Sunday, 15 July 2018

Xtro - and excess

Harry Bromley Davenport, 1982, UK

This was one of those VHS covers that promised so much when you held it in your hands as a youth in the video store. And it didn’t disappoint, having many moments that you could relish telling your pals about in simple gleefully shocked sentences. Not least of all a woman being raped by an alien and giving birth to a fully grown man. But there’s also the eating of the snake eggs, the panther, the… Well, ‘Xtro’ seems to pack so much random stuff in its primary location of an upmarket flat – even a naked Maryam d’Abo – that this is what makes it special: the idea that even on a limited budget and location, all is possible.

The inspiration seems to have been not only to cash in on the extremism agenda of the contemporary horror movement and the fad for Scott’s ‘Alien’, not only to present a counter-‘E.T.’ (“Not all aliens are friendly”), but (according to Davenport) also to mimic some of the spirit of ‘Phantasm’. Davenport long disliked ‘Xtro’ and certainly, when reflecting upon its genesis, seems very much to have conceded with whatever leftfield idea was asked of him (“A panther? Sure…”). Now, having seen that fans are happy to follow its waywardness if not see it as welcomingly unpredictable, he seems to have made his peace with it (with Second Sights’ wonderful new release).

‘Xtro’ justifies its nightmare logic by having random psychic powers as the reason for anything and everything unsystematic that happens. Some find it confusing and messy, but when you accept that psychic powers mean that anything goes, there arguably isn’t a thorough need for logic, just inventiveness. In that, it follows the psychic terrors of films like ‘The Fury’ or ‘Carrie’ or especially ‘Harlequin’; but its Eerie Child angle also hints at ‘The Omen’. As a kid, I was particularly taken with psychic horrors like ‘Harlequin’, ‘The Shout’ and ‘The Medusa Touch’ where the imagination seemed to bend reality to its will. I found that scary (and perhaps The Twilight Zone’s ‘It’s a Good Life’ provides a great epitome of this). And if this sounds as if it’s strayed from an ‘Alien’ rip-off, the joy of ‘Xtro’ is watching it mash everything together in the kitchen sink and to go wherever the hell it wants. Apparently the producer wanted a panther in the flat, so there it is, and it doesn’t seem ridiculous but simply a highly evocative part of the madness (Davenport notes the panther in the white corridor as the film’s best shot, but there are many). Certainly the seemingly arbitrary built on the peaks of odd moments were the kind of narratives my undisciplined teenaged brain was making and that’s how I read ‘Xtro’, but rarely does such random plotting work as successfully as it does here: it’s a fun-ride of surreal horror and contemporary excess underpinned by a kitchen sink drama. It works as a portrayal of reality breaking down along with the family unit.

And beneficial, as usual in these B-cases, is that the lead actors Philip Sayer and Bernice Stegers take it all seriously and deliver above-average performances to ground the absurdities and accentuate them. Perhaps Simon Nash as the boy just waiting for his alien abducted dad to come home isn’t particularly good, his ‘Grange Hill’ volume and working class accent puts him at odds with everyone else’s naturalness. Nevertheless, he fits the special grubbiness and low-rent British Eighties-ness that can’t be affected and only gives a solid foundation for the outré incidents. It’s an example where that particular low-rent feel becomes an asset. The soundtrack by Davenport is at once unforgettable, a little hokey, quintessentially Eighties synth and somewhat resembles the Dr Who scores of the time (and included in Second Sight’s release; a real bonus). The effects are both tacky and vivid: yes, the man-sized birth is appropriately icky, horrid and in bad taste, but no less memorable are performers Tik and Tok as the Action Man come to life and as the alien – the alien that wastes no time in being seen, a simple, slightly stiff but unforgettable.

There are two endings to ‘Xtro’ and although Davenport thinks that the ending with the clones of Danny doesn’t work, I disagree: surely it fits the nightmarish and haphazard tone and provides more motivation for the alien visit; the other ending is more just an ‘Alien’-style shock that leads nowhere. So no, I can’t really say ‘Xtro’ is “good”, but it reaches places other more prestige films don’t and exists totally in its own realm, however much of a B-movie rip-off it was intended to be. I have always been very fond of it.


Philip said...

I've never seen it, but I remember reading about it somewhere or other and being annoyed that it wasn't based on the Alfred Bester novel. (I was young then; nowadays I'd probably be relieved.) I wonder if they pinched the title.

Unknown said...

I'm not sure you would like it, Philip - I mean it is undisciplined and rough-and-tumble, which means it a small wonder that the dialogue is just this side of embarassing - but there is something genuinely mean and unhinged about it and I would submit as an original bit of exploitation.