (gnawing on his mother's disembodied head! A circumstance which distresses him less than one would imagine), things get turned up to eleven--Spawn Babiez spread out in the neighborhood, attacking a vegan lunch party (seriously) and devouring Uncle Herb. Can Pete, Frankie, and the rest of the Mystery Incorporated gang find a way to defeat the Deadly Spawn before the neighborhood, and presumably the planet, becomes a bloody buffet?

The Deadly Spawn is a lot of fun, and all the more impressive due to its miniscule budget. Clearly a labor of love for all involved, it has that idealism and enthusiasm that I love so much, and that is sorely missing from many of the low-budget efforts of our era. And the creature effects by John Dods (who also did the effects for Don Dohler's immensely entertaining Nightbeast (1982)--a movie I've been meaning to review for ages!) are simply fantastic. Sure, there are some technical shortcomings and the expected sliding-scale acting, but it sets out to give the audience an icky fun time, and in that it more than succeeds.

As to the Blu-Ray presentation by Elite/MVD...well, I wish it were a little better. Whether due to the transfer or to the state of the source materials available, the picture here is somewhat less than hi-def. An improvement over a washed out VHS, sure, but just barely. There's a good amount of bonus materials. The commentary by Bohus and editor Marc Harwood is a hoot, as the two men clearly enjoy one another's company and love reminiscing about the film. We hear about technical triumphs, scheduling snafus, and tensions between McKeown and Dods which eventually led to McKeown's departure from the project and Dods stepping in as director. There's a gag reel, casing footage, trailer, TV spots, and more--more than enough for any Spawn fanatic.

In short, it's a great indie monster movie and worth adding to your collection, if you don't already have the DVD or are the sort of movie fan who just *has* to have everything on Blu-Ray.

Movie: 2.5 Thumbs
Disc: 2 thumbs


bruce holecheck said...

Once upon a time I had a few meetings with Ted Bohus about licensing this film -- it was to be one of the initial films for my DVD label (others we were in talks for included ATOMIC CAFE and DARKNESS). Synapse ended up offering the better deal, so the film went there, and unfortunately our money-men got cold feet over a few other aspects, so that was the end of that.

Word is the new Blu is simply an upconvert of the 2004 Synapse DVD! After being taken to task for it, Bohus has stated they're doing new, *real* hi-def tests from the original negative.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful flick from that golden early '80s period. Amazingly effective considering the budget!

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