Review of Evil Spawn (1987) Blu-ray From Retromedia

Evil Spawn (1987)

In 2020, Retromedia put out the best release yet of Evil Spawn on Blu-ray. If you love the film, you’ll want to get it. If you don’t care for the film, you may still want to stick around because I have things to say.

Synopsis

Evil Spawn clocks in at just under 71 minutes. Despite that, it tells a relatively complex story. It centers around Lynn Roman (Bobbie Bresee) — an aging movie star for whom parts have dried up.

This is bad enough, but she also has a stalker fan who kills a scientist and befriends another to get a drug that returns youth to its users. It also turns them into horrible monsters, but no one said beauty was easy!

Lynn takes the drug but it doesn’t solve her problems. Instead, she runs around killing most of the people in her life. Given they are (1) her agent (Fox Harris); (2) her philandering boyfriend (John Terrence); and (3) his girlfriend, it isn’t too bad. But she also kills her devoted assistant, Elaine (Pamela Gilbert), although she is naked throughout.

Eventually, the police arrive and kill her. More or less the end.

The story is framed by her biographer (Drew Godderis) writing the story of her life. This is mostly just to allow a “shock” ending that is neither shocking nor particularly welcome. (Admittedly, I don’t like seeing writers die.)

Audio and Video

The film is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0. It’s fine — better than we could reasonably expect. There are no subtitles at all.

This release has a 2K video transfer from the original negatives, which are mostly 16 mm. The aspect ratio comes out to be roughly 1.6:1.

It looks good but there is one major problem. The right edge of the video is often distorted. Given the film was originally released on VHS at 4:3, I wonder why they didn’t cut it out. But it’s easy enough to ignore.

Extras

The film has a good selection of extras. It’s just too bad Fred Olen Ray didn’t include others who were involved. Clearly, he doesn’t get along with Bobbie Bresee but why not Kenneth J Hall or even Ted Newsom? Still, fans should be happy about what is here.

  • Behind the Scenes (2:27): video from later scenes from the film.
  • On Location Footage (33:44): video from the shoot by boom operator Ralph Langer. It includes scenes where Dawn Wildsmith’s character comes to Lynn Roman’s house. There is also a lot of Pamela Gilbert naked in the swimming pool with a smaller monster than ultimately appeared in the final cut.
  • John Carradine Outtakes (4:46): footage shot by Ray in 1986 that would eventually contribute to a few other films.
  • The Case of the Missing Monster (1:16): stills of the original monster (seen in On Location Footage).
  • Night Owl Theater (4:07): An introduction to the DVD release of Evil Spawn with Ray playing the part of a rich asshole — the kind of person who doesn’t watch his films. It’s his take on Joe Bob Briggs, who is no less fake.
  • Trailer (2:20): not really a trailer. More a selection of the most impressive moments in the film cut together.

Commentary Track

Fred Olen Ray provides perhaps the worst recorded commentary track I’ve ever heard. It sounds very much like he was watching the film on his computer and recording using his webcam.

But that alone speaks well of the commentary because he is most definitely watching the film, which is not always true. However, he doesn’t spend much time commenting on the action.

In fact, roughly half the track is general stuff about him. So if you are interested in how he got into the business, there’s lots to appreciate. For example, I learned that he worked a bit with Ed Wood in 1977.

Ray doesn’t have all that much to say about the filming of Evil Spawn. He admits that he wasn’t really around. At that point, he was directing million-dollar films and this was a $30,000 film.

Sadly, much of the commentary is about settling scores — especially with Frank and Bobbie Bresee. But he even goes after Gary J Levinson. Apparently, Levinson was convicted of distributing child pornography. That isn’t Ray’s problem with Levinson, however. Ray is angry because he implied that Ray didn’t have much talent in an interview decades ago.

Regardless, there is a lot of interesting information in the commentary. But we would have learned a lot more about this film is Kenneth J Hall had done the track instead.

The Alien Within

The high point of the extras is the inclusion of The Alien Within. This is an 85-minute feature. Ray hired Ted Newsom to create it using Evil Spawn. This is like what was done to The Madmen of Mandoras and Sam’s Song. But this is a much better effort.

They don’t just sandwich the film inside a new frame. That would be difficult given that the story was already structured that way. But they make the film instead about a film producer who, like Lynn Roman, is using the drug.

Most of the rest of the film is seen through the perspective of PIs played by John Henry Richardson and Suzanne Ager. They are great together and I would definitely watch a film with those two characters.

Of course, there are fundamental problems with doing this to a film. The main one is that the resulting film is unfocused. As much as Richardson and Ager might be fun to watch, they aren’t even the main characters of the film. And most of the film is about Roman, even if the film is not structured to support that.

Additionally, the new material is clearly shot more quickly with less thought. So it just doesn’t look as good as the core material. I’m afraid that will always be the case in situations like this since they are, at base, a cash grab.

There are, however, a few things that the film fixes. The death of the stalker character makes a lot more sense. And the ending is better.

But we are still left with an over-long scattered film where all the best parts are taken from Evil Spawn.

Historical Context

I learned about a bit of a kerfuffle regarding Evil Spawn from Matty Budrewicz at The Schlock Pit. In the original review of the film in Psychotronic Video, Weldon (I assume) wrote:

Here’s the shoddier west coast version of almost the same story [The Rejuvenator], but with laughable special effects, lots of nudity, and a script obsessed with making cheap movies. Bobbie Bresse (MAUSOLEUM) is the faded blond star who injects a youth serum that backfires and turns her into an insect monster. John Carridine appears for a few minutes as the feeble Dr Zeitman who tells crazy, evil Donna Wildsmith (with really stiff hair) to “carry on with my plan.” Bresse has an eye-catching nude shower scene, then looks pretty funny when her teeth grow and her eyes turn red, and later when she has a rubber face. She dreams that she wins an Oscar (see Joe Spinnell interview). A poster for Fred Olen Ray’s The TOMB is on a wall. (Ray, uncredited, did rewrites and shot additional footage. Hall, the credited director, recently made GHOST WRITER with the Landers sisters.) Forry Ackerman, who helped make Bobbie Bresse a “cult figure” is seen cleaning a pool. Choice bad dialog is repeated over and over in the deranged actress’ mind. Despite everything, EVIL SPAWN is non-stop fun in a sort of desperate way. The best part for me was when a stunning Pamela Gilbert, as the monster woman’s secretary, goes for a nude swim. It’s that kind of movie.

Kenneth J Hall was not happy about this. And I can understand why. As unaffected as I am, I get annoyed about all the uncredited writers, directors, and so on that are thrown around. Film is almost always a collaborative effort. There are so many people who don’t get the credit they deserve.

At the same time, we get sloppy writing that gives big names more credit than they deserve. Would Weldon have undercut Hall in this way if some no-name had shot a few minutes of the film?

Hall Responds

So Hall wrote a letter, which appeared in Psychotronic Video #4:

I normally let these things slide, but the review of EVIL SPAWN (PV#2) marks the second time Fred Ray has been credited for writing or “fixing up” the film. The source of such misleading information can only be Fred himself. It baffles me why a man who’s done so many features wants to take a bow for my little picture, especially since he didn’t want his name on it to begin with. The truth is, Fred was the original producer/director on the project, first titled WASP. George Edwards wrote several unconnected scenes, which Fred shot in one day [seen in On Location Footage]. After that he lost interest in the film, much to the chagrin of Bobbie and Frank Bresse who co-financed it. Several months later, I was asked to finish it, writing a script around approximately five minutes of existing footage. I was also asked to incorporate one of Fred’s “generic” John Carradine scenes into the plot. These were scenes he’d hired the aging actor to do — presumably for one movie — which he’s subsequently spliced into several other films like THE DEMENTED DEATH FARM MASSACRE and STAR SLAMMER. I wrote and directed the rest of the film on a seven-day schedule for a budget of less than $30,000. Fred had little involvement during that time. He never read my script and rarely visited the set. After my cut was completed, he stepped in to supervise post-production, which was done very shoddily. There is a further history to EVIL SPAWN involving a number of lawsuits. Suffice it to say the behind the scenes story is more convoluted than the one on the screen, to this day, no one involved, including myself, has seen a profit from it.

Ray Responds

I think that response speaks to a badly managed production where different principals had very different ideas about what was being done. Regardless, Ray wasn’t going to let this sit. He responded in the following issue:

EVIL SPAWN, as Ken Hall tried desperately to state, is all his. He wrote most of it and directed most of it and it certainly bears his unmistakable “style.” Outside of hiring Ken as my employee and placing a certain amount of faith in him as a first-time director, I had little to do with the film and have never implied differently. I wish Ken would stop trying to drag me into this loser. If he’s unhappy about the fact that he hasn’t made any money, how do you think those of us who LOST money on him feel? With the paltry budget he delineated it seems impossible that any picture could lose money, but his did. Thanks a lot, Ken.

That’s harsh! It’s also, well, false. As Ray discusses in the commentary, the film lost money because of all the problems between Ray and the Bresees. Thankfully, his anger at Hall seems to have dissipated. I certainly understand how disagreements can go.

Should We Believe Fred Olen Ray?

But it’s a bit hard to believe that Fred Olen Ray is quite as blameless as he claims. As I’ve noted in the past: making films is hard; it is a profession that most rewards the ruthless.

And there is something that he said in the commentary that bothers me. “Now they were supposed to have paid all the participants — Ken Hall, anybody who had a share in the film — The Bresees were to have paid them from the money they had received [from foreign distribution].”

Is he saying he never paid anyone? What it sounds like to me is that with Ray and the Bresees fighting, the contracts were effectively destroyed and they were the only parties who made any money. And that’s messed up.

Buy Evil Spaw

But regardless of all the behind-the-scenes nonsense, I recommend buying the Evil Spawn Blu-ray. It really is a good film with worthwhile extras.


Evil Spawn artwork cropped from Amazon under Fair Use.

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