Time is relative right now. The jury’s still out on any semblance of a summer movie season. Thus, the Midwest Film Journal is celebrating — at least in the astronomical sense — Endless Summer. In this intermittent series, which will run through the autumnal equinox on Sept. 22, we’ll look back at summer films from seasons past. Big, small, light, heavy, wild successes and weird misfires. Our multiplex is full and open for Endless Summer.
I remember the Spawn poster — a sliver of a green eye glowing out of a black void. “Born in darkness, sworn to justice,” the tagline read. Creepy yet cool. Walking past the one sheet in the theater sent a shiver up my spine. I couldn’t wait until the film’s release on August 1, 1997.
Spawn was part of a world that intoxicated me as a kid. It was the kind of movie whose trailer would play at Hot Topic, in between Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails music videos. I gazed up at the TV in awe as goth teens towered over me in the store. I was 6 years old.
Spawn the comic-book character was a hot commodity at the time. In the months leading up to the film’s release, comics were flying off the shelves and an animated series premiered on HBO. My parents didn’t let me stay up for the TV-MA show, but I was all set for the movie … because it was PG-13!
Spawn was my ticket into a world normally rated R with a black-and-white explicit content label slapped on its surface. The film adopted the gothic-meets-grunge aesthetic of Blade Runner and Batman, like so many other ’90s movies — Darkman, The Crow, Escape from L.A., Bride of Chucky and Dark City, to name a few. Aside from their gothic horror elements, most of these films share a dingy, rainy setting cast in perpetual midnight.
Much of Spawn takes place in a series of alleys that serves as a purgatory for government assassin Al Simmons (Michael Jai White). He’s embroiled in a deal with the devil that pits him and his boss, Jason Wynn (Martin Sheen), against each other. Satan’s henchman, Clown (John Leguizamo, buried beneath mounds of makeup), cons them both into taking actions with personal and apocalyptic consequences.
I saw the film in the theater with my older brother, Harry. It felt like we were getting away with something, sneaking into a movie meant for older kids. I don’t know about him, but I was in goth geek heaven during the scene in which Simmons transforms into the titular Hell soldier. The scene opens with goth punks performing a satanic ritual at a cemetery. They think they’ve successfully summoned demons when Clown and Simmons show up. Simmons digs his own grave and finds his Spawn suit, a slick piece of necroplasm that molds to his skin.
Meanwhile, Wynn develops a biological virus to hold the world hostage, which feels all too timely today. Otherwise, this is a quintessentially ’90s action-horror movie, complete with CGI straight out of Doom and grungy guitar riffs stolen from Napster.
Considering its Sega-quality effects, it’s hilarious that Roger Ebert praised Spawn as “an experimental art film” with “visions of hell worthy of Hieronymous Bosch.” Then again, I’m still drooling over the film’s moody atmosphere to this day, so who am I to judge? To give you an idea of how much Spawn scratches my ’90s goth-grunge itch, this is a film in which Marilyn Manson’s “Long Hard Road Out of Hell” plays not once but twice.
The film is pretty dated and cringe-inducing now. The plot is preposterous, and it all feels like an excuse to sell action figures, foreshadowing the “toyetic” vibe of future superhero films to come. But I still found myself wrapped up in certain sequences, like Spawn’s battle with a demonic creature named the Violator. Spawn’s green eyes gleam in the misty darkness as the two prey upon each other in the rain-swept alleys. For a while, all you hear are faint rolls of thunder and raindrops falling on rooftops. Watching this scene in the theater as a kid felt like witnessing an act of movie magic.
Another standout scene near the end finds Spawn battling Clown and the Violator in his wife’s living room. The inclusion of larger-than-life elements in the small, intimate setting is quite striking and effective.
I remember walking out of Spawn and feeling like I was still in its world. It was a cloudy afternoon with a bit of a chill in the air, an early taste of fall. Harry and I walked across the street from General Cinemas to meet our dad at Grove Cinema. (He went with the classier choice of Grosse Pointe Blank.) As we walked, the sky darkened and the surrounding buildings appeared damp and dreary, like the setting of Spawn. They didn’t always look that way. It was as if my world transformed after I saw the film.
Later that night, we played with some friends in the yard of our townhouse complex. I kept an eye out for hellish creatures around the corner and I couldn’t stop thinking about Spawn prowling alleyways. It grew colder outside, and chills of excitement made the hairs on my neck stand up. That’s the magic of summer movies.