Movie Review: Xtro (1983)

Bizarre Cult Favorite That Was Originally a “Video Nasty”

September 2 2008 Categorized Under: Movie Reviews No Commented
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Xtro (1983)
Directed by: Harry Bromley Davenport
Starring: Philip Sayer, Bernice Stegers, Danny Brainin, Maryam d’Abo, Simon Nash

(out of 4)

<em>This is what happens when you apply makeup incorrectly.</em>

How not to apply makeup

I just read a recent article in the Los Angeles Times about Robert Shaye, the founder of New Line Cinema. After a recent string of flops, Warner Brothers decided to take tighter control over the company, which includes distribution and greenlighting of projects. This action also got many people fired, including Shaye himself. New Line hadn’t always squandered untold amounts of money on risky projects – back in the day it was leaner and more focused. Since the 80s it has produced some low-budget gems like Alone in the Dark, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Critters, and The Hidden. It also had an eye for distribution, releasing stuff like Reefer Madness, Pink Flamingos, The Evil Dead and of course, this wonderful piece of British trash known as Xtro.

Xtro was one of the original U.K. “video nasties”. It’s a product of kitchen-sink filmmaking, where certain scenes exist just for their “coolness” factor. For example, as directer Davenport later tells in a DVD featurette, Shaye was so hopped up about featuring a black panther in the movie that he had to somehow work it into the plot. What I’m saying is that Xtro is a mishmash of unrelated plot developments all fighting for their inch of screen time, and it’s a wonder that the movie works at all. But in the end, it does work, particularly as a funhouse picture with cult appeal, and that’s because it’s xenophobic, surreal, repulsive, and funny.

<em>What? Like a clown? I'm here to amuse you?</em>

What? Like a clown? I'm here to amuse you?

One day, little Tony (Simon Nash) sees his dad Sam (Phillip Sayer) abducted by aliens. Three years later Sam returns to earth and finds that his wife Rachel (Bernice Stegers) has found herself a new boyfriend, an American named Joe (well played by Danny Brainin). Oh yea, there’s also Maryam d’Abo playing a hot French au pair. “I’ve got to go lie down for awhile” she tells Tony. “You’re always lying down” he responds. Anyway, Sam doesn’t return in human form right away – the first thing we see is a rather nasty alien creature who implants eggs through the mouth of a poor British woman, which results in a particularly nasty scene of her giving birth to a full grown man. Ok, it’s a rather twisted variation of Alien, but the scene itself seems to have been an influence on later films like Species 2 as well as Takashi Miike’s Gozu. Obviously Sam isn’t really Sam anymore, although he can walk and talk like him and seems to have Sam’s memories before the abduction. Of course, there’s the slightly odd behavior, like Sam eating snakes eggs, huffing gas, and occasionally melting phone receivers.

<em>It's ok - happens to everyone.</em>

It's ok - happens to everyone.

Rachel is obviously caught off guard by Sam’s return, but seems to believe him when he says he can’t remember anything. Joe is very clearly threatened by Sam and exhibits some very cynical and jealous behavior. (Americans!) Unfortunately, nobody notices that Sam is slowly changing Tony into an alien hybrid-thing like himself. This results in a very weird sequence where Tony creates real-life versions of his toys – the aforementioned black panther, a GI-Joe, and a creepy clown (Peter Mandell) with spinning tops and flowers. When the lady downstairs kills Tony’s snake, he dispatches the full sized GI-Joe-thing to take her out. At this point in the movie, the gears have been switched and we’re looking at a boy dealing with newly found Q-like powers. Only when we later witness the clown carefully handling alien eggs from a cocoon holding poor Maryam d’Abo are we reminded that – oh yeah – these people are aliens!

The best parts of Xtro are the performances by Sayer, Stegers, and Brainin, who give it all they got, seemingly unaware that their personal drama about a family unit and its breakup has been “abducted” by a B-movie, gooey-alien storyline, just like what happens to daddy. You could also look at Xtro as a commentary on the need for fathers to mold sons in their own image. Although the weakness in executing this concept is that Tony doesn’t really fight his transformation – he accepts it like a son that might happily step into his dad’s profession of shoe making. A better reading might be the observation that mothers never look forward to the day that their sons grow up and move out of the house. Especially if “grown-up” means turning into a creepy alien (puberty can be tough). This may have been Davenport’s original intent, since the first ending he came up with involved a very pregnant Rachel surrounded by multiple Tony clones. Shaye didn’t dig that either, so the ending was reshot, which involves alien eggs, surrounded by a weird green custard, being hatched. (As an aside, I’m ready to believe that Shaye’s constant second guessing helped lead to his downfall.)

When all is said and done, I liked Xtro – I liked its particular lack of restraint, its eagerness to offend, its low-key bizarreness, and its British-ness. There is such a thing as good trash, and it’s nice to see that the British can supply it.

– Bill Gordon

The Xtro dvd comes with a hilarious interview with director Harry Bromley Davenport, who talks about the making of the film as well as Xtro 2 and Xtro 3: Watch the Skies. Worth watching, especially just to hear his opinion of Jan-Michael Vincent.

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