The Return of the Alien's Deadly Spawn/Return of the Aliens: The Deadly Spawn/The Deadly Spawn (1983) ****
$27,000. I want you to remember that figure should you ever find yourself in a position to watch The Return of the Alienís Deadly Spawn/Return of the Aliens: The Deadly Spawn/The Deadly Spawn, for that is all this amazing little monster movie cost. Itís true, of course, that $27,000 went further in 1983 than it does today, but the rate of inflation over the past two decades has not been so great that it would be unfair to compare this movie to the similarly budgeted work turned out by Charles Bandís current stable of filmmakersó hell, The Return of the Alienís Deadly Spawn even exhibits a certain amount of the fanboy-retro sensibility that characterizes most of the product put out by Full Moon and its sister labels. And if Iím right that such a comparison is warranted, then The Return of the Alienís Deadly Spawnís existence gives ample reason for the Full Moonies to hang their heads in shame. With no money, no feature-film experience, and (so far as I have been able to determine) not a single professional cast- or crewmember in their employ, its creators put together a top-notch monster flick, while Bandís comparably equipped present-day followers canít seem to come up with anything more compelling than another round of shitty sequels to Puppetmaster and Killjoy.
In case youíre not quite clear on what I mean by a ďfanboy-retroĒ sensibility, consider that The Return of the Alienís Deadly Spawn begins with a pair of campers investigating the impact site of a large meteorite. Yepó thatís The Blob, alright, and these campersí curiosity proves just as fatal to them as that of the old mountain man in the earlier film. While one camper ducks back into the tent to find his camera, his friend is seized and consumed by something that crawls out of the space rock. That something then turns its attention to the would-be photographer, and while we don't get to see the thing just yet, the shadows cast by the campfire on the canvass walls of the tent suggest that it possesses a multitude of insect-like legs and a truly immense mouth lined with an unbelievable number of teeth.
The next morning, suburban homeowners Sam (James Brewster) and Barb (Elissa Neil) get up bright and early to embark on a day trip to a relativeís house. Sam is somewhat annoyed to discover that the shower isnít working properly, but his wife is happy to have an extra few minutesí rest while he wrestles with the plumbing in the basement. In truth, the pipes are the least of Sam's worries. Someone in the house left one of the cellarís small, ground-level windows open the night before, and the meteor monster has slithered inside to take shelter from the monsoon-like rains that began shortly before dawn. Sam doesnít even have time to scream before the thing is on him, and Barb doesnít last any longer when she wonders whatís taking him so long with the plumbing and goes downstairs to find out.
As it happens, Barb stopped to write a note to her family, explaining where she and Sam were going to be all day, on the way down to her death in the basement. Thus neither their sons, Peter (Tom DeFranco) and Charles (Charles George Hildebrandt), nor Barbís visiting sister (Ethel Michelson) and brother-in-law (John Schmerling) will give their absence a second thought once they wake up a couple of hours later. So far as any of them know, itís just a more or less ordinary Saturday. Aunt Millie is helping her mother throw a vegetarian luncheon for her circle of daffy old lady friends, Peter is having some friends over to help him study for an upcoming biology exam, and Uncle Herb plans on having (as per Samís wishes) a little talk with Charlesó Herb is a child psychologist, and Sam is concerned that his younger sonís intense interest in monster movies is really just the tip of some awful iceberg of psychopathology. The house is also expecting a visit from an electrician which, given all the exposed wiring in the leaky basement, is probably long overdue. Millie heads off, leaving a sign taped to the front door instructing the electrician to let himself in through the unlocked cellar door (we are obviously nowhere near any sort of major or even semi-major city, here); two of Peterís friends, Ellen (Jean Tafler) and Frankie (Richard Lee Porter), arrive (Kathy [Karen Tighe], we are told, will be along later); and Herb settles down for a nice afternoon nap after ascertaining that thereís nothing wrong with Charles.
Then the electrician shows up. Charles, who is a lot like Friday the 13th: The Final Chapterís Tommy Jarvis, but without all the Corey Feldman, thinks it would be fun to slip on one of his many monster masks and try to scare the poor sucker. With that in mind, he dons a costume and sneaks down to the basement. Before he finds the electrician, though, he spots an odd, tadpole-like creature wriggling at high speed through the several inches of water pooled on the cellar floor. Following the little beastie with his flashlight, he soon ends up face to... well, I guess it isnít much of a face, really, so letís call it ďface to mawĒ with the thing from the meteorite, which has grown significantly since the previous night, and is now happily scarfing down the electrician. This is our first look at the monster, too, and it is every bit as much of a jaw-dropper as it ought to be. The creature stands about as tall as a man, with six or so of its eight feet of cylindrical body held upright by a pair of stumpy, muscular pseudopods. Its three eyeless heads (the central one is about three times the size of the ones on either side) are little more than enormous mouths with about 4000 teeth apiece. Itís also got at least a couple of arm-like appendages with nasty-looking claws on the ends. If there were anything I wouldnít want to find hanging out in my basement, this thing would be it. Then, having shown us this stupefying monster, writer/director Douglas McKeown one-ups himself with one of the all-time great ďholy shit!Ē moments in the annals of micro-budget cinema: while Charles stands there in shock, the monster vomits up his motherís head, which is then stripped to a bare skull by dozens of the creatureís vicious little larvae. Youíve got to hand it to Charles. Most people would completely lose their heads at this point, but not him. Realizing that the creature hasnít attacked him, even though heís standing right in front of it, he gets the idea that it must track its prey by sound rather than by sight or smelló a hypothesis which would certainly be consistent with the alienís total lack of apparent eyes or nostrils. Charles tosses his flashlight against the far wall of the cellar, and then remains perfectly still and silent while the monster and its spawn slither away to investigate the sound. Thatís when he notices the veritable parade of larvae squirming up the cellar wall and out the still-open window.
Among other places, the alien spawn are headed in the direction of Grandma Bunnyís vegetarian luncheon. The first one into the house crawls up through the drain in the kitchen sink and seeks out the first food it comes acrossó the pile of greens in Bunnyís food processor, which are waiting for the old lady to come along and puree them into some kind of dip. ďI've added something new to the recipe,Ē Bunny says, not realizing how right she is. The remaining larvaeó and were talking about 20 or 30 of them at this pointó strike just as Bunny and her guests are discovering that they liked the original recipe better.
Back at Spawn Central, Peter is having an encounter with the aliens, too, although he doesnít yet realize that. On the way to his house, Ellen and Frankie found a dead larva (one assumes it drowned in the flooding attendant upon the rain, which is still coming down hard), and felt compelled to bring it over to show Peter. Peter has no more idea what it is than either of his friends, and the identification is not made any easier when Ellen uses a razor blade to dissect the thing, and discovers that its insides are completely wrong for anything of terrestrial origin. After a couple hours of poring fruitlessly through Peteís biology books, the three kids decide to let Uncle Herb have a look at it. Uncle Herb has already had his look, though. In fact, a whole swarm of the things caught him in mid-nap, and heís in about the same shape as the electrician when the three kids find him. Kathy, the hitherto missing member of the study group, demonstrates her impeccable timing by picking this moment to show up, just as Mama Monster drags itself upstairs and all hell breaks loose.
The thing about cliches is that they became cliches for a reason. Once upon a time, they worked, and thereís no shame in using them if you can figure out how to make them work again. In The Return of the Alienís Deadly Spawn, McKeown pulls out damn near every commonplace in the monster movie playbook, and makes you appreciate how they got into that playbook in the first place. Itís amazing what a big difference a little thing like not forcing the characters to behave like idiots in order to set up a plot point makes. At every step of the way, McKeown establishes good and compelling reasons for his characters to behave as they do. Why doesnít Barb flee the basement when she sees the bloodstains on the walls? Because sheís afraid Sam might have had an accident while struggling with the pipes on the wet cellar floor, and she wants to see if he needs her help. Why doesnít Charles run screaming for help the moment he sees the monster? Because once he overcomes his initial shock, he realizes that it uses sound to navigate, and thus that he canít afford to move a muscle until it leaves the basement. Why do Peter, Ellen, Frankie, and Kathy take the seemingly foolhardy risk of leaving the comparative safety of Charlesís bedroom (in which the monster corners them after chasing them upstairs) to run across the hall to Peter's instead? Because Peter has a phone in his room and Charles doesnít. All this sensible, believable behavior is further reinforced by often excellent acting from the obvious non-actors in the cast, and by the simple fact that nobody in this movie looks even the slightest bit Hollywood. Admittedly, there arenít many science nerds as pretty as Peter and Ellen, but neither one of them has that supernatural Southern California beauty that even characters who are supposed to be plain-looking possess in mainstream movies. Michael Robert Coleman and Jean Tafler look instead like attractive kids you might actually have gone to school with.
The Return of the Alienís Deadly Spawn is also replete with satisfying touches of the sort that not many filmmakers bother with. The scene early in the film in which Herb and Millie tell their nephews that Sam and Barb are gone for the day concludes with the camera looking over one characterís shoulder and out the window, focusing on the car thatís still parked in the detached garage. The attack on Grandma Bunnyís lunch gathering plays delightfully like a geriatric version of the traditional monsters-crash-the-slumber-party scene, and comes complete with one feisty partygoer whoís ready, willing, and able to take the fight to the aliens. The obligatory twist ending displays a bit of real wit and imagination, and doesnít seem designed to leave an opening for a sequeló even if for no other reason than that McKeown could never possibly have afforded to make the only sequel it could be taken to set up. Then, of course, thereís my favorite horror movie trick of all: characters you think canít possibly die do. Iíve belabored that point enough in other reviews that I donít feel the need to go into why thatís a good thing here, but I still think it is. What I canít wrap my mind around is the fact that The Return of the Alienís Deadly Spawn apparently remains the only completed feature that Douglas McKeown has to his name, while guys like Albert Pyun and David DeCoteau make movie after movie after movie, and look as though they will continue to even unto the end of the world.