There’s a sub-section of movies that can be sold to me not with a good script or the name of a director I like, but with disparate scenes being described to me. For example, someone might say the following: “There’s a scene in this movie, where an alien father gives his human son telekinetic powers via a disgusting Cronenbergian hickey. The kid then proceeds to turn his clown doll into a living person, who is armed with a weird bladed yo-yo thing which he uses to slit people’s throats. And there’s this really creepy life-sized toy soldier that doesn’t emote while murdering a downstairs neighbour in cold blood. There’s also… demon eggs in a toppled fridge full of oatmeal? I think? I don’t know, dude, it’s pretty messed up, you should totally see it.” To which I would reply, “that sounds both insane and right up my alley.” The 1983 British sci-fi horror film XTRO contains everything mentioned above, and so much more, most of it summoned from a dark, gloppy extraterrestrial netherworld.
The movie comes at the tail end of a genre movie cycle I like to call “parenthood horror” or “divorce horror” that occurred in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Other entries in this subgenre include Eraserhead, Possession, and, most notably in this case, The Brood. XTRO plays like a positive to David Cronenberg’s 1979 film, where father wants to protect his daughter from her mother (and her weird psychoplasmic offspring). In this movie, a mother wants to protect her son from his estranged father (and his deadly extraterrestrial bloodlust). The father, who was kidnapped by an unseen alien force, returns three years after his abduction as a slimy shapeshifter that kills and infects its way back home.
The film is hindered by the usual things that hinder a first-time director’s low-budget genre film (wonky pacing, stilted performances, what have you), but XTRO makes up for it with clever direction that mostly conceal the lack of resources at hand. The practical effects in XTRO are also remarkable for the budget; red, chunky fake guts and prop slime go a long way when it’s shot and lit just so. There are distended wombs and weird fleshy proboscises that feature prominently in the film, further reinforcing the Cronenberg comparison. There’s also a touch of contemporary John Carpenter on display; the synth-based score, the use of claustrophobic spaces, the shapeshifting baddie who may or may not be a body snatcher. Ultimately, XTRO stands as a surreal lo-fi riff on the greatest hits of the last five years of sci-fi/horror cinema.
The movie does manage to step out of the shadows of its influences when it maxes out its more bizarre, phantasmagorical elements. Whether it’s the sequences mentioned at the top, or the truly stunning finale, or any of the scenes when the alien leaves its host in graphic. blood-soaked fashion, the film flies high. The effectiveness of the special effects cannot be understated, either. It’s a remarkable low-budget curio with charm and strangeness to burn, and a sure-to-be staple of any future midnight viewing with friends.
XTRO is currently out of print on home video, but you can find used copies on Amazon.
Directed by Harry Bromley Davenport; written by Harry Bromley Davenport; starring Philip Sayer, Bernice Stegers, Danny Brainin, Maryam d’Abo, and Simon Nash; 81 minutes.