A friend and I stumbled on this oddity not long ago. He was clicking around on the web as I was watching in a half-distracted manner when he found a creepy little clip of a couple driving down a secluded road. The headlights of their car light up a monster walking across the street in a strange, inverted way. We found out that the footage was pulled from a movie heretofore unknown to us, Xtro, a video nasty that had been banned in Britain due to a shocking scene in which a woman gives birth to a full-grown man (more on that later). What tickled my friend (and sent him on a fevered mission to call every store in town in hopes of scoring us a copy) was that Xtro was not only a horror movie, but a SCI-FI HORROR movie that featured aliens--he’s an incurable devotee of all things extra-terrestrial. I’m not so much, but the clip was more than enough to pique my interest and reminiscent of an earlier favorite of mine, John Carpenter's In the Mouth of Madness. It was shaping up to be my favorite kind of discovery--an old movie I have never heard of that, through some serendipitous turn of events, suddenly appears in my life. When it turns out to be a gem, the feeling derived is nothing short of, at the risk of using a tired metaphor, unearthing buried treasure.
My friend’s telephone canvassing of the city turned up nary a copy. With all possible avenues exhausted, we would be forced to wait. I jumped on eBay and scored two copies on the cheap. It was in the hands of the U.S Postal Service. Was Xtro worth the wait?
My buddy’s girlfriend joined us for the first screening. Despite our palm-rubbing anticipation of the viewing, we made a couple of mistakes. First of all, we started the movie too late in the evening--it was pushing midnight. Secondly, we had stocked up on beer, otherwise known as “go night-night juice” when coupled with the late showing of a movie (falling asleep during a movie for me is no indication’s of its quality; I’ve been known to watch some of my most favorite movies over a span of two or three nights). For the first half an hour our eyes were riveted to the screen, the beers were riveted to our hands, and I can only imagine the this-is-awesome facial expressions we wore on our faces.
Xtro’s strength in the beginning comes from its piling on of shocking, surreal images. Shot on a shoestring budget, the bizarre abduction scene works on a so-jarring-I'm-gonna-have-to-believe-it level. Sam Phillips (Phillip Sayer) is in the yard, playing with his son. He tries to throw a stick over the house, day snaps to night, a strange light appears in the sky, a harsh wind blows, and that’s the last we see of daddy for three years. Tony (Simon Nash) is left with some abandonment issues that not even Analise, his French nanny (played by the lovely Miriam D’abo,) can alleviate. There’s also the freaky alien by the roadside that had originally enticed us, as well as the footage that got Xtro banned in the first place--the alien rape scene which results in the victim giving birth to a fully grown Sam Phillips. This isn’t a traditional rape; the victim, a la Alien, finds herself with a rather gross and slimy alien appendage attached to her mouth as a means of impregnation. The woman then goes through the shortest gestation period ever captured, a shortcut which she more than makes up for with the mother of all painful births--something we see echoed onscreen twenty years later with Takashi Miike’s surreal Yakuza flick Gozu.
I should add that Analise gets the only witty line of dialogue in the entire film. When young Tony awakens in the middle of the night covered in blood, a doctor is summoned. Finding no sign of injury, he hints that Tony might benefit from psychiatric help. This fiesty frenchwoman rushes to Tony's aid, making it clear that the doctor's suggestion is not a welcome one. "All that a doctor can think of is another doctor," she scoffs.
The film comes apart a bit once the action slows down and we get into the exposition. When Sam tries to rejoin the family, he is met with resistance [partly because he can offer no explanation for his three year walkabout, partly because he has been displaced by a photographer vying for the love of Rachel (Bernice Stegers,) his wife].
Sam confides in his son Tony (who bears an uncanny resemblance to yours truly when I was a lad, and, I should add, plays a mean game of Connect Four, a perennial battleground between my sister and I when we were kids) that he has returned for him. He chases Tony down and sucks on his shoulder, leaving a nasty, exaggerated mosquito bite. This, he tells him, will prepare his body for life on the new planet. It was at around this point during the first screening when the three of us opted for a nap on the couch. On second viewing, I can see that the beer and the late hour weren’t entirely to blame, because the story starts to go slack here. Details about the alien planet and the aliens’ reasons for abducting Sam are glossed over. It’s also unclear as to why they’d make the interplanetary voyage once again so that Sam could pick up his little boy. All facts point to the aliens as being a predatory bunch, with little regard for human safety or fuzzy feelings, so this little trip to unite father and son seems far-flung.
Tony’s exploration of his nascent powers also alter the tone of the film too much for my taste. Particularly the scenes in which he brings to life some of his favorite toys. I found that they took up too much time, particularly his clown companion, who I kept wishing would just get the eff out of the film. I’m not a fan of clowns--I’m not one of those people who fashionably claims to be afraid of them--but I don’t much care for their aesthetic . . . Especially when shoehorned into what could otherwise be a serviceable little sci-fi horror flick.
There is something about this picture that I find inherently repellent, so much so that I may not be able to revisit my blog until subsequent posts have pushed it off the main page.
Though a good deal of the steam has been dispersed by the conclusion, it does pick up somewhat, though not enough to redeem it entirely. There is some good imagery as father and son are picked up by the spacecraft and the coda at the end in which Rachel discovers a tub full of pulsating alien eggs has a nice oneiric feel. All in all, it was worth the two bucks plus shipping I spent, but, ultimately it leaves me with the feeling that it could have been so much more.
So, while the viewing left me puzzled, I was glad to have written the bulk of the review before visiting the DVD extras. In a fifteen minute long interview, director Harry Bromley Davenport did not have many nice things to say about his own movies (he directed two sequels as well). Since Xtro was his first film, he admits that in the excitement, he and his collaborators went a little apeshit when it came to adding story elements--particularly the black panther that appears a few times in the movie. Turns out it was one of the producers, I believe, that insisted on it, much to HBD's dismay (because of the expense, and, also, like what the hell is a black panther doing in an alien movie set in Great Britain?). While these diversions ranged from puzzling (as in the case of the panther) to downright irritating (as in the case of the clown) they weren't enough to merit a pan. Xtro does suffer from some sloppy plotting, though, for the most part, a coherent story can be extracted from the film. Rather than the panther, the clown, and the toy soldier come to life--none of which really add to the scare count because effective scares in the movie are all directly related to the extraterrestrial--I would have like to have been given more detail about the more fascinating aspects of the story (i.e. why exactly Tony's body would have to be altered for life on another planet, what life on that other planet is like, why was it important to go back for Tony, etc.). It's easy to understand why the film has earned a modest cult following. The stretches of weirdness are enough to keep any viewer amused between the scare scenes that become increasingly fewer and further between.
This could be a kick-ass scene in a Black Roses video, but in Xtro it just plain don't work.