And sometimes you just wonder what the hell happened.
You know the times. One of my personal icons, Orson Welles, spent the years between 1955 and 1969 working on a labor of love, his version of Don Quixote, finally abandoning the partially-filmed project for lack of money. It was one of the unfinished films left behind at Welles' death in 1985, until one of my personal nemeses, Jess Franco, finished it in 1992, producing (according to every review I have read) a muddled, unwatchable mess. What the hell happened?
Another example is this week's movie, The Deadly Spawn, or as it is known in most quarters, the far more ungainly Return of the Aliens: The Deadly Spawn. Or if you prefer to believe the Continental Video box: Return of the Alien's Deadly Spawn. Though the monster of this flick bears the same geneology - both of them began as images of phallic objects with teeth - this retitling is such a bald attempt at invoking fond memories of the 1979 film, one's first impulse is to quickly flip past this selection to another, less needy title. But Deadly Spawn, it turns out, is a nicely done low-budget monster movie that puts many of its more high-falutin' cousins to shame... yet it continues to languish in the darker corners of video stores, unlauded and unappreciated; nor did its creators find either fame or fortune in its eventual release.
The movie starts with a meteor. A lot of movies begin with meteors. Without straining my brain, there are It Came From Outer Space, Night of the Creeps, Day of the Triffids, and The Monolith Monsters. Meteors are just plain bad news. You'd think that the National Guard would be mobilized every year during the Perseid meteor showers, wouldn't you? But you don't see Congressional Investigations or movie stars coming out against them, nooooo. Sometimes the things people think are important just astound me.
Well, the meteor falls to earth in The Woods, turning it instantly into a meteorite. This is witnessed by two campers, one of whom stands guard at the impact site while the other runs back to the camp to get a camera. Something comes out of the meteor and eats the guard, then makes its way to the camp to chow down on the guy who's yelling for the flash attachment.
Now, right away, Deadly Spawn has distinguished itself from its higher budgeted Hollywood brethren by casting two males as the campers; were this a Hollywood movie, it would have been a co-ed tent, and the campers would have been interrupted in their amorous pursuits by the arrival of the meteor. After the obligatory trek to the crater, the girl would have gone back to the tent, where the search for the flash would have involved, for some reason, the loss of her shirt. Then she would have been chased around the confines of said tent by a POV shot for two to three minutes, all the while screaming and whimpering.
But that is not the way it was done, and let us be thankful for that. Next on the docket: suburban three-story home. Rising and not shining: Mom (Elissa Neil) and Dad (James Brewster). There is some sort of fishing expedition or somesuch in the cards for Mom and Dad, despite the rainstorm outside. I never truly got the details of what was on the agenda for the day; I was too distracted by the fact that Mom, in defiance of Mom behavior worldwide, was wearing a see-through nightgown. Dad's abortive attempt at morning ablutions reveals that "the hot water's out again", prompting a trip to the basement, with its suspiciously open window... it's also dark down there, because the electrician's due to make a visit today... and it's also home to our old pal, whatever it was in the meteor, now quite grown up and possessing more teeth - and faces - than an army of glad-handing politicians. Exit Dad, stage stomach.
Now later, Mom will go down in the basement to see what's taking Dad so long. She will find copious amounts of blood on the walls. Though this should be the point where I normally ask "Why isn't she running?" the answer is plain: she must make sure her husband hasn't had an accident, and if he requires immediate aid. We know the answer to that, and soon, so does Mom. Mom gets the first real gore effect, too, as Grinning Evil Death chows down once more.
So here is another thing Deadly Spawn has going for it: People do not act like ninnies to further the plot. Now let us meet the other occupants of the house:
Aunt Millie needs to walk over to Grandma's in the pouring rain to help her with a luncheon. Pete frets that the folks won't be back by evening, and he needs the car. Herb gives Charles a preliminary examination. Nobody bothers to look out the window and notice that the car is still in the detached garage. Why should they?
By now, the movie has me solidly in its grip. The electrician arrives and finds a sign the departing Millie left, urging him to use the unlocked cellar door (try leaving a big sign like that on your door in the big city). Charles, being the little monster fan that he is, dons a werewolf mask and a cheap cape and heads down into the basement to scare the electrician. (This is, incidentally, the biggest basement I've seen since the Evil Dead movies) He does not find his intended hilarity; instead, following some strange tadpole-like creatures wiggling through the water on the floor, he finds the same blood stains on the cellar walls --- and the electrician, or what's left of him, in the lap of Grinning Evil Death, which, by way of punctuation, hwarfs up Mom's head.
I admit, I have seen a lot of horror movies in my time, but it would ill prepare me to see a monster spit out my mother's head at my feet, and watch as the monster's young reduced that head to a bloody skull. My hats off to the filmmakers for another fine, albeit twisted, and quite unexpected moment.
Charles - probably quite unlike me in a similar circumstance - manages to somehow Keep It Together, and starts figuring out how to get out of the basement alive. Seeing the monster has no eyes, he determines by observation and experiment that it tracks its prey by sound, and after tossing his flashlight and causing a racket, he simply stands still until the monster moves away - but he's also noticed that more of the wigglers are heading out of the house via that open basement window.
To be sure, Pete's friends Ellen (Jean Tafler), the Science Chick, and Frankie (Richard Lee Porter), who is just slightly less dense than neutronium, have arrived, and they brought with them a dead wiggler they found at the side of the road. As Ellen and Pete are science geeks, they decide to dissect the wiggler with a razor blade, a pair of tweezers, and a kitchen knife. I love that sort of can-do attitude.
Let's not forget Grandma's vegetarian luncheon: the wigglers have made it there, too, and are starting to infiltrate the house. One decides to branch out into vegetarianism itself and crawls into a food processor to munch on some greens; this turns out to be the expected bad career decision when Grandma flips the processor onto puree to make her famous green sauce.
Back at Spawn Central, Pete is tearing through his library, trying to find something that looks even remotely like the thing gutted in the pie pan. Pete is one of those ultra-rationalist science geeks who claims that "Scientists don't use their imaginations." (Ha! Tell that to some quantum physicists I know!) He manages to send Frankie off on an errand so he can confess his... um... strong feelings... for Ellen. This scene is as painful and leadenly awkward as it would probably be in real life.
At stately Granny Manor, the other women have arrived and revealed their own dishes. If Badmovies.org ever reviews this movie, I recommend that Andrew post an mpeg of the opening party scene, which hits new heights of horror in the realm of inane and boring. The phrase "Not your famous lentil-and-garlic stew!" has never sounded so...so... mannered. That woman is a stage actress. Now, you just know this is going to wind up being a somewhat older version of the slumber party massacre in Horror of Party Beach. The green sauce is passed around, and no sooner do the guests realize the flavor's a bit ...different.. than the wigglers attack! Wiggler attack! AAAAAAAA!
This is one of the very few scenes in this movie where the low budget peeks through, as there are several of the wigglers that appear to just standing.... standing, mind you now... around while the women thrash and gyrate with wigglers glued to them. Millie takes care of a couple of the toothy terrors with the Crap Movie Weapon of Choice, the Fireplace Poker, and the women scramble into the front yard; I must also mention that I really liked the little old Clara Peller lady who went Rambo on the beasties with a shoe.
And now back to the other part of our parallel storylines: Pete, Ellen and Frankie take the dissected wiggler to Uncle Herb, hoping to ask his opinion - a bit late, as the wigglers have gotten to Herb before the teens and are attempting to find out if psychiatrists have a chewy nougat center. The teens wisely retreat, only to find that Grinning Evil Death has figured out how to use stairs and is now loose in the house. Luckily for the teens, Charles has made it out of the basement, too, and distracts the Big One with a radio that plays some really horrific pseudo-opera.
Alright, let's see where we are: teens barricaded in Charles' room (look at the posters this kid has on his wall - I'm envious!), Charles standing in the kitchen very quietly, Grinning Evil Death chewing on a radio and listening....
And a car door slams.
Why, it's Kathy (Karen Tighe) who we were told might drop by earlier. The wily Grinning Evil Death waits until she is at the door of Charles' room to pounce, but the beastie only winds up munching on her jacket, leading Kathy to ask the day's most pertinent question. It's moments like this that really underline the need for a good fire evacuation plan - a rope ladder would work very well if trapped with a monster on the second or third floor. A desperate plan is hatched: everybody will run to Pete's room, where there is a phone. Like all desperate plans, this one turns to crap very quickly, with the results that Frankie and Kathy wind up trapped in the attic and Ellen is stuck in Charles' room. Grinning Evil Death has had enough of these flimsy door things and smashes right through; the beastie chomps off Ellen's head and sends her headless corpse smashing through the window to the muddy ground below.
No way!!! They just killed the love interest! Nobody's safe! (High budget version: Ellen manfully stretches the tubing of Charles' sports slingshot across the room, and when Grinning Evil Death smashes through the door, the surgical tubing is caught across the edges of its jaw, where it has no teeth, and it is struck straining, snapping mere inches from Ellen, as she struggles with the lock on the window. The tubing begins to tear, slowly, as she discovers the sloppy workmen - one of whom was a former, abusive boyfriend, we know from an earlier scene- painted over the lock, and it is now sealed shut. She sees a heavy object, possibly a statue of some Universal monster, on the dresser, and has to reach past Grinning Evil Death - after several failed tries - to snatch it from the bureau and use it to hammer at the lock. The tubing continues to tear, as Grinning Evil Death's smaller heads begin to gnaw at it. The lock will not yield, and she finally throws the statue at the window, but it bounces off! The workmen put in new hurricane glass! We remember that from an earlier scene! The tubing is holding on by the merest shred, and she has to reach the statue again....
Trust me. Spielberg can stretch this garbage out forever.)
Anyway... where was I?... anyway, Pete escapes onto the roof, where he can not only stare in horror at Ellen's corpse, but also discover that the family car is still in the garage - Mom and Dad didn't leave that morning. At all.
Pete manages to crawl over the roof and into the attic where he has one of those ultra-rational breakdowns. You've got to hate it when ultra-rationalists have breakdowns. They start trying to open locked doors with monsters waiting outside, loudly claiming "There's no such thing!" Once again it's up to Charles to save the day, as he has gotten into his room and Macgyver-ed up a fake head loaded with flash powder. After a very suspenseful segment, Grinning Evil Death finally takes the bait, with the result that he pretty much goes the way of the shark at the end of Jaws. (So we really need to watch out for meteors and flash powder. That stuff's dangerous!) (Though fairness demands that I point out that earlier, in the radio-chomping scene, that Grinning Evil Death is quite flammable. So his explosion isn't so far-fetched as one might believe; but if I am correct in this flight of fancy.... man, that is some subtle exposition!)
Not the end - the day wears on, with cops and others walking about with cattle prods, hunting down the wigglers and zapping them. That night, one of the clean-up crew reports on a walkie-talkie, saying his area is clear. The guy on the other end of the conversation says they had one that was three feet long, but our guy claims that's nothing, siting the eight-footer they dragged out of the attic. "I guess they just keep growing." The ground shakes - the man on the other side of the radio screams, as the hill above our two-story suburban home crumbles away, revealing a Godzilla-sized Grinning Evil Death beneath. The end.
Which brings us back to our thesis statement: What the hell happened?
As I recall, I first saw this, on tape, about 1985. I had been reading about it in a filmmaking magazine, and I distinctly remember photos of crew members molding hundreds of teeth out of Super Sculpey for Grinning Evil Death and his progeny. I also remember being distinctly pleased and entertained by this movie.
I've already mentioned the various areas where I found specifics laudable, but in general: this movie makes use of all the tropes of the monster movie, yet never falls into the typical traps of those movies. People do not behave in illogical, stupid ways. There is no Magic Shield for the cute, virginal girl. The point at which you are positive that the movie is going to become a kid-says-there-is-a-monster-in-the-basement-but-nobody-believes-him exercise, it becomes something other - in short, it saved me a lot of expected pain. Hell, they even found a way to make the no-wait-it's-not-really-over ending different and entertaining, rather than insipidly mandatory and cringe-making.
Yes, there are times the movie's budget shows through, like a peek through an excessively worn cotton shirt; the acting isn't always of a high caliber (though nobody really embarrasses themselves), and 16mm is, let's face it, 16mm. As Apostic rightly points out in his review, the monster scenes are well shot and edited, whereas the early, "normal" conversation scenes are static and dull in presentation. But, one has to admit, the money goes precisely where it's needed, where the audience would demand it: the FX and gore shots are of a high quality, with only that rather obvious model house at beginning and end to spoil the FX crew's record.
So the question what the hell happened becomes more and more important, the more and more I realize how entertaining this movie is, and realize that director Douglas McKeown has done nothing else, and his co-writer Ted A. Bohus has only done a couple more minor films like Vampire Vixens from Venus and The Regenerated Man. Why aren't these guys still making movies? Why am I forced to watch derivative, boring hackwork like End of Days and The Haunting when there are people who obviously know what to do with the conventions of the horror film, how to play with them and play off them, to make a movie that is comfortingly familiar and yet surprising enough to actually engage me in the story being told?
Dammit. And I started off in such a good mood. To hell with whatever's on Pay-Per-View or Encore tonight. Don't settle for another re-viewing of the new House on Haunted Hill or whatever Reanimator-Scream-Night of the Living Dead rehash is on your shelf, that tape that you hope against hope might be entertaining. Get a copy of this movie and watch it. Find out that you don't have to settle for bad crap when there's good crap to be had. End of sermon.