Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Horror Season II - 'XTRO'

I'd always intended to end the month with some sci-fi, but my original plan was to review John Carpenter’s The Thing. I figured an essay deconstructing its iconic combination of nail-biting suspense, Dean Cundy cinematography, Rob Bottin’s groundbreaking gore effects, that Ennio Morricone score; and memorable performances from Keith David, Wilford Brimley and Kurt Russell’s facial hair would make a fitting Halloween send-off.

But where’s the fun in that?

Three years ago on an otherwise ordinary day at their family cottage, Sam Phillips (Philip Sayer) vanished in a brilliant flash of light and wind turbine special effects right in front of his son Tony. Having since relocated to London, Tony and his mother, Rachel, have moved on with their lives, with Rachel now seeing another man, Joe. She believes Sam simply walked out on them, but Tony, stricken with nightmares of his father’s disappearance, isn’t so convinced. Then, without warning, Sam shows up one afternoon claiming he can’t remember anything from the past few years. To Tony’s delight (and Joe’s eternal frustration), Rachel allows Sam to stay... but he’s not the man they once knew. Now altered by some terrible otherworldly force, Sam has returned home with the darkest of intentions.

A low budget British production, Harry Bromley Davenport’s Xtro was released in 1982 – right during the whimsical height of E.T. mania. The film’s tagline, ‘Some extra-terrestrials aren’t friendly.’ tells you all you need to know about its marketing strategy. And as a gruesome response to Spielberg’s family-friendly classic, you can expect many grisly surprises.

There have been some mixed messages over its UK debut, however. For one thing, it was never censored, and for another, its VHS debut was never technically deemed a ‘Video Nasty’, despite finding itself caught up in the whole ridiculous affair and temporarily banned in a few select cities. By and large, Xtro had a pretty smooth time of it, most likely due to the BBFC’s relaxed attitude towards anything that incorporated sci-fi or fantasy (barring any giant maggot rape).

Even so, the film has gained its fair share of well-deserved infamy. Mostly due to the early portions dealing with Sam’s return home, which I have thus far glossed over. Spoilers and all that ahead.

Sam doesn’t just reappear. One night, the mysterious... bright thingamabob (looks like a giant scalene triangle) that originally took him away emerges over the countryside and deposits an alien creature. This thing could best be described as an inverted lizard man spider cat (me neither), and it’s not long until the twisted organism finds a passing couple (of which, the man’s mullet I must applaud) to kill. Or rather, they hit it with their car, get out to investigate and much dumbassery ensues. 

    That's one ugly deer.

So far there’s no obvious connection between Sam and the monster, but then it happens across a woodland cottage and its sole occupier: a young woman. Uh oh. Before you can shout “John Hurt!” it pins her to the ground, extends a rather phallic-looking tube from one glistening orifice (oh H.R. Giger, you have so much to answer for) and clamps it over her mouth.

When she wakes up next to the creature’s decomposing remains, you’re fully expecting her to explode or something else that’s considered generic in this field of cinema. But it's so much worse. There’s a crunch as her belly rapidly expands, making her collapse in agony, and (here we go) a sudden torrent of gore floods from her nether regions, following which... Sam pushes himself out. Fully grown. Placental fluid all over the shop. I just saw a woman give birth to a thirty plus year-old man. Complete with umbilical cord chewing!  Look, this film’s not great, but no one can take that away from it.    

Mentally scarring first act aside, Xtro is not a straightforward Alien rip-off in the vein of creature features like Forbidden World and Titan Find. It goes for a more subtle approach... so much so, that scenes where Sam is apparently reintegrating himself into his old family life play out like your basic awkward EastEnders scenario. This feeling is only heightened by some amusingly wooden acting and fits of melodrama. It reaches boiling point when, after an intense dinner session, Sam lobs a wine bottle at Joe, who flips out with his priceless delivery of: “You crazy maniac... you’re outta your fuckin’ MIIIIIND!!!” Line of the movie. 

Gets me every time.

But it’s not always amateur hour. Philip Sayer just about carries the whole picture as Sam Phillips. We know something nasty’s going on, but we aren’t immediately sure of his true motives. So Sayer does a superb job of balancing Sam’s innocent side with the malevolent alien lurking within, constantly keeping us on our toes. Sayer tragically lost his life to cancer in 1989, but were he still around, I’m sure he’d be impressed by the steadily growing cult following Xtro has since attracted.

The only other thespian of much note is future The Living Daylights Bond girl Maryam d’Abo, making her film debut. She plays the Phillips family’s maid/babysitter, and since it was early days in her career, all she has to do here is take her clothes off a lot and be cocooned. That’s all I got.    

The family values stuff is interspersed with sci-fi tangents, mind you. If nothing else, Xtro poses the following question: What do you say when your son catches you eating his pet snake’s eggs? Not even Sam could think up a decent excuse (though I guess his mouth was still full of mangled reptile embryos), but he does use it as an opportunity to convert the boy to his alien cause via blowing bubbles under his shoulder (you can’t write this stuff). 

   "Aren't I lucky, I got a chunky bit!"

Then it gets weird... er. The film’s spoilerific trailer promises aliens “bearing powers of black magic from deep space” and it wasn’t lying. Whatever this mysterious race that abducted Sam actually is, they have supernatural traits. This first becomes apparent when Sam accidentally melts a public phone to gloop with his bare hands, but we aren’t shown its full potential until these abilities are transferred to Tony. What does he do with them? He creates a dwarf. Nay, he creates a clown dwarf. How about that, I found something more unnerving than Peter Bark.

 Well... at least there's no incest this time.

This little (sorry) addition to the cast – who, if IMDB is to be believed, would go on to play an Ewok – proves surprisingly valuable to Sam and Tony’s evil scheme, as we’ll later discover, but he’s not the only helper Tony conjures. One subplot concerns their snooping neighbour, Mrs. Goodman, who lives in the apartment below. Earlier on, Tony’s snake gets loose and finds its way into Goodman’s salad. She bashes it to pieces and returns it in a plastic bag filled with blood ‘n’ gore (superb people skills). This pisses Tony off, so he reacts in a perfectly reasonable manner by sending his now man-sized favourite action figure down to kill her.

Really, this thing comes equipped with a bayonet rifle and door breaching mines! It launches a full-on assault against the old woman, who dives for cover under her sofa. The soldier tracks Goodman into the living room, but can’t quite find her. Who knows, she might even have lived through this, had she not gone and demonstrated Prometheus levels of character stupidity. I don’t care how close those knocked-over chocolates are, when you’re being stalked by frickin’ Action Man, you don’t reach for them! Of course, the soldier notices her hand scrabbling for the chocs, and plunges its bayonet deep into the furniture. As she squeals, her blood spurts out in thick streams over the delectable treats; and in a morally questionable way, I feel like justice has been served.

I’m starting to lose track of why this is considered a bad movie by so many. Everything I've seen this far has been totally inspired and demented in the most imaginative of ways. And as the inhuman father and son team’s plot comes to fruition, Xtro only gets more messed up. There’s a whole sequence where d’Abo’s boyfriend is chased through the flat by a miniature tank – the blasts which he somehow evades – only to run into, of all things, a panther. Just... sitting there. Wait, what genre is this, anyway?!           

Buh, alright, I’d better wrap this up. As the climax nears, Rachel takes Sam back to their cottage in an effort to buck his “amnesia”, but it only leads to spontaneous romantic high jinks between the estranged couple. While Joe rushes to the cottage with Tony, Sam goes a bit Jeff Goldblum circa 1986, shedding his human skin to reveal his hideous true form just in time for a finale filled with more bright lights, wind turbines and at least one melting brain.

It feels a little rushed, if I’m honest (budget constraints taking their toll, perhaps?), but packs in some frightening imagery; and with only one last shockingly bleak scene to go, it’s all over for Xtro. Two completely unrelated and generic sequels followed in 1990 (The Second Encounter) and 1995 (Watch the Skies), both directed by Davenport, who has since talked up plans for a fourth entry, which he hopes will go back to the original’s surreal roots.

Well, whatever happens, there’s still nothing quite like where it all began. It’s a sick, twisted excursion to the realm of genre-bending sci-fi horror, and as such, it’s carved out a disturbingly unique personal niche. It may feel every one of its thirty years (though I dare you not to dig Davenport’s own creaky electronic soundtrack), but each time I revisit Xtro, I find something new to admire or be utterly revolted by.

Granted, it's mostly the latter. 

Happy Halloween


  1. I'm surprised you haven't already!

  2. I know right. I'm way behind schedule. :\