Dir. and written by Harry Bromley Davenport
Starring Bernice Stegers, Philip Sayer, Danny Brainin, Simon Nash, Maryam d'Abo
19 minutes into XTRO, a woman gets mouth-raped by a slimy alien tentacle and graphically gives birth to a full-grown adult man, who chews through his umbilical cord and walks off bloody and naked into the night. I feel like we should get that little detail out of the way right off the bat, just put it out there, lay our cards on the table. Relationships are all about communication and there you go, I just communicated something to you as clearly as I know how. I seriously considered going even further and making a gif of it, just so you wouldn’t have any lingering doubts, but I know some of you read this at work, and this is definitely not the thing you want to be fired over. I don’t want to disappoint you but please know that I have your best interests at heart. Oh all right, just one still:
|Click here at your peril.|
So that’s the kinda thing we’re dealing with here. This was a little much for the time, and it landed the film squarely on the UK’s infamous “Video Nasty” list, which made it susceptible to seizure and destruction under obscenity charges, making it a hard sell in its native England. It also didn’t go over so hot here in the US, where it piqued Roger Ebert into a fit of moralizing (always his Achilles heel): "Most exploitation movies are bad, but not necessarily painful to watch. They may be incompetent, they may be predictable, they may be badly acted or awkwardly directed, but at some level the filmmakers are enjoying themselves and at least trying to entertain an audience. "Xtro" is an exception, a completely depressing, nihilistic film, an exercise in sadness....It's movies like this that give movies a bad name." I’m sure XTRO felt like Marty McFly, telling an audience of angry, confused viewers, “I guess you guys aren't ready for that yet... But your kids are gonna love it.”
Well, I don’t know if the kids are ever going to love this one, but boy, I sure did. That birth scene is repellent enough and in such outrageously bad taste that I can understand why it completely dominates people’s memory of the film (especially since it happens so early on, totally out of the blue). Hell, it's the one thing I remembered about the movie, having seen it about 15 years ago back when when I was still a naive young genre buff. In most low-budget exploitation movies like this, that would be its one trick and the rest of it would be the usual boring hokum. But XTRO isn’t nearly done. XTRO is just getting started. The birth scene probably isn’t even in the top five weirdest things here. I don’t know if I was just too traumatized from the opening 20 minutes to notice when I first saw this or what, but this is a movie which starts out crazy and just gets crazier. By the end of a movie, a dwarf in a clown costume will be delivering alien eggs from a mutated babysitter nestled in a huge cocoon suspended over a bathtub.
The plot is your basic SHADOW OF A DOUBT riff, with alien dads instead of sexy uncles, with a little MY FAVORITE WIFE mixed in, but also with aliens. But that part is fairly standard. Basically, nice guy dad Sam (Phillip Sayer, forgotten 80’s TV stuff, “Boy in London House” in THE HUNGER) disappears one day in a flash of light in front of his adorable young kid Tony. Three years later, his put-upon wife (Bernice Stegers, woah, she was in Fellini’s CITY OF WOMEN! As “woman on train,” but still.*) has a new boyfriend named Joe (Danny Brainin, no other major roles though he did play Jerry Rubin in the TV movie John and Yoko) and is starting to get her life back together. Guess who walks through the door. Yup, it’s Sam, hoping to pick up his life where he left off. Obviously her new Beau isn’t too thrilled about this situation, but Sam’s got nowhere else to go, and she still has unresolved feelings about him and also they have a kid together and gosh, this really is a very emotionally fraught situation. He says he doesn’t remember what happened to him, and Joe doesn’t want to say anything, but come on, what was he, born yesterday? Of course in Sam’s case he actually was, because remember that bloody naked man who crawled out of that poor lady’s completely inadequate hoo-ha? Yup, that was him. So now we’ve got a situation which could only be adequately resolved by Jerry Springer, but unfortunately he was busy running for Governor of Ohio at the time (really! look it up!), so these guys are shit out of luck.
Actually typing all that out and having read the sentence “SHADOW OF A DOUBT meets MY FAVORITE WIFE with aliens,” even the basic premise sounds pretty weird. But trust me, it gets weirder. When he’s alone for two minutes, Sam can’t help but eat the eggs laid by Tony’s pet snake, and then, I dunno, he spits something into his bellybutton or something, and I think Tony turns into an alien too. If I sound hesitant to put a label on this behavior, it’s because despite the big clues about a slimy, face-hugging creature coming out of the sky in a flash of light, there are some things here which are pretty atypical of the traditional alien encounter. For example, when a mean old lady downstairs kills his snake, Tony --I don’t know, uses telekinesis?-- to get a toy soldier to come kill her. And by “toy soldier,” I mean a Dolph-Lundgren-sized army man with a static plastic face and a fully functional automatic rifle kicks in her door and bayonets her to death while she’s cowering under her bed.
And also there’s that silent dwarf in a clown suit who appears to him from time to time, accompanied by circus music. It’s so weird it seems like it must be a dream or a symbol or something, but then he braces himself at the top of an elevator like a ninja and jumps onto their perpetually nude live-in maid (Maryam d'Abo, who four years later would be Bond Girl #15 in THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS), so I guess he must be real. But then he turns their apartment into the last segment of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and starts putting alien (?) eggs in a refrigerator full of guacamole, and… well, it’s complicated. Boy, the Xtros must have the most complicated life cycle in the whole animal kingdom, three years in the making, passing through several bodies, at least two planets, and multiple unpleasant birthing processes. And in my opinion most animals don’t require the help of a clown to facilitate their reproductive needs, though I guess it couldn’t hurt. Maybe that’s what those giant pandas are missing.
Anyway, if I haven’t made it obvious yet, this is a consistently fucking crazy, dreamy and surreal alien nightmare. What I may not have made as clear is that Ebert is sort of right, this is not the total hoot you might think it is. “Completely depressing, nihilistic film, an exercise in sadness” might be a little extreme, but director Harry Bromley Davenport (the completely unrelated XTRO 2: THE SECOND ENCOUNTER and XTRO 3: WATCH THE SKIES, neither of which has any dwarfs in clown suits and are therefore inherently inferior, and are also inferior in every other imaginable way) is definitely taking this very seriously. It’s impossible to make anything this outlandish and not have at least a very slight sense of fun, but Ebert is generally correct that the tone is quite dour and more committed to milking the situation for eeriness and paranoia than fishing for shlocky showpieces. What Ebert disappointingly doesn’t seem to acknowledge is that it’s actually surprisingly adept at this task. Its imaginative grotesqueries are acted with just the right blend of realism and horror strangeness, and it puts a surprising degree of care into the painful emotional situation the mom gets caught in. It’s a sign of the movie’s strength that even though the monster looks great, the movie’s pretty compelling when he’s not on-screen, too. None of the cast really went on to any huge success (except, predictably, the naked blond who doesn’t even make that look very convincing) but they actually do a pretty good job getting the right ambiguous tone here; strange and kind of opaque but rooted in enough reality that we can get invested in their bizarre situation.
It’s not often that a movie can provide this many “holy shit, what did I just watch?” moments while not losing track of its narrative center, and I think it makes XTRO genuinely special. Completely unappreciated at its time, it’s since developed something of a cult following, including what I consider to be its finest hour when those guys at RedLetterMedia (best known for delivering what is probably the definitive fish-meets-barrel summation of the obvious problems with the STAR WARS prequels) picked it at random from a list of movies they assumed would be terrible, and were so won over by it they ended up hailing it as a genre masterpiece. It’s pretty unusual for a woman to give birth to a fully grown alien in a man suit, it’s unusual for a 6-foot-tall toy to murder an old lady in her home, and it’s unusual for a dwarf in a clown suit to mummify a nude live-in-maid. But it’s fucking unimaginable for snarky nerds on the internet to change their mind about something they think they won’t like. That’s what I’m going to remember 15 years from now. I still don’t know what an Xtro is, but it has my respect.
*She would go on to a rich career in movies with names that sound like other movies. Woah, she was in JULIETTE OF THE SPIRITS? Oh wait, no, it’s just JULIE’S SPIRITS. THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY?? Oh wait, it’s THE GREAT RIVIERA TRAIN ROBBERY. ENEMY OF THE STATE?! No, ENEMIES OF THE STATE (TV movie). TIME BANDITS?! No, SKY BANDITS.
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