The Deadly Spawn (1983) Retrospective

SUMMARY

Two campers are nearby when a meteor falls to Earth. When they investigate, they are attacked and eaten by a bizarre life form that emerges from the crashed rock.

A house near the crash site is the home of Sam (James Brewster) and Barb (Elissa Neil), and their two children, college student and budding scientist Pete (Tom DeFranco) and his younger brother Charles (Charles George Hildebrandt), a monster movie fan. Visiting are Aunt Millie (Ethel Michelson) and Uncle Herb (John Schmerling). When a rainstorm sets in, Sam goes downstairs to check the basement for flooding and is eaten by the bizarre monstrosity. Barb suffers the same fate when she goes looking for him.

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Pete sets up a study date with classmates Ellen (Jean Tafler), Frankie (Richard Lee Porter), and Kathy (Karen Tighe). Uncle Herb, a psychologist, wants to investigate Charles’s interest in the macabre, and he holds a brief interview with the boy before he falls asleep in the living room. Aunt Millie heads over to her mother Bunny’s (Judith Mayes) house for a luncheon with her retired friends. When an electrician arrives to investigate a circuit breaker malfunction in the basement, Charles dons a costume and goes down to scare him. There, he discovers the basement is infested with slug-like creatures feasting on the electrician’s and his mother’s remains, guarded by their huge mother, the monster from the meteor crash. After realizing that the eyeless creatures react to sound, he stands silently, escaping his parents’ fate.

Meanwhile, Ellen and Frankie have discovered one of the tadpole creatures dead on the way over to the house, and deem it unlike any animal on Earth when they dissect it. Science fiction fan Frankie hypothesizes that the creature could be from outer space, but hard-nosed scientist Pete dismisses that theory. At Bunny’s house, Millie arrives and they prepare the luncheon, unaware that the spawn have infested the house. When her guests arrive, the spawn creatures emerge and attack them. The women fight back and manage to escape in Millie’s car.

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Back at the house, Pete, Ellen and Frankie seek out Uncle Herb to get his opinion on the creatures, only to find him being devoured by the spawn. As the adult creature emerges and charges them, they run upstairs to barricade themselves in Charles’s bedroom. Charles distracts the adult by turning on a radio, which it eats, causing an electrical fire which burns it. Pete and the others then see Kathy arriving and pull her into the bedroom just in time to save her from the beast. The teens decide to head for Pete’s bedroom, where there is a phone to call for help with, but as they emerge, the adult creature pounces on them. Pete flees to another room and from there onto the roof; Frankie and Kathy run up to the attic, while Ellen stays in Charles’ room. The creature easily breaks down the door, bites Ellen’s head off and devours her body. Peter returns through the attic window; but traumatized after seeing Ellen’s body, he becomes unhinged, fighting with Frankie to open the attic door, which attracts the creature.

Meanwhile, Charles has concocted a plan: he has filled a prop head with explosive flash powder, with a frayed electrical cord trailing behind to act as a fuse. He arrives in the attic before the creature can attack Peter and the others, spurring the creature into devouring the prop head. However, the cord proves too short to plug into an outlet. One of the spawn creatures appears and attacks Charles, but gets in the way of the adult when it lunges at Charles and ends up being eaten. Now that the monster is distracted and its mouth close enough, Charles manages to get to the outlet, igniting the powder and blowing up the adult.

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With the threat revealed, a massive hunt is mobilized. Policemen and townspeople go around killing the alien spawn and burning the remains. Millie returns to the house to care for Pete and Charles as best she can, while Frankie and Kathy are taken away in an ambulance. That night, a lone patrolman stands guard outside the house. His contact on the CB radio is confident that the spawn has been wiped out, but then the patrolman hears a low rumbling, and sees the hill by the house lift up, revealing a fully-grown spawn of colossal size.

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Back Story

For those who grew up as horror fans in the 1980s, invasions of killer monsters intent on devouring nubile young flesh were a popular stock in trade. With an entire generation of young filmmakers raised on the Cold War thematics and situations of alien invasion films of the ’50s and ’60s on TV, balanced with a steady intake of harder-edged violence and gore from late-’60s and early ’70s genre revolutionaries, the combination of creepy, icky things from out of this world and Tom Savini-style grue was a natural progression. Aliens weren’t just out to take over our planet or shoot you with ray guns—they wanted to eat you too, and in as messy a way as the budget would allow.

In terms of this combination, 1983’s The Deadly Spawn was a pioneer. Filmed on a shoestring budget around $25,000, the film tells the story of a houseful of people under assault from alien creatures breeding in the basement, which are basically mobile, worm like stalks terminating in giant mouths full of rows of razor-sharp teeth.

John Dods, who co-wrote the film’s original story and served as director of special effects, recalls the origin of the Deadly Spawn. “Ted Bohus, our producer, called me up one day,” says Dods, “and said, ‘Hey, let’s make ourselves a monster movie.’ The only problem we had at that point was, we didn’t have any money. But our friend Don Dohler in Baltimore had managed to finance and make a film called The Alien Factor, and had managed to sell it to television, and even make a profit. So Ted figured, and I agreed, why couldn’t we do the same thing?”

Neither Bohus nor Dods were entirely without experience at the project’s outset; in fact, Dods is quite well-known (famous, almost) among semi-pro filmmakers as the producer-director-writer-animator-designer of a series of short films featuring Grog, a delightfully primitive critter who was briefly featured in the TV special The Making of The Empire Strikes Back as an example of the stop-motion animator’s art. Bohus, a genuine SF fan and former fanzine publisher, may not have had much producing experience, but he did achieve the goal of procuring financing for the project, and he assembled a crew that included some of the best young film making talent in the East: Dods; makeup artist Arnold Gargiulo musician Ken Walker to score the film, along with Paul Cornell and Michael Perilstein; and renowned fantasy artist Tim Hildebrandt, who served as executive producer and made several special contributions to the film’s effects and designs.

The Deadly Spawn design by John Dods
The Deadly Spawn design by John Dods

While the acting and the directing of The Deadly Spawn is only passable at best the work of these four gentlemen make the film watchable-and even highly enjoyable, for those of us who like the idea of face-eating mutant creatures from out of space. For, in the time-honored tradition of low-budget monster cinema, the play is not the thing; the “Thing’ is the play. It is Dods’ hell-raising title creatures, and the havoc they raise in a New Jersey suburb, that gives this film its singular charm.

Dod’s first order of business was his collaboration with Bohus on a story, which served as a key tool in obtaining investors; this story was later fleshed out into a somewhat flabby screenplay by director Doug McKeown. Dod’s second task-and one that turned out quite a bit better–was the design and construction of the film’s highly unpleasant stars. “We wanted something really frightening,” says Dods, “and since this was over two years ago, we were probably a little influenced by Alien. I decided to give it a lot of teeth, because, to me, that says that it’s going to bite you. So taking that to an extreme, we gave it a whole lot of teeth-three heads full of them. We did a number of toothy sketches, discussed them with the director and so forth; I did one more version, which I later sculpted in clay, and that seemed to strike everyone as pretty awful in the right way.” The adult creature was built, along with various other required bits and pieces, over a two month period, by Dods with technician Greg Ramoundas.


Interview with Ted Bohus

Ted, how and when did The Deadly Spawn get started?

BOHUS: In October of 1980 extrapolated an idea from a news story I’d read. I imagined a dormant microbe or spore inside a meteor, which crashes in an isolated area (it had to be an isolated area, because the budget would not let us put it down in New York City!), comes alive and starts eating everything in sight. Eventually it ends up in a family’s basement and starts producing, or should I say, reproducing various sized offspring. The “tooth-heads” eventually invade the house, and the surrounding area.

How are the spawn finally destroyed?

BOHUS: Wait a minute now…I can’t tell you that! But I will say that the young boy in the film (played by Tim Hildebrandt’s son), finds a way to destroy some of them.

Deadly Spawn is an independent production. How did you find backers to finance the film?

BOHUS: A friend of mine is studying to become a doctor. He and a few other friends put up the initial starting money. Since then Tim and Rita Hildebrandt and another friend have become involved.

How did you meet the Hildebrandts?

BOHUS: I met Tim and Greg Hildebrandt at a convention about four years ago. We started talking about painting, science fiction films, Disney and how we are all still 15 years old. Actually, after the first meeting, I only stayed in contact with Tim and Rita. Periodically we all got together to watch films or talk. When I mentioned the film to Tim and that we were scouting locations he said, “Hey I’ve got an idea! Why don’t you use our house?” So we did. And we used his son too! And Rita, and the neighbors.

How did Charles Hildebrandt get the part of the young boy?

BOHUS: Well he didn’t get the part just because he was Tim’s son. Charles is a natural actor. No fear in front of the camera whatsoever.

Back to the Hildebrandts. Is Greg also involved in this film project? I thought the Hildebrandt Brothers always did everything together.

BOHUS: No. Tim and Rita are the only Hildebrandts involved in this project. Tim and Greg have split up and gone their separate ways. I think that the Clash of the Titans poster was their last work together.

What about the new Atlantis calendar?

BOHUS: That was also done before the split.

Artistic differences?

BOHUS: I think Tim wants to get more heavily into filmmaking at this point.

Will Tim be doing the poster for The Deadly Spawn?

BOHUS: I think so. He’s already done up a few roughs-I’d like something with a 50’s look.

You mean Big Monster and Girl in Trouble?

BOHUS: Exactly! Tim’s also working on a miniature for the film.

How did you locate the actors?

BOHUS: All the actors and actresses are professionals- put ads in the New York trade papers asking for actors willing to work for a small percentage, and described the parts.

How many responses did you get?

BOHUS: Well, I expected about 60, but got over 400! Some from as far away as Miami! | Weeded them down to about 100. Then I took the resumes to our Director, Doug McKeown, and our Effects Director John Dods. We narrowed them down to 50. Gave 40 screen tests and picked 12 people.

You mentioned Director and Effects Director. Do these people also work on a percentage?

BOHUS: Everyone on this film is working on a percentage.

How did you find them?

BOHUS: John Dods, I’ve known for many years. He’s mainly known for animating the Grog cartoons, but I brought him in to work on all parts of the film, not just the effects.

Ted Bohus' original concept art for the main creature.
Ted Bohus’ original concept art for the main creature.

Did he design the creatures in the film?

BOHUS: We both had ideas about what the “Spawn” should look like…possibly three or more snake-like heads, plenty of teeth, slimy. I was trying to design something with a man in a suit but John said no, it would be better just to have this enormous form with heads and teeth. A big mechanical creature. He went off and a few days later brought over some designs. We went through them and rejected some. He went off again and this time hit it right on the head.

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Who is directing?

BOHUS: Doug McKeown is a filmmaker that John Dods knew for many years. He recommended him for the job.

What about the crew?

BOHUS: Lighting, sound, construction, all the crew except for our Director of Photography are local guys I’ve known for years. They’ve been making films since high school.

How long have you been in production?

BOHUS: About eight months.

You kept a crew and actors together for eight months?

BOHUS: We love making movies.

What do you hope to do with the film after it’s finished? Do you have any leads at this time?

BOHUS: A few. Most companies are waiting for the entire film to be rough cut. There’s a booming market out there these days, with HBO going 24 hours, overseas sales and a lot of new countries getting into the movie market. Plus video tapes and discs.

So the film has a pretty good chance of being sold quickly.

BOHUS: If it’s a good product, it’ll sell’ fast:

Do you sell a company all rights or can you sell it yourself overseas and to HBO?

BOHUS: That depends. I can sell the film outright for one sum and they can sell it to the other markets. Or if you have a lot of contacts you can sell it yourself.

Each market can be a different deal then?

BOHUS: Yes.

After this film is sold would you like to get right into another one?

BOHUS: Yes, of course. I’d like to show the film companies what we can do with a low budget and hope they would back us on the next project. Don’t forget, we have everything right here. We create the stories, write the screenplay, do storyboards, artwork, special effects, music, the whole thing! We can turn in a finished product completely on our own.

Do you think that the major companies will like that?

BOHUS: We want to make a good product, an entertaining film, for a decent budget and make a name for ourselves. If what we’re doing is good we’ll get lots of work.

What do you think of The Deadly Spawn? Is it a good film?

BOHÚS: I think it’s a good, fast paced, entertaining film. The science fiction, horror, thriller, whatever you want to call them, films of today (with few exceptions) are too slow. If you’re going to the movies to get scared or see monsters you have to wait through twenty minutes of baloney to get to see fifteen seconds of effects.

I know what you mean, some films drag on and on and center everything around one or two effects scenes, while the rest of the

film is totally boring.

BOHUS: Exactly!

Do you have any other projects in the works?

BOHUS: Yes, I’d like to work with John and Tim on a project called Bing’s Thing. It’s a science fiction musical comedy-horror film. (Chuckle) Also, I’m getting treatments ready for four other films. One’s a U.F.O. story with a twist. One’s a science-fantasy. Another is similar to Journey to the Center of the Earth, and explains Big Foot and U.F.O.’s.

When do you expect to have The Deadly Spawn finished?

BOHUS: I hope within two to three months.  

 

Tim Hildebrandt paints the artwork for the Deadly Spawn poster.
Tim Hildebrandt paints the artwork for the Deadly Spawn poster.


An Interview with Tim Hildebrandt

The Hildebrandt name is one that is usually associated with the big Hollywood megabuck spectaculars such as Star Wars and Clash of the Titans. How did you come to be involved with The Deadly Spawn which is a modestly budgeted horror/thriller?

Tim Hildebrandt: Well, I’m a personal friend of the producer Ted Bohus and the special effects director John Dods. When they began work on The Deadly Spawn I was caught up in their enthusiasm for the project and wanted to have something to do with it.

What is your function on The Deadly Spawn?

Tim Hildebrandt: Well right now I’m building a “mystery set” outside in my barn in conjunction with John Dods. It’s a miniature landscape but it involves something that the producer doesn’t want revealed as yet.

How is a low budget film able to afford building even a miniature set?

Tim Hildebrandt: We’re low budget by Holly-wood standards certainly but you can still get good results without spending a lot of money. I did a 3M Company TV commercial which involved building miniatures. To give you an idea of what Hollywood people want to do this kind of work, John Dykstra wanted, I believe, somewhere in the vicinity of a couple hundred thousand dollars to pull off an effect that actually could be pulled off for $5,000-$10,000 at the most.

It’s been said that when you have a lot of money, there is a tendency to do things in the least efficient way!

Tim Hildebrandt: Exactly! If you go back to the old Hollywood days and the old serials such as Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers some of those effects men were told the night before that they had to have certain effects or sets ready. They would look around and see what they had in the way of available materials: a football helmet would become a space helmet. To make something out of nothing that to me is more fun than having a lot of paraphernalia at your disposal.

So on The Deadly Spawn you rely more on ingenuity and resourcefulness than on mega-bucks?

Tim Hildebrandt: That’s it in a nutshell.

People associate the name Hildebrandt mostly with fantasy illustration, The Lord of the Rings calendars, for example, but your involvement with film goes way back.

Tim Hildebrandt: It began in my parent’s garage when I was a teenager, 1954 or thereabouts after having seen War of the Worlds by George Pall was slightly impressed by the special effects. My brother Greg and I took eight months to build a miniature city—like the one in the film. This was when we were in high school. We’d come home at night in the middle of winter and spend hours making detailed windows and carving bricks in the plaster walls. Then we blew it up using powdered magnesium, filming it in slow motion on an old Keystone regular 8 movie camera. A couple of scenes were used by the Jam Handy organization as part of a film on the San Francisco earthquake. Jam Handy is an industrial film producer and I worked for them primarily doing cell animation. I never actually wanted to be an illustrator. My prime objective was to be an animator for Walt Disney.

You sound as though you’re well known ventures into fantasy illustration have been a diversion from your main passion.

Tim Hildebrandt: Yes, actually, I look at it that way. You asked before why I got involved in The Deadly Spawn. I just wanted to get my hands into a film; I wanted to make something to hold onto a camera light, to be part of it, somehow.

You and your wife Rita are functioning as executive producers on the film.

Tim Hildebrandt: Which, simply put, means we put money into the film.

Your son Charles has a featured role in The Deadly Spawn.

Tim Hildebrandt: Let me tell you about my son Charles . . . he kills the monster! Charles plays a 12 year old horror film buff who likes to frighten people by appearing in a puff of smoke (powdered magnesium) as a monster. At the climax of the film Charles feeds the monster a “head” full of powdered magnesium and blows it to pieces.

You allowed your house to be used as a location for some sequences in The Deadly Spawn. What is it like to have a film crew marching in and out of your house carrying equipment—and monsters up and down stairs?

Tim Hildebrandt: I enjoyed it—being around all that activity. It was a very messy film. The monster is coated with thick slime before every take and there’s lots of blood in the film. One scene involved the Uncle who is discovered in a room infested with little spawns who are chewing him to pieces. I had a white carpet in that room, but needless to say, it had a lot of red in it by the end of the shoot. The company we took it to for cleaning did a double take when they saw it.

Did anything amusing happen during the shooting?

Tim Hildebrandt: Well, I saw the director pull his hair out a few times—I thought that only happened in the movies!

What are your other current projects?

Tim Hildebrandt: Well, I consider The Deadly Spawn to be my prime project. But I’m also doing two books with my wife. One is the “Fantasy Cookbook” to be published by Bobs Merril Company. And we’re doing an adult picture book on Merlin the Magician. I’m also discussing other projects with the TSR people—they’re very good to work for.

Would you like to be involved with film in the future?

Tim Hildebrandt: Yes, in the area of production design, in creating the look of the film. I like to build miniature sets—and I’ve always wanted to do a matte painting.

 

Douglas McKeown and Mother Spawn
Douglas McKeown and Mother Spawn


Director/screenwriter Douglas McKeown

A bio of you says you started a theater in your house at age 9.

DOUGLAS McKEOWN: When I was in sixth grade, I did a makeup inspired by The Curse of Frankenstein. There were maybe 15 people sitting in the basement facing a table I was lying on with a sheet over me, and on cue I sat up, the sheet slipped off my face and a kid in the audience screamed, “Shit!” and fell off his stool. Well, that did it; I was hooked. I can still see the expression on his face. So I kept making plays about monsters, and shanghaied kids from the neighborhood to be in them even my mother had to step in once at the last minute and suit up as the Monster for my spin on Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. Guess who played the Wolf Man! That show ended with a castle cave in that caused so much smoke and dust, the audience had to flee up the steps to keep from choking to death

My other extracurricular activities included showing off severed fingers in boxes or staging bloody stabbings and murders by the side of the road for the benefit of passing motorists. I was privately doing more and more realistic makeups and sneaking out after dark to make “appearances.” I know there are grown adults out there who still have nightmares about their childhood run-ins with a growling, hairy creature running past an open window or a maniac in a cape jumping off a roof, or some shapeless thing they couldn’t quite make out scratching at the back door. When I was 17, I filmed myself as the Phantom of the Opera on 8mm, and sort of turned quasi-professional. I got a makeup scholarship in college and started designing makeups for the theater department’s productions while majoring in English and studying film,

What, spawned The Deadly Spawn?

McKEOWN: In 1980, I was directing a play at the Bouwerie Lane Theatre in New York when I got a call from John Dods, whom I had known for a long time. He said he’d met a guy at one of the horror conventions, Ted Bohus, and they were thinking of making a horror/sci-fi-type movie, and would I be interested in joining them? John and I had worked together in the 1970s; I’d enlisted him to create some effects for a house of horrors I designed at the Jersey Shore boardwalk, and before that he’d helped me create animated titling for a documentary film I made with students. We’d also worked together on successful stage productions for the high school I taught at. During our first meeting out in New Jersey, the two guys told me they were going to be co-directors of the film, but they needed someone to “direct the actors.” I said I’d never heard of a job directing only the actors, so I said no. However, I would be willing to take on the job of sole director of the film. So we agreed to that: Dods would direct the effects, Bohus would produce and I would direct.

Then, when I found out they had no script, treatment or storyline beyond “a monster comes from space and eats people.” I said I would also have to write the screenplay, or it was no deal. They also agreed to this-a little reluctantly, I thought. The three of us would collaborate on the story, but I would do the script.

Could you give us some primary inspirations behind the creature design?

McKEOWN: We talked about Alien and Jaws and used the term “eating machine” a lot-a creature that was mostly teeth. The “mother spawn,” as we started calling it—or her-gradually took shape in Dods’ basement studio in New Brunswick. The creature prop looked amazing even before it had any flesh on it. This was all Dods’ work, topped off later with a luridly detailed paint job by Tim Hildebrandt. In fact, you could say Dods was the mother spawn, he was so intensely into his creation. I even overheard him talking to it once when he thought no one was around.

The ’80s had a lot of independent, low- to middling-budget monster films, but The Deadly Spawn is pretty intensely gory for when it came out. Was that always the intent, or just a happy accident?

McKEOWN: Let’s call it happy intent. At one of our early production meetings, we discussed going for an R rating, because in the low-budget arena it would actually be a draw rather than a drawback, and we wanted to make as big a splash as possible. Nudity was suggested, but I nixed it. I think it’s always ridiculous and obvious that whenever characters are about to be carved up in a movie, they happen to strip down and get in the shower first. I thought, why not extreme violence? I actually said, “Let’s rip the mother’s face off.”

Now, I personally was not a big fan of bloody, gory movies—which is surprising, I know, given my predilections as a child. It’s just that I had come to appreciate mood, atmosphere, subtlety in movies suggested terrors more than overt ones. But this project definitely called for going as far as possible-taking the audience over the top beyond disgust, to actual laughter even. A big laugh in the theater can be as potent and as valid a release as a scream. I definitely -heard those kinds of laughs when The Deadly Spawn played in 1983. Especially in the vegetarian luncheon scene, which has been called “disturbing” and “hilarious” at the same time.

There’s an interesting contrast between the two lead brothers, in that one is a scientific rationalist and the other, much younger boy engages in imaginative escapism via horror films and nostalgia. Was this a planned-out element of the film?

McKEOWN: Planned. Charles is the brave and resourceful hero, the one who stands in for me as a kid with horror-movie obsessions. He just lives contentedly with horror all the time in his own little world. The hero idea came from one of those nights when I was 11 or 12, running through the woods done up as the Wolf Man, and had a revelation. Here I was in full makeup, hair glued on my face, fangs, the works, and I suddenly realized that I was completely unafraid of the dark, or of being alone or anything at all, really. And that was because I was the monster. I understood monsters from the inside. Of course, I knew I couldn’t invest the character of Charles with all the details from my life. I was hoping the audience would get the idea that this little imaginative world of his had actually prepared him for the challenges he was about to face.

I wanted the older brother, Pete, to be locked up in his own narrow paradigm, and his relationship with Charles-teasing his younger brother about the monsters-to find its equivalent in the more adult verbal sparring he was going to have later on with Ellen. She turns out to be open to the more imaginative possibilities of life; they inspire her scientific curiosity. Pete, on the other hand, is completely closed to the imagination, science to him being a cold, inflexible discipline. I figured their opposite outlooks would make the sparks fly between them. Too bad their kissing scene comes on so abruptly in the final film. It was supposed to be better set up by a scene we had shot first that had them sort of flirting with each other. Somebody made the decision later, when I wasn’t on board, to cut that out. I keep talking about how much was planned, and it’s true, but you can only plan so much. The biggest x factor is always the individual actors’ performances and personalities. They bring indefinable values that nobody can plan for, and I couldn’t have been happier.

A huge isolative element in the plot is the fact that, until the end, the house is basically stormbound. How hard was it to plan around the weather during shooting?

McKEOWN: I had the idea from the start that it would be raining all through the film for a couple of reasons. I thought the mama creature from the meteorite would thrive on Earth right away, growing quickly as soon as it rained, because, like all life, it flourished in water. And then its offspring would flourish and grow and proliferate like the brooms and buckets in [Fantasia’s] The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. And plot wise, I figured a lot of rain could mean a flooded cellar, so there’d be a good reason to bring the doomed parents down there at the outset.

Douglas McKeown
Douglas McKeown

But the main purpose for the rain was technical. I knew that with our low-to-no budget, it would be extremely hard to maintain a convincing continuity in clothing, settings, lighting, etc., especially if we would be shooting piecemeal over the weeks and months. So I thought that if we made it one long rainstorm, a real rainy day all through the film, we could have that steady drumbeat of ambient sound on the soundtrack, and that would help convince the audience subconsciously that everything was happening on the same day.” And if it shouldn’t happen to rain on a day we were scheduled to shoot, well, how hard would it be, I asked myself, to point a garden hose at the scene for exterior shots, or simply aim it against the outside of a window when we shot the interiors?

As it turned out, it was annoyingly hard to do. It so happened that in the winter of 1980-81, New Jersey experienced probably the worst drought on record. Here I was making a film with rain all through it, and it never rained. It actually became illegal to use garden hoses, so someone was always keeping a lookout for the cops during scenes like the one where Pete is up on the roof in the-fake-rain.

How did the Hildebrandts come to be involved in the movie’s production?

McKEOWN: Tim was already on board as an executive producer, I think. Once I came up with a story centering on a family, he offered his house as the main location-although I’m not sure his wife Rita knew what they were in for! And when I met his son Charles, I realized a major casting problem was solved. Not only was Charles the right age [for the character bearing his name) and very intelligent, he was psyched for it—and he would be no trouble getting to the set in the morning, since he actually lived there; he just had to wake up and get in costume. A very lucky break! Tim was incredibly easy to work alongside, understanding and patient and just all-around great to spend time with. Not to mention that his extraordinary artistry added immeasurably to the look of the creatures and the film as a whole.

What have you been up to since The Deadly Spawn?

McKEOWN: Oh, life after The Deadly Spawn has gone on just as before, with me collaborating on stage shows by directing or designing and making props, costumes and scenery, taping short documentary videos and writing scenes, sketches, the books to musicals, short stories, even a nightclub comedy act at one time. And then there’s acting, which I still do from time to time. First and foremost, though, I’m a filmmaker, and I would like nothing better than to direct another feature. Stranger things have happened.

After all these years, what’s your perspective on The Deadly Spawn?

McKEOWN: That’s exactly how it is, a perspective of many years. In some ways, the film is like one of NASA’s Mars rovers—supposed to do a limited job for a limited time, but then, amazingly, turned out to have this incredible staying power. Put another way, I sometimes feel like the parent of a wayward child who grew up. You know, when she was young she screwed up, disappointed me, got in with the wrong crowd, but then over time she proved her worth, was admired and loved by the outside world. I finally had to stop threatening to disown her. And now I really appreciate her best qualities instead of fixating on all her flaws, which is what I used to do. The flaws were really mine, anyway. And of course, I don’t forget that I wasn’t her only parent!

An Interview with John Dods

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An Interview with John Dods

How did you come to be involved with The Deadly Spawn?

DODS: Well, it was a fairly simple turn of events. My friend Ted Bohus called me up one day and said, “Let’s make a monster movie!” That seemed like a good idea to me so we did it. I’ve known Ted for years and we worked on the (uncompleted) film Nightbeast together. Ted wanted me to be in charge of the special effects.

You are known primarily as the creator/animator of the Grog film series. Will there be any stop motion in The Deadly Spawn?

DODS: We had assumed from the beginning that some stop motion would be necessary to create Spawn locomotion. As it worked out I devised “live action mechanicals” that everyone seems very happy with. It looks real, and avoiding stop motion enabled us to use fluids. The baby “Spawns” are seen swimming around in the flooded basement of the house in the film. There’s also a lot of blood in Deadly Spawn. It’s hard to make fluids look convincing in the stop motion process.

What kind of special effects will we see in Spawn?

DODS: Most of the effects are on the set mechanicals. Simple puppetry was used for many of the shots-manual manipulation of the various sized models from beneath a specially prepared surface. For example, if a spawn is seen on the floor of the basement we had to build a false floor, flood it with water, and conceal the mechanism through a hole in the surface. Sometimes we had eight people lying flat on their backs making the spawn babies “act” their roles. If a spawn had to appear on a chair we would have to get a chair and wreck it-putting holes in it through which spawn controls could be concealed; that kind of thing. The mama spawn is just a big elaborate puppet that is mobilized by six crew members-one for each body part and another to propel it forward on a tracking system. We have some pyrotechnics in the film which Tim Hildebrandt helped us work out. There is a neat effect involving a miniature set that I’m not allowed to talk about. We have a lot of blood effects where we had to mechanically pump fluid through body parts. I’ve always had an ambition to create a monster that wasn’t an obvious “man in a rubber suit,” so from the very beginning designs for the spawns were far from human. I did a series of drawings and we all picked the one we liked the best.

Is it restricting to work within the confines of a low budget film?

DODS: I suppose so but I’ve never worked any other way! We’ve stretched every dollar to the limit and all of it is on the screen. I’m working with a very resourceful group of people. We could make an expensive looking film with the money that Dino DeLaurentiis spends on stationery. I know that our effects budget would be around $100,000 if we had done this film in any kind of conventional way—and I don’t think we’ve spent that much. On the entire picture.

Do you feel that the Deadly Spawn is different than the current crop of low budget thrillers?

DODS: I know that it’s different. We designed it to be different. The Deadly Spawn is presented in the manner of putting on a show, or like a tour through a chamber of horrors. We show the audience series of exhibits in a theatrical manner in the context of a story that resolves itself in a very satisfactory way.

What would you like to do after The Deadly Spawn is completed?

DODS: Work on another film with Filmline Communications, make another Grog puppet film, finish illustrating a children’s book I have been working on.  

Dods’ title, as director of special effects, is one to be taken literally-virtually all of the scenes involving monsters and effects were directed by Dods, following his storyboards. In fact, Bohus’ first plan called for Dods and Bohus to collaboratively direct the film themselves. “I was reluctant, at the time,” he recalls. “Though I’ve directed stop-motion films, I’ve never worked with actors, and you see so many low-budget films that are hurt by bad acting, so I was insistent that we get someone who’d had experience working with actors.” The choice of McKeown, who has directed for the New York stage as part of the Jean Cocteau Repertory Theater, did not exactly eliminate that problem, however. Dods now doubts that he would be so reluctant the second time around. Dods does, however, work singularly well with the monsters of Deadly Spawn. One of his primary concerns was the manner of locomotion used by the various critters. “The mother spawn was herself relatively limited in movement,” Dodds says, “but that was okay-she’s supposed to be a huge, lumbering 3,000-pound thing. Her slow movements make sense, so we avoided a whole lot of technical problems right there.”

spawnshadow

The film does open with a sequence that shows, in silhouette, the adult monster undergoing rapid growth, shortly after killing a pair of campers; simultaneously, various inhuman schlurping sounds are heard on the soundtrack, as it consumes its human meal (“‘Every sound you hear the monster make came from my mouth,” Dods reveals). The manner in which the illusion was accomplished is one of the simplest tricks we’ve ever come across Using shadow puppetry, monster shaped cardboard cutouts back-lit against a wall.

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Yet another sequence shows one of the repulsive-yet-somehow cute baby spawn wiggling through bloody basement waters with the speed of a frightened lizard. “Every monster movie should have one long shot of the monster, showing its method of locomotion,” says Dods, “and so many don’t have that-they try to get by with fast cutting, or some other technique, to give you the impression of having seen an entire creature in motion. Since my background is in stop-motion, I was planning to use that in order to get such a shot. Using a jigsaw, I cut an S-shaped, repeating wave form, a sort of curved slot. I then mounted a flexible, foam rubber baby spawn on a piece of plastic, and was going to shoot that in stop motion, travelling in that S-shaped curve; but then we found that, if you simply pulled it along in that slot, it traveled in a very lifelike, wiggling fashion, so we wound up shooting it in live action. That way, we could also have it speeding through the water on the basement floor-water is just about impossible to animate.” 000002 (2) The swimming spawn, and many of the other effects of The Deadly Spawn, were entirely originated by the effects crew; few were specially called for by McKeown’s script. “Arnold Gargiulo was particularly good at coming up with things,” says Dods. “For instance, it was indicated that the monster would attack Ellisa Niel in the face, but it was figured we’d simply track in, through the monster’s point of view, and then pull back to reveal the damage. Arnold came up with much more than he was asked for in several cases; in that scene, he did something I hadn’t seen before-a two-layered makeup, with a normal-looking appliance, which the monster rips away to reveal some pretty gruesome work underneath it.” More contributions above and beyond the call of etcetera came from Tim Hildebrandt-including the contribution of his own little spawn, son Charles, as the film’s youthful hero. Wife Rita Hildebrandt served in various capacities as well, including the provision of her own recipe for monster saliva-a concoction achieved by mixing water and corn starch and boiling it down to a syrupy goo. Hildebrandt’s contributions to the effects are seen in the very beginning and end of the film, in the depiction of the spawn’s arrival on earth, and of its final (unless there’s a sequel) appearance. The Hildebrandts even sacrificed the attic of their home, which was transformed into a blood and-debris-spattered mess after the filming of a crucial confrontation scene.

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BABY SPAWNS

When a deadly spawn reaches a certain growth stage it reproduces. Before the movie is half over we introduce several dozen new characters into the story: rapidly growing baby monsters. In clay, I sculpted four small creatures each representing a baby spawn in a different stage of growth. These ranged from six inches to three feet in length. Molds were made of the sculptures using a mix of 50% Hydrocal and 50% Ultracal; these are plaster-like materials that yield molds much harder than ordinary casting plaster. This extra hardness was needed to insure mold durability during the repeated use the five molds were subjected to to produce over 50 constructions.

MV5BZmFjOGQ0ZTItYjQ4OC00MDM5LWFhYjgtNTIzYWIwYzE3MDI5XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMjIzMDUyMA@@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1295,1000_AL_ R&D brand oven-cured foamed latex was used to produce most of the smaller spawn babies. The plaster molds were greased with caster oil or rubber mask grease paint (which I like better because unlike caster oil you can make about three positives without regreasing). The liquid foam-frothed with an electric mixer-was poured into each mold cavity to the point of overflowing and the mold halves were closed tightly. The excess foam came out through a large hold in the mold’s underside. This method never resulted in the air pockets commonly associated with injection processes. The largest mold was over three feet long and would not fit into my oven. So a (more expensive) Isofoam “cold foam” process was used for this. This is a two part system that begins to foam by chemical action after parts A and B are vigorously mixed together for about 20 seconds. Effects assistant Sharon Levine and I mixed a series of small batches and gradually filled the large mold cavities almost to the brim. Then a final large batch was mixed, poured quickly, and the mold closed just as the foam was beginning to expand to fill the remaining space. In this process, the mold is not only greased conventionally, but is also coated with a layer of liquid latex “skin” before any cold foam is poured. This provides a smooth surface to the model (the cold foam alone has a very coarse texture) and keeps the cold foam from adhering to the plaster. After the foam babies were produced, the teeth and mechanics were inserted; certain areas were hollowed out of the foam using scissors and tweezers. Super glue proved to be a good adherent between the rubber lips and the plastic teeth.

SPAWN ANIMATION

From the beginning of the production the method for getting the baby spawns to move was undecided. Most of the effects shots required the spawns to remain in one spot-chewing on body parts usually; this action was accomplished through simple puppetry. But the problem of spawn locomotion remained unsolved for some time. Because of my previous experience with stop motion (the Grog series of film shorts) this animation technique seemed to be a real possibility-yet eventually I decided against it. Unexpectedly, found a better solution to the problem. I constructed a plywood surface into which I cut a repeating “wiggle” pattern with a jigsaw. I slit open the underside of a small foam rubber spawn and sewed into it a flexible plastic insert; this protruded from the underside of the model and fit into the plywood track. I had intended to move the spawn bit by bit along the track and create the illusion of movement through the stop motion process. I soon realized, though, that this was not necessary. By lubricating the track with Vaseline and pulling the spawn with a nylon cord I had created the effect we needed. It looked real Hiding the track then became easy. In The Deadly Spawn there is water in the basement where the spawns are breeding; leakage from the thunderstorm raging outside the house covers the floor. I simply made the water (opaque with dirt and “blood”) deep enough to submerge the numerous tracks and we had another set of successful constructions: mobile spawns.

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PLASTIC FLESH

During The Deadly Spawn some scientifically oriented teenagers find a dead baby spawn and decide to dissect it in an effort to figure out what it is. For this sequence a construction had to be made out of a fleshy/jelly-like material that could be cut with a razor blade. After some unsuccessful experiments with alginate material found a supplier of Plastisol—the same material used to make artificial bait and those wiggly spiders seen in novelty shops. Plastisol comes as a white liquid that turns clear when heated on a stove for a few minutes; pigments can be added at this stage to color the Plastisol as desired. I poured pigmented Plastisol into two greased plaster mold halves and quickly closed them together; more Plastisol was poured in through a hole in the mold’s bottom half. After cooling (about one hour in a freezer) the Plastisol had set and was removed from the mold. Permanent Magic Markers were the only form of colorant I have found that will adhere to Plastisol once it has cooled to a solid state, but these do work quite well. Plastisol again proved invaluable when we needed a shot of a human head being eaten by baby spawns—chunks of flesh were to be pulled off the face by the greedy extraterrestrials. The Deadly Spawn makeup supervisor Arnold Garguilo prepared a mold from the face of the actress whose head was to appear to be consumed. I poured a one quarter inch thick layer of Plastisol into Arnold’s mold to produce a positive “face.” This was super glued onto an appropriately gory plastic skull and a realistic glass eye was inserted. The face was made up with rubber mask and conventional type grease paints.

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THE MOTHER SPAWN

Building the mother spawn began with the sculpture of hundreds of teeth using a material called Sculpey. Sculpey is a lot like clay but when you bake it in an oven (15 minutes at 250°) it hardens. The hardened teeth-ranging in size from 5 inches long to as tiny as a pencil point-were pressed into the gums of three clay spawn skulls. I then had to duplicate the toothy creations in hard plastic so they would be more durable. Many layers of thick mold-making rubber were applied to the sculptures over a 10 day period. Before removal, the resulting molds were heat treated in a 300° oven for 20 minutes. Rubber that has not been heat-treated vulcanized) in this way can be stretched out of shape permanently; vulcanized rubber will always remember” its original form and return to it. The molds were removed from the sculptures and scrubbed clean with acetone. Positives were made using Jet Dental Acrylic color #6 (the color most popular with dentists according to the salesman). This plastic material was applied to the insides of the molds in small sections—the fast hardening liquid being worked into the points of the deep mold cavities with a fine wire. I reinforced this thin covering with (cheaper) polyester resin—the kind available at auto body shops with chopped fiberglass mixed into it. Tooth polish and a scrub brush made the teeth shine. The mother spawn was controlled like a puppet by as many as six people situated low to the ground in back of the construction. The operators were hidden by darkness, camera cut-off, and the bulk of the monster. One operator rode inside of the structure manipulating one or both of the side heads. Others worked the main head, arms, and body movement. The substructure of the mother spawn looks like somebody had some fun with an erector set; it provides the needed support and control for the heads. The weight of the heads was counterbalanced with springs; gentle pressure would move the heads and necks forward and backward. The jointed mouths would open and close through manipulation of a hand control which also governed the head tilt. In The Deadly Spawn the mother creature moves almost in slow motion (kind of like a giant slug), its speed held in check by inertia and its own massive weight. The entire structure moved on wheels that fit into a tracking system constructed from plumbers’ PVC tubing. This provided the very smooth movement we needed. The monster’s skin was built up on top of the metal skeleton in layers. Half-inch foam sheeting was cut and stapled together to form the basic shape. Refinements were added using paper toweling soaked in thick latex mold-making rubber. Fans and hair dryers speeded the drying process. The spawn was painted with latex base wall paint with about 30-40% liquid latex added in order to keep the paint from cracking and peeling as the skin moved and flexed. During the shooting the mother spawn had to be “made up” before every take. Spawns are very slimey. Initial experiments with children’s toy store variety slime gave way to a combination of mineral oil and rubber cement. This looked good but the oil rotted the rubber and the rubber cement was a nightmare to clean up. Executive producer Rita Hildebrandt suggested that we try thickening plain water with corn starch; this produced the best looking slime of all and at 65¢ per gallon it was super economical too (rubber cement costs about $20.00 per gallon).

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THE FINALE

It was a real problem. How were we going to create the biggest effect of the entire production without any money, well hardly any money? It was near the end of the filming on The Deadly Spawn when Executive Producer Tim Hildebrandt and Producer Ted Bohus had their brainstorm. They wanted to cap the film with a shot showing just how big the ever growing deadly spawns really can get as big as a mountain. Dino D’Laurentis might have spent a couple of million dollars on a mountain-sized construction, but with less than $500.00 to spend we had to think small. So, naturally. we built a miniature Tim Hildebrandt’s production drawing for the shot was our guide during construction as well as our inspiration to do the work necessary to make it happen on film. Tim’s teenage experience as a miniature landscape builder, as well as his more recent work on the 3M TV commercial (the one with the futuristic looking cityscapes), was instrumental in realizing the drawing, Tim in fact did all the landscape detailing himself. The rest of our effects crew for this shot included Glenn Takakjian who built the house, Frank Balsamo-cinematographer. Greg Ramundas-Deadly Spawn chief effects technician, and Robert R. Bohus. As usual, it was my job to build the monster.

BUILDING THE SET

Before doing any actual construction we cut shapes out of cardboard representing various proposed set elements. When viewed through the camera, these helped us to determine how big and how deep we would have to make the set in order to get the depth of field we wanted. This turned out to be about 10 feet wide by 15 feet deep, Plywood cutouts then replaced the cardboard so that the set would have a sturdy substructure Chicken wire covered the plywood and was shaped to Create the basic topography of the landscape. The chicken wire was covered with paper toweling and a low budget substitute for plaster cement. A V-inch thickness provided the strength needed. Chunks of burnt coal from the Hildebrandt’s coal stove were pressed into the cement to form cliffsides and other rocky looking areas. Coal dust from the same source and flocking-applied with a flour sifter-created areas of texture and color. Lichen Spongy fungus growth was used to simulate areas of vegetation and the treetops. Lichen can be purchased where toy train accessories are sold, though it can be found growing naturally in places having good air quality imported a hefty bad full of it about $300.00 worth) on my way back from a trip to Ontario, Canada. Trees were made of real tree branch endings–sometimes bunched together and taped along the “trunk” section before being painted. A road was cut out of roofing paper and cemented into place. The gravel at the side of the road was kitty litter Glenn Takakjian’s efforts in producing a scaled miniature house topped that of everyone else on the crew combined. Working 4 5 hours a day for 6 weeks. Glen produced a highly detailed accurate miniature version of the Deadly Spawns primary location; a house. Glen began by taking many photos of the house he was to copy: long shots and many close ups of detailing. The construction began with the assembly of a corrugated cardboard framework with holes being cut wherever windows were needed Proportions were determined by studying the photos. Floor by floor, the cardboard substructure was covered with balsawood “siding” using Elmer’s glue as an adhesive. The window frames were also made of balsa with molding detail being hand carved using an exacto knife. This was sanded with fine grade emory cloth. Clear plastic was placed behind the windows to simulate glass. The large vertical posts of the downstairs porch were purchased from a doll house supplier and modified using an electric Dremel tool. The “gingerbread ornamentation was reconstructed from parts of a doll house gate each “S shaped unit being made of 4 plastic pieces that had been cut glued, and sanded. The smaller posts as well as the rest of the porch construction were simply hand carved using an exacto knife and a great deal of care. The completed porch construction was coated with a plastic spray in order to smooth over and hide the grain texture of the balsa wood. The plastic surface also made it possible to use instant bonding Crazy Glue as an adhesive instead of the slow drying Elmer’s. The chimney was a balsa wood box covered with ordinary wall spackle Bricks were carved into the dry spackle using the end of small rattail file. Covering the cardboard tool with 1,200 shingles was the most time consuming part of the project. Each shingle was individually cut from thin cardboard and glued into place; the completed house was painted with acrylic paints.

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THE MONSTER

In the shot we were planning the monster or monster head-had to first look like a distant mountain, and then to rise upwards, tilt up, and open its mouth Since we had determined that the head had to be a rather large construction 3 feet wide 3 feet high, and 4 feet long-it required a very substantial control mechanism to make these movements happen. This was constructed out of wood-2×4’s and plywood. A seesaw arrangement – the head being at one end of the seesaw-controlled the upward movement. A 10 feet long handle attached to what amounted to 2 oversized pairs of scissors caused the mouth to open. This handle also governed the tilt of the head. The mountain monster’s gums and numerous teeth were cast in hydro hard plaster) using existing rubber molds produced earlier for other spawn constructions in the movie. These teeth-fragile but cheap to produce were wired to the substructure. Many of the smaller teeth were simply painted onto the gums. The bulk of the shape was made of chicken wire and sheets of foam rubber stapled together): the use of these materials helped minimize the weight of the construction. Finally, the monster’s skin was built up out of paper toweling and liquid latex rubber. The creature’s head was landscaped with burnt coal chunks. Everything we built was backed up by an original Hildebrandt painting: Three panels of masonite were joined together and taped at the seams with gafers tape to provide a large canvas. The sky actually had to be painted three times. The oil based paint first used proved to be too reflective-it was impossible to light. Tim opted for redoing it rather than trying (expensive) experiments with large amounts of dulling spray. The second version painted in flat latex base wall paints-is the one seen in the film. Still another backdrop was painted when we decided to use the miniature-minus house and somewhat modified for the shot that opens Deadly Spawn: a meteorite crossing the sky and falling to earth. Ideas on how to produce stars in the night sky ranged from direct projection, to the use of bits of front projection material of sequins. The first thing we tried worked-almost unexpectedly-so we used it: Tim simply painted them on. We knew from the beginning that we wanted to film the shot in slow motion in order to suggest great size in the creature as an avalanche of dirt and rocks (burnt coal chips and coal dust mostly) fell away from its rising body at a speed right for its apparent size. We were able to shoot at 64 frames per second(only about half of what I we would have liked.) This rapid rate of frame exposure increased our lighting requirements as did stopping down the lens to increase the depth of field on the set. It ended up that of the money we spent on the shot was spent renting lights about 8000 watts and extension cords. The final bill for the shot was about $360.00.

A no-sound-look behind the work of “The Deadly Spawn” (1983) directed by Douglas McKeown.

Michael Perilstein ‎– The Deadly Spawn (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

 


CREDITS/REFERENCES/SOURCES/BIBLIOGRAPHY
Fangoria Magazine 028
Fangoria Magazine 310
Cinemagic Magazine 022
Cinemagic Magazine 018

2 thoughts on “The Deadly Spawn (1983) Retrospective

  1. An absolute classic. A real textbook example of how to do the regional, low budgeter, correctly. Bohus has made some interesting things in later year, but none as good. Guess the stars were in the right place for this one. And it’s the first one in which the geek kid with a love on monsters is the one who figures it all out.

    Liked by 1 person

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