2004 has been quite a year for Synapse. After finally completing their distribution deal with Ryko (which now makes their discs much easier to find in brick-and-mortar stores), Don May, Jr. unleashed two of the very best discs of the year: LEMORA A CHILD'S TALE OF THE SUPERNATURAL and THRILLER: A CRUEL PICTURE. But he didn't stop there: Australian skinflicks FANTASM and FANTASM COMES AGAIN are two of the best sleeper discs of the year, sure to please fans of its nude-happy cast. But most exciting to fans who have been waiting for years since its announcement is the special edition of THE DEADLY SPAWN, a cult home video favorite which has finally been given the deluxe treatment and respect it so richly deserves.
Two campers are jolted awake in the middle of the night by a meteor crash nearby. Upon investigation of the resulting crater, they discover a spawn (hence the title) of nasty little flesh-hungry extra-terrestrials who grow to giant proportions after messily dispatching of the pair of humans. The following day makes up the rest of the movie: a family's home is invaded by the flesh-eating monsters. They hole up in the basement and devour anyone who ventures into their domain, including a husband-and-wife couple and an unlucky repairman. The only human who seems to understand how the creatures think is Charles, a little boy who idolizes the giant monsters from the late late show, and who ends becoming the hero of the film when all the adults turn out to be no help at all!
THE DEADLY SPAWN is what makes watching low-budget horror and sci-fi flicks so much fun: it's fast-paced, exciting, populated with interesting characters and best of all features some of the goriest, most accomplished special effects ever seen in a film of such a low budget. The scene of little Charles watching the baby aliens feast on the head of his own mother, the body of the repairman and finally his face-to-face encounter with the giant multi-toothed alien mother is the highlight of the film, and still manages to be hair-raising over 20 years after it was shot. And of course the infamous cocktail party invasion, with baby aliens burrowing into the heads and legs of rich old socialites, is a work of pure genius. The story is a refreshing homage to the creature feature movies of the 50s and 60s, with a group of youngsters (like THE BLOB, THE GIANT GILA MONSTER and countless other great drive-in classics). There are also some geeky scientific teens thrown in for good measure, to spout the requisite mumbo-jumbo about how foreign the creatures are (like ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS, NIGHT OF THE BLOOD BEAST and even more great titles).
Produced over the course of three years and released to a surprisingly receptive audience, DEADLY SPAWN was finally given a home video release as RETURN OF THE ALIENS: DEADLY SPAWN to cash in on James Cameron's box-office hit ALIENS (1986); tantalizingly gruesome clips appeared on Continental Home Video's TERROR ON TAPE compilation. Neither home video appearance, nor the various overseas DVD releases, have looked as good as Synapse's disc. Presented in its original fullscreen presentation (it was shot on 16mm in the Academy ratio), just looking at the bloody carnage speaks volumes of how much hard work went into this transfer! Reds are delicious candy apple reds, the many dark scenes are still bright enough to see what's going on (a home video first for this title!) and grain has been drastically minimized. The English audio is perfect, not too loud, not too soft, and gets the job done.
On a DVD jam-packed with appreciative supplements, the key extra is a feature-length audio commentary collecting director Doug McKeown, co-writer Tim Sullivan (currently directing the remake of SHE-FREAK for Dave Friedman!), special FX wizard John Dods, producer Tim Hildebrandt and child-actor-grown-up Charles Hildebrandt to explain the history of the film. The best audio commentaries are those that sound like everyone involved is having a hell of a good time, and this is one of those. Every single participant has unique and interesting stories to tell, and have a great time revisiting the film so many years later. Some of the best anecdotes: Charles Hildebrandt remembers getting frustrated with having to shoot the film almost every weekend of his teenage life because his father was the producer; Tim Hildebrandt points out places where there are still bloodstains on the wall of his home, where the film was shot; and Doug McKeown fondly recalls his pleasant surprise when the film was finally unleashed on 42nd Street in the mid-80s without his knowledge! John Dods is the most interesting, because every time an effect appears on-screen, he jumps right in to explain how it was accomplished and it's a superb how-to for adventurous special effects artists who want to put on a good show for very little money. Tim Sullivan mainly acts as a moderator, asking all the right questions and throwing in his memories of the shoot and writing the script in a matter of days.
If the one commentary wasn't enough, Synapse has also included a second trimmed-down commentary by producer Ted A. Bohus. Of course this one isn't as rambunctious and fast-paced as the previous commentary, but Bohus throws in his perspective of making the film. Several areas he touches upon weren't mentioned in the group commentary, including getting the film finally picked up by a distributor (almost Paramount, believe it or not!) and several behind-the-scenes stories unique to his audio essay. Actually, thinking of Paramount as a distributor for DEADLY SPAWN isn't that surprising; not only did they barely release FIRST NUDIE MUSICAL in '76, they also acquired Frank Henenlotter's BRAIN DAMAGE in '88! Where are those adventurous executives today?
In addition to the two excellent commentaries, the disc also ventures further into the filmmaking process with a slew of interesting extras. The requisite theatrical trailer is included, which is in pretty rough shape, but sells the film well. It's no wonder it did so well in its New York City run! A silent blooper and outtake reel is filled with behind-the-scenes footage of setting up the special effects, preparing actors' make-up and crew members goofing around with the giant mother alien head. A number of photo and stills galleries cover all aspects of the film, from international posters and lobby cards, behind-the-scenes photos, video sleeves, rare conceptual art of how the aliens were to look originally (!), publicity photos including various make-up effects and alien visual effects and a special gallery devoted to the movie's release, with scans of a Variety Top 50 chart and photos of the film's grand opening at the National theater on 42nd Street (where it appears to have been double-featured with NIGHTMARE!). A pretty cool comic book prequel detailing how the monsters were created by foreign beings is presented in a step-through mode with specially created theme music! An alternate opening sequence, with newly created special effects which don't gel with the original film stock and computer-generated credits, is a curiosity piece and nothing more. "A Visit with the Deadly Spawn" is a shot-on-video featurette originally created in 1982 with John Dods displaying various creatures and models he created, many not for the film but all are genuinely great works of art. Most interesting is that he shows his original conceptual art for the deadly spawn, and ventures down into Tim Hildebrandt's basement to reveal the final version of the monster! He does test shots of the baby aliens moving through the water, the mother alien spreading its mouth and a baby spawn stretching its jaws. This is an incredible extra, definitely required viewing, and the goofy ending is cool! Cast audition tapes aren't that interesting, but are great to have for completists.
As with their THRILLER disc (where Christina Lindberg blasts the audience full o' lead when they select "Play"), Synapse creates one of the best animated menus this year, with the fantastic mother alien coming towards the camera with teeth chomping when you press "Play"!
DEADLY SPAWN stacked on the shelves of every DVD store this writer has been to,
there is absolutely no reason for any DVD Drive-In reader to be without this superb
package. Treat yourself to an early Christmas present and pick this up pronto!
***Casey's Choice: Top 10 Disc of 2004***
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