From time to time, I plan to use this space to repurpose film reviews I wrote for several local independent newspapers during the previous decade:
THE OCTOPUS: 1999-2000
CU CITYVIEW: 2002
THE PAPER: 2003-2004
THE HUB: 2005-2006
During my tenure as a professional (re: paid) film critic, I wrote about both new releases and cult classics. The date provided below is the date the newspaper issue containing the review hit the streets.
This review has been slightly edited from the original published piece.
THE DEADLY SPAWN
Running Time 1:21
1983, Color, 16mm
Stars Tom DeFranco, Charles Hildebrand, Jean Tafler, Karen Tighe, and Richard Lee Porter
THE DEADLY SPAWN is homemade filmmaking at its most fun. It isn’t a great movie and certainly isn’t a great-looking movie. But it is a delightful example of what can happen when a group of friends with specialized filmmaking talents decide to band together and make the kind of movie they’d like to see.
Writer/director Douglas McKeown, special effects director John Dods, and executive producer Tim Hildebrand, well-known in fantasy circles for painting the iconic STAR WARS one-sheet with his twin brother Greg, teamed up every weekend for more than two years to shoot this labor of love, an entertaining low-budget homage to the creature features of the 1950s. Filming went on for so long that the camera is unable to disguise the growth spurt of its star, Charles Hildebrand (Tim’s son), who was eleven years old when production began and a gangly thirteen when he shot his final scenes.
A typical suburban New Jersey family awakens one rainy morning to discover alien spawn hatched from a crashed meteorite growing in their basement, chomping on everyone they encounter. Eleven-year-old Charles (Charles Hildebrand, in whose home much of THE DEADLY SPAWN was shot) is a misunderstood fan of monster movies who figures out how to stop the rampaging horde. Who says those late-night TV viewings of CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON could serve no useful purpose?
Fortunately for us, Charles doesn’t get his brainstorm until after the aliens have eaten most of his household and some of his brother Pete's (Tom DeFranco) friends. The whole film takes place within the same day, and includes a memorable massacre of a houseful of middle-aged vegetarian women who accidentally chop one of the spawn up in a blender.
Dods’ cool monster attacks are the best reason to see THE DEADLY SPAWN. Ranging from shadowy cardboard puppets (literally) to a full-size creature with rubber cement dripping off its teeth, the spawn may never look completely realistic, but their low-tech impact packs more of a punch than a whole kettle of modern CGI effects. By creating all of the monsters entirely on the set and allowing the actors to interact directly with them, McKeown and Dods are able to inject extra tension into the scary scenes, unlike in today's horror films where actors normally are looking at a green screen.
It's also fun to watch THE DEADLY SPAWN just to figure out how the filmmakers managed some of the special effects. They effectively mix miniatures, rear projections, forced perspective, puppets, fire effects (accidentally, when the spawn caught on fire during the shot), and other techniques, making the feature something of a training film for budding low-budget filmmakers. It's frequently gory (the spawn biting the face off one of its victims is an astonishing triumph of makeup effects), but never gross or offensive, mainly due to the lighthearted tone and the backyard nature of the production.
Filmed in 16mm (which was blown up to 35mm for its brief theatrical run) on a budget ranging from $18,000-$28,000 (there are several reported figures), THE DEADLY SPAWN still manages to resemble a professional film, despite a couple of sloppy performances, an out-of-focus shot or two, and one shot where the cameraman sticks his fingers into the lens. Despite its amateur pedigree, THE DEADLY SPAWN did play theatrically in 1983 as RETURN OF THE ALIENS: THE DEADLY SPAWN, as distributor 21st Century tried to fool people into thinking it was a sequel to ALIEN.