Horror Movie Review: Spawn (1997)


Spawn is a graphic novel based on an anti-hero character of the same name and was created by well renowned writer/artist Todd McFarlane. Spawn ranked 50th on Empire magazine’s list of The 50 Greatest Comic Book Characters and 36th on IGN’s 2011 Top 100 Comic Book Heroes. It was eventually adapted into a series of action figures whose high level of detail made McFarlane Toys known in the toy industry.

The Spawn character was getting a decent amount of recognition in the late 90s, so much so that in 1997 it was adapted into a full live-action feature film loosely based on the comic. Prior to the film’s release, many fans of the graphic novel maintained a belief that Spawn was something that would be impossible to adapt into a movie, let’s have a look and see if they were right.

Al Simmons (Michael Jai White), a military soldier/assassin, is betrayed by Jason Wynn(Martin Sheen), the head of a covert government agency. Wynn assigns Simmons a mission to take out a Bio-Chem plant in North Korea while ordering his top assassin, Jessica Priest, to assassinate him. After Simmons dies from a gas fire caused by Wynn, he arrives in Hell, where Malebolgia, the Devil, offers him a deal. If Simmons becomes his eternal servant and leader of his army in Armageddon, he will be able to return to Earth to see his fiancée, Wanda Blake.

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When he returns, Simmons learns that five years have passed. Wanda is now married to his best friend, Terry, and living the life he longed for, including the daughter he never knew, Cyan. He encounters a strange clown-like demon called The Violator, who acts as a guide, setting “Spawn” onto the path to evil. He also meets a mysterious old man named Cogliostro, a fellow Hellspawn who freed his soul and now fights for Heaven.

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Wynn has become a high-class weapons dealer and developed the ultimate biological weapon, “Heat 16”. During a reception, Simmons attacks Wynn, kills Jessica, and escapes, instinctively using Spawn’s strange armour.

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Following Simmons’ attack, The Violator convinces Wynn to have a device attached to his heart that will trigger the worldwide release of Heat 16 should his vital signs flatline. The device is supposedly a safeguard against assassination attempts, but Malebolgia actually wants Simmons to kill Wynn and trigger the apocalypse. Spawn confronts The Violator, who turns into his demonic form and beats him down.

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Cogliostro rescues him and teaches him how to use his armour before Spawn learns that Clown and Wynn are going to kill Terry.

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Meanwhile, Terry has just finished emailing a fellow newsman who sent him evidence exposing Wynn. After the transmission, Cyan enters the room, with Wynn right behind her. Wynn destroys Terry’s computer and takes the family hostage. When Spawn arrives, he ends up almost killing Jason Wynn, despite his warning that his death will launch the Heat 16 bombs. Only after realizing that Jason’s death would ultimately mean the death of Cyan does he relent.

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Instead, he extracts the device from Wynn’s body before destroying it. His plans foiled the Clown draws Spawn and Cogliostro into Hell, where Spawn tells Malebolgia that he will never lead his army. He escapes with Cogliostro just before they are overwhelmed and returns to the real world. The Violator follows and there is a final battle between him and Spawn, ending with Spawn severing the demon’s head with his chains. Wynn is arrested and Spawn, realizing there is no place for him in Wanda’s world anymore, dedicates himself to justice rather than succumbing to his lust for vengeance.

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The main problem with the film is that screenwriter Alan McElroy and writer/director Mark A.Z. Dippe tried to squeeze far too much plot and too many characters into a 90-minute film. In retrospect, it would have been better to make one film covering everything up to Spawn’s transformation (or the beginning of the transformation), and then save the other material (which comprises the bulk of the story here) for later films. Sadly, Spawn is one of those movies that ends while hinting heavily towards a sequel that’s never going to happen.

Another issue with Spawn is that far too much of the runtime is spent explaining the plot, so much so that the film requires narration at times to explain what’s happening in case you can’t keep up. There seems to be a very high-concept idea behind the creation of Spawn but I didn’t feel as if the film did a good enough job developing and explaining what that was. Also, a lot of characters, most critically Cogliostro, are basically wasted. There just isn’t time to get into them.

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This movie came out in a time when filmmakers thought they had to adapt comic books by recreating them exactly the same into live action and for the most part it makes them come across quite disjointed and over the top. A lot of the dialogue used in the film feels like something right out of a comic book, it can be fairly distracting but I understand it was probably intentional. A further problem is some of the CGI effects used in Spawn; for the most part it all looks very dated. Malebolgia, the Devil looks absolutely awful so much so that his dialogue doesn’t even sync with his awkward jaw movements.

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It’s clear that the filmmakers blew their budgets on Spawns suit and cape because it’s actually really impressive looking and holy hell is that cape badass when it’s fully unleashed. Also, the makeup used for Simmons burned flesh was really good.

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I’m sure a lot of people hate John Leguizamo’s character in the film (Clown/Violator) and I can genuinely understand why but there’s something about him that I can’t help but enjoy. It’s an over the top performance that’s part horror/part humour/part surreal cheesiness and it’s nothing if not memorable, he’s like Krusty the Clown on acid. If you’re not the kind of person who loves films like Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988), you probably won’t like this Killer Klown either.

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Personally, I’ve never read any of the Spawn comics so I can’t comment on how well this movie sticks to the source material. I will say though, the cheesiness of the CGI, Wynn’s dialogue and the violator are mainly what’s entertaining about the whole thing. All of the action scenes involving Spawn are some of the best moments of the film as it’s very intriguing to witness the many unique things he can do with his suit and cape, I wanted to see more of that kind of stuff.

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As for the acting, I must say that it’s fairly wooden from everyone involved (John Leguizamo excluded) bar a few moments. Lastly, the soundtrack contains quite a lot of weird dub step type music which really doesn’t fit at all but it seemed to be the thing back in the 90s; I’m looking at you Blade. There is some nu-metal and Marilyn Manson included in the soundtrack as well which is no bad thing.

With all of these negative points what do I actually think of Spawn overall? Well, I think it’s an enjoyable, fun yet flawed movie that does nothing much for fans of the source material but considering I’m not one of those people I’d say that I find it to be very entertaining. It teeters on the edge of being a so bad it’s good because of its many unfortunate problems but that doesn’t mean it’s no good at all. You should approach watching spawn by not looking for a dramatic masterpiece and rather a love for the absurd.

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  • 6/10
    The Final Score - 6/10
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