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Return Of The Aliens: The Deadly Spawn
(a.k.a. The Deadly Spawn)
(1983)
 

Director: Douglas McKeown                 
Cast:
Charles George Hildebrandt, Tom DeFranco, Richard Lee Porter


Most of the movies that I watch to be reviewed for this web site are either plain good or plain bad. On a few rare occasions, I come across a movie that falls right into the middle of these extremes. And even more rarely is a movie like Return Of The Aliens: The Deadly Spawn. It's the kind of movie that kind of asks you to look at it in a different viewpoint that the one you usually use. Indeed, because of the kind of movie it is, I find I am kind of trying to persuade myself into giving it some slack, since it was a "Geeze, how much Ex-Lax did you give your dog anyway?" production unlike most other movies. Is it really fair to judge a $25,000 budget movie that was shot in 16mm with an amateur cast and crew, on the same scale as movies by professional unions with access to more money and better equipment? My immediate reaction is to say no... though after a few more seconds of thought, part of me brings up cheapo movies like Video Violence as contrary evidence - indeed, overall I though that particular backyard production was pretty worthless. Thinking again about the movie being reviewed here, I can recall I experienced more negative feelings during it than the number of positive ones. Yet at the same time, I keep being strongly reminded of those few fond moments I found. Perhaps the best way to sum up my feelings about the movie would be to call it an interesting failure, but even I'm not quite satisfied with that description - thinking about both the positive and negative moments.

The first question that came to my mind during the opening credits is why this movie is called Return Of The Aliens: The Deadly Spawn, when it doesn't seem to be a sequel to any movie, at least that I know of. Anyway, the movie sets things up here quickly enough that you don't think of that question for long. In some unidentified rural part of the country, a meteorite strikes the ground one night. Naturally, no meteorite falls to the ground far away from some curious people, and this one falls close to some campers. Of course, they poke around the crater (somehow not getting roasted from the extreme heat), and of course they quickly get chomped offscreen by some critters that had undoubtedly hitched a ride with the meteorite.

There is a goofy yet likable charm found here and elsewhere in the movie, with some cheap effects presented in a matter-of-fact manner. The sound of the critters ripping the campers' flesh sounds like it was accomplished by ripping a shirt into two. And the thunder we hear in the background sounds as if they actually recorded someone blowing into a microphone. All the while, cheap, Casio-like synthesizer music plays on. These sounds proof that in filmmaking, it's not always what is done, but how it comes across; all of this could easily have come across as simply cheap and stupid, but it somehow makes you smile.

The smiles continue when we subsequently see an obvious model of a house and the surrounding property - tacky charm. It's at this house that the still unseen creatures come to, and pop into the basement via an open window. This is where almost all the movie subsequently takes place, where there are plenty of inhabitants (and visitors) for all those sharp-toothed mouths to feed on. We soon meet all of the various members of the household, and surprise, surprise, they That's the first Jewish alien I've seen are played by amateur actors who can actually act. Not Olivier quality, but they are convincing in their emotions, whatever they may be. Another point of interest of these actors is that they look more like regular people, instead of Hollywood hunks and beauty queens. Their down-to-earth appearance is endearing. What's not so endearing about them is that they talk. Not what or how, but the fact that they talk too much. There is far more talk than there is monster business. There are long breakfast conversations. The psychiatrist uncle has a long interview with his movie monster loving nephew. The older brother has a long talk on the telephone with one of his friends. Talk is frequently a cheap device used by amateur filmmakers to pad out their movie, but I also have to wonder if these filmmakers gave every actor a substantial amount of dialogue in return for investing in the movie (one other device used by amateur filmmakers.)

Another problem I had with the characters is that, though likeable, they are pretty thin. Even though there are several main characters who have a lot of screen time, they are barely more developed than those disposable campers we saw in the beginning of the movie. Even the young kid, who we know will be the hero (because he's obsessed with horror movies and Famous Monsters magazine) is pretty one-note. So as a result, we don't have anyone we really want to spend energy rooting for, and we just shrug our shoulders when the characters are both chased and/or eaten by the monsters. Instead of us being focused on the characters and their plight during these scenes, we are more interested by the monsters. And you can't help but be This is a foot fetish going way too far, if you ask me somewhat impressed by the monsters and the gore makeup in this movie. I don't know how the filmmakers created the effect of the baby alien spawn wiggling around like fish in the flooded basement, but it looked very realistic. When full-grown, they resemble big jagged-toothed mouths on short tree trunks, and apparently get around by slithering (I say "apparently", because the camera never lets us see their feet or whatever they have on the lower parts of their body.) Their feeding habits are quite eye-catching as well, for we get to see in graphic detail their ripping off skin, biting off heads with wet crunches, and other quite gruesome and sloppy examples of their table manners. So one other area where the movie does manage to make the grade is in the mayhem department.

One part of the direction that I found amusing was that the direction wasn't that far off from videotaped opuses. Even though it was filmed in 16mm, I could easily imagine every angle, every edit, as if it was done by a videotape crew. (It also helps that this movie has a lot of blatant padding, just like many of those cheesy shot-on-video horror opuses.) Aside from that, the feel of this movie is somewhat lacking. You would figure a production of this quality would be a labor of love, "Heeeeeeeeere's Johnny!" and they would have had a lot more fun with it. But even though there's all that gore and shrieking aliens, there is a curious tone instead. There doesn't seem to be all that much passion behind the camera; you seem to get the impression that everyone behind the camera has a stone face. There is occasionally a cute moment, such as when someone going down to check the basement (not the only time this happens, by the way) grabs galoshes from a shelf, but doesn't take the flashlight that is lying next to them. Aside from a few isolated moments like that, the movie has no sense of irony, no sense of spoof, no sense of fun. The movie comes off more like a product than a labor of love.

So though Return Of The Aliens: The Deadly Spawn has some praiseworthy moments, I felt it was overall a slow-paced, weary exercise that doesn't show much that we've already seen, and done better. Would others like it? Looking at user comments about the movie at the IMDb, it does seem that this obscurity does has its share of fans. Reading them closely, many of them comment about how they saw it as kids, and how it has stayed with them all of these years. Maybe what's needed is a sense of childhood innocence to appreciate the movie. But what I more suspect is that you need a mind that hasn't seen all those superior movie yet, and then several years for your brain to discard what was forgettable, and place prominently what wasn't.


UPDATE: Anthony Timpson sent in this information:

"You said: 'The first question that came to my mind during the opening credits is why this movie is called Return Of The Aliens: The Deadly Spawn, when it doesn't seem to be a sequel to any movie, at least that I know of.'

"The reason for this is pretty simple. As it was first known as The Deadly Spawn, it was retitled when picked up by a new distributor (need to check my Confessions of a Trash Fiend fanzine to verify name of company - perhaps 21st Century?) and released as Return Of The Aliens (the Spawn part was dropped from many ad mats) to cash-in on the success of Aliens - though who in their right mind would have fallen for that dupe I will never know.

"Your site is a treasure - don't go changing."


UPDATE 2: Jeffrey Scott Nuttall sent along this very interesting scientific fact:

"You mention at one point that when some curious campers in the movie investigate a freshly fallen meteor, they "somehow [do not get] roasted from the intense heat".  Actually, contrary to popular belief, meteors generally aren't hot by the time they reach the ground - just the opposite; they can often be intensely cold.  (See, for example, the fourth paragraph of the following page at the excellent Bad Astronomy site:
http://www.badastronomy.com/bad/news/salisburymeteor.html .) 

"On the other hand, this does depend somewhat on the size of the meteor, and the speed with which it was moving.  I haven't seen the movie, so I don't know how big the meteor was shown to be in it - a meteor more than a few hundred feet in diameter would indeed probably still be hot when it hit, and it's even possible (albeit unlikely) for a smaller meteor to be moving fast enough that it  hits the ground before reaching terminal velocity, so atmospheric drag is still heating it a great deal - though in this case it would leave a very large crater many times its diameter, and the meteor itself would certainly be destroyed by the impact.  (And even in such a case, I'm not sure the heat would really be enough to "roast" nearby people.)  But in general, meteors aren't hot by the time they hit the ground, so the fact that the campers weren't "roasted" is completely reasonable - actually, it would have been very unrealistic if they were."


UPDATE 3: From Ted A. Bohus, the screenwriter!

"Great site. Thanks for SOME kind words about my film. A few corrections. The  film was actually made for under $20,000.  21st Century released it in theaters as The Deadly Spawn and then  re-released it with the Return of the Aliens title because Alien was a big hit. Duh!!

"We did as best as we could, but only could shoot on weekends for a year. That is why the film at times seems disjointed or strange. The movie started  out to be much bigger, but we had to cut things out if we didn't have the  extra $100 that weekend. For many people it was their first film. We were all learning in 1981.

"Sure we were no Evil Dead, but Sam had over $150,000 to work with. If I had that, believe me, I would have knocked your socks off!

"Synapse is releasing the Special Edition DVD sometime between Halloween and Christmas, the commentary I did should answer most all the questions. Thanks again for helping to keep this little labor of love alive."


UPDATE 4: From Douglas McKeown himself!

"I just caught up with your review of The Deadly Spawn.  I wrote the screenplay and directed the film.  Ted Bohus produced it, and the special effects were by John Dods.  I regret that I had little say in the editing, however, and at least one scene was partly reshot after I left the project:
e.g., the campers and their tent.  the rest of the film mixes the principal photography with loads of effects stuff inserted later.  I shot that sucker only on weekends for a year, and not just because people had jobs to go to--  I myself had to borrow thousands of dollars to live on all those months,  since I had to use the weekdays to write the scenes!  Yep, it was written as  we went along, and looks it.  I was fascinated to read what you had to say,  and agree with most of it, especially your appreciation of the young actors.  BUT!  Dim and goofy and long-winded as the dialogue may be, I think there  is enough satirical detail in it to save it from being entirely bad....

"Hey: you weren't amused by the vegetarian ladies who lunch (my favorite scene)?"

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See also: The High Crusade, Lifeform, The Silencers

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