Encyclopedic tome includes The Deadly Spawn!
NIGHTMARE USA: The Untold Story
of the Exploitation Independents*
by Stephen Thrower
*Chapter 4 is entitled It Came from New Jersey – Douglas McKeown
on The Deadly Spawn (!)
Running to 528 large-format pages, Nightmare USA is a veritable
encyclopedia of grindhouse cinema - it's without doubt the year's mostground-breaking film book!
a kaleidoscopic journey through the heyday of Horror and Exploitation Cinema in America
earlier in 2004 ... A SPECIAL SCREENING
The UCLA Film and Television Archive screened a rare print of The Deadly Spawn on February 15, 2004 as part of their festival entitled: "Going to Hell: Horror from the 1970s and 80s." Their website www.cinema.ucla.edu/public/calendar/calendar_f.html had this blurb for the film:
Made for no money with a cast and crew of unknowns and beginners, this ALIEN knockoff (now a cult favorite) has it all: gore, shocks, gruesome special effects, surprisingly effective performances, a sense of humor, and a lot of heart.
Director Douglas McKeown attended the screening and fielded questions from the audience afterwards. The following is a reconstruction of the Q&A from this event is posted below, at length (the session was unfortunately not recorded):
UCLA FILM AND TELEVISION ARCHIVE Screening of The Deadly Spawn, February 15, 2004, 7 P.M....
The film (a very good, clear, supposedly “original” print) got a big round of applause at the end.
The James Bridges Auditorium wasn’t full, but most every row was occupied throughout, so it felt full. As the lights came up after the screening, the moderator, Michael Schleslinger, introduced the director. McKeown's first words were, "That was grueling. I haven't seen this projected in 20 years... Before we start could I ask — I know he’s not here — but could I ask for a round of applause for the special effects director, John Dods?” (Applause) “Such a good job.”
M.S.: Now, this is your only film, isn't it? I mean, what made you return to the theatre as an actor and director, as I assume you did, and not make another film?
D.M.: I don't act anymore, and as to why I haven't made another film, well, no one asked me. (laughter)
No, that's flippant....but it is partly true. Actually, I've made at least fifty films — in my head.
M.S.: How much did “The Deadly Spawn” cost to make?
D.M.: Twenty-seven thousand dollars.
M.S.: Pretty good!
D.M.: At least that’s the figure I was told in 1983 and obviously doesn’t represent the distribution costs; since then, I’ve heard various amounts, but all around twenty-seven thousand dollars.
M.S.: How long did it take to shoot?
D.M.: We shot it over the course of many months — I wrote the script scene by scene during the week, and then we would shoot on the weekends. And I storyboarded most scenes. I used to meet the actors Saturday mornings at the Camelot Coffee Shop on 8th Avenue and 45th street, like at 6 AM, rehearse, and then we’d drive out to the New Jersey locations from there...
Schlesinger asked how McKeown got involved in the film to start with, and he told the story of knowing John Dods as a basement dinosaur animator like himself, except much more advanced —
D.M.: He had constructed an animation camera by the time he was in high school, if I remember right.
D.M.: Anyway, since I was in New York by 1980 directing plays, Dods and Ted Bohus called on me to “direct the actors.” Not the film, the actors. I said Nuh-uh. I direct the whole film or I don’t get involved. Ted and John agreed to this, but when I asked to see the script they said there was none, they were going to “make up the words as we go along.” So, I ended up doing the screenplay as well. They really had no story either, just the fact of a monster from outer space. I decided on one place, one set of characters and one 24-hour period. I mainly wanted to put the effects right in with the acting scenes as much as possible, not do them separately as cut-ins and inserts, the way Hollywood does it, I thought I would have the opportunity since this was a low-budget film. But there was friction between Dods and me eventually, because of that — he wanted more time to lovingly photograph his monster, he wanted to save the effects for later when he could be in charge. He didn’t like the way I was directing his monster. He saw the creature as the protagonist of the film, I think, whereas I saw the boy as the protagonist, the monster as the antagonist. It may come as no surprise that the young boy is a stand-in for me. I had spent a lot of my childhood terrorizing neighborhoods in Metuchen, New Jersey in elaborate make-ups. Anyway, Dods later did shoot a LOT more footage after I had left; for example, that extended basement scene with the boy and the Spawn — that whole OPERA! (laughter).
M.S.: I'd like to ask you about the fact that it is raining throughout the film...
D.M.: We shot it during the longest drought in New Jersey history to that time. Never rained, not once! It was even against the law to use garden hoses, so we had to watch out for the cops.
Then came questions from the audience:
Audience Member: Was the film shot with an eye toward the video market, the big screen, TV, what?
D.M.: Well, in 1980, there was no thought of a video market since one did not effectively exist, and the producer, Ted, really just wanted to shoot a quickie horror film to get his company off the ground. He wanted to get an “R” rating and thought the best way to do this was with “tit” shots! I said no, I don’t think so, — I thought among friends and family members in suburban New Jersey, it was just too embarassing and awkward — I said let’s aim for violence instead — how about we rip the mother’s face off? (Laughter) Of course, Ted managed to get that gratuitous shot of the mother early in the film with the see-through nightgown — I didn’t shoot that. I may have been there, but it wasn’t my idea. (some amused audience reaction). I think I was already a budding feminist. And I actually have never been a fan of this kind of horror film (slightly shocked reaction) — I preferred the Depression Era horror films from Universal, like “The Invisible Man,” and so forth...
Audience Member: Who distributed the film?
D.M.: That question is really for Ted Bohus — I had nothing to do with that end of it. Umm, I don't know, could it have been 21st Century? I know it must have been sold outright and then later got another distributor, since it was re-released under a different title, “Return of the Aliens: The Deadly Spawn,” I assume to capitalize on the movie “Alien.” Probably the only movie in history marketed as its own sequel! (Laughter)
Audience Member: Why if you had such a low budget did you make it harder on yourself by making it rain throughout?
D.M.: Well, I thought really BECAUSE it was such a low budget I needed something we could control to help unify the action — I knew we would be shooting over many months. Anyway, I felt the steady rain would provide a background continuity on the soundtrack as well as helping to keep things gloomy, create a mood. Also, these were “spawn,” they thrived in water.
M.S.: Did you know any of the actors before casting them?
D.M.: Oh, yes. I had worked with some of them as an Off-Off-OFF[!] Broadway actor. I think they all did a great job under very trying circumstances, and for no pay. I remember especially Judith Mayes who played the grandmother — she was great to work with. She was the one with the pink curlers in her hair for her first scene, and I remember one reviewer said it was the scariest thing in the picture! (Laughter)
Audience Member: There seems to be a lot of comedy all through the film. Was this intentional? (Some audience Members seem amused by the question.)
D.M.: Of course! I think I’m very comfortable with comedy. Plus it was a relief from some of the stage work I was involved with, classics, tragedies, and so forth. My favorite scene is the vegetarian luncheon scene.
M.S.: How many locations were there, and where were they?
D.M.: The house was in Bernardsville, New Jersey. But not the basement — they only had a little root cellar, a crawl space. So, I stuck the camera in there to shoot up the stairs to the kitchen, but the reverse angle of the basement stairs and all those scenes were filmed in New Brunswick. In the ENORMOUS basement of an apartment building. One bedroom was filmed in Metuchen, and a few other locations, but mostly, we shot in the house in Bernardsville. In general, I shot with editing in mind at all times, and I had an editing plan developed right along with the shooting script. I was really surprised when the movie came out, because they never asked for the script when they edited it — I found out about the movie opening while I was working at a juice bar of a health food restaurant. Missed the first showing because I had to break down the counter! I met the editor and he said he was impressed with how well everything fit together, but he was annoyed that I hadn’t shot enough “coverage.” Well, that was on purpose. Sometimes I even called out “cut!” before allowing a scene to completely tail out, play out, you know, I called cut where I knew it would be edited. Didn’t give him much room to work with.
Audience Member: You said you admired some of the older horror films, like “The Invisible Man.” I noticed some surprising elements to the story, like it’s the girl with the high collar, all covered up, that gets killed, instead of the other girl... — Did you consciously play with the tropes of the genre?
D.M.: Well, I had to keep Kathy, she was hot! And somebody had to survive the carnage. Also, I needed something that would really push Pete over the edge, make him go crazy. But I think I later regretted, kind of, killing Ellen off. Made me feel the way I did when I saw “Chinatown.” (Audience reacts) I think it was wrong. But yes, I think I was aware of not doing what was expected from this genre — actually, I tried throughout the film to avoid the cliche, that much is true....Wow, ‘tropes,’ huh?
Audience Member: Where did you get the giant giraffe? (laughter)
D.M.: Well, now (chuckling), this is an example of how low budget film making works. The giraffe was there already, in the Bohus family home — imagine! I’m creating a vegetarian luncheon scene, and here I find all these ceramic animals, some of them huge, all part of the living room set. So, instead of removing them as a distraction, I used them. As I recall, they’re what gave me the grandmother’s dialogue!
M.S.: I understand you’re responsible for David Copperfield?
D.M.: Huh?! David Copperfield? (low voice into the mic) David Copperfield is an i-l-l-u-s-i-o-n! (no response from the audience) I suppose you mean because he was in my class. But he was in your class too, wasn’t he, Judy? Maybe you take responsibility. (gesturing to the back) Ladies and Gentlemen, ABC News correspondant Judy Muller! Actually, I think he was in several of my classes — the Art of Film, Shakespeare, Speech Arts, Creative Dramatics... But I don’t take responsibility for him. Richard, you were in the same film class as David, weren’t you? (again, gesturing to the back) Director Richard Wenk, Ladies and Gentlemen!
M.S.: Director of “Just the Ticket.”
D.M.: Yes! But, more to the point, “Vamp” with Grace Jones.
M.S.: Oh, I forgot about that.
Richard Wenk: (from the back) I’m TRYING to forget it! (Laughter)
D.M.: Hey listen, “Vamp” had a budget. (Laughter)
Audience Member: Isn’t this [“The Deadly Spawn”] supposed to be coming out on DVD?
D.M.: Yes! It has been restored, and I have seen it on tape — it looks very good. But it hasn’t come out yet. Don May of Synapse Films, who did the restoration, told me that at first they couldn’t find the negative, but then Ted found it — in a kitchen cabinet! (Laughter) We did an audio commentary last year, Dods and I and some others — not Ted — he didn’t come. He had done his own commentary; In fact, I understand the DVD will include another entire version of the film Ted put together with added “special effects.” (knowing glances between audience members and some tittering)
M.S.: Well, we’ve come to the end; thanks to Douglas McKeown for being with us tonight. Now we have to move on to the second feature, Dan O’Bannon’s "Return of the Living Dead.”
D.M.: “Oh, the real film!” (Laughter)
Synapse Films finally finished its expert restoration work on The Deadly Spawn utilizing the original 16mm negative. The splendid DVD, with many, many fun extras has been available since Halloween, 2004. It has been spotted on video store shelves everywhere, and can be ordered online. A considerable savings can be had from deepdiscountdvd.com