Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Once upon a time, in 1951, Sci Fi aficionados blamed
The Thing from Another World for steering the newly defined film genre away from space science and toward bug-eyed monsters. Its influence was nothing compared to 1979's Alien with its stowaway creature wiping out a ship full of spacemen with its insecto-sexual breeding habits. Soon everyone from Roger Corman to Italian copycats were putting out their own films of nasty mutating creatures invading human bodies and bursting from them in the goriest of ways. The tidal wave of zombie films that followed Romero's
Dawn of the Dead was impressive, but the stomach-churners of Lucio Fulci didn't play as many neighborhood theaters as did pictures like Horror Planet.
Xtro is a low-budget British film of low ambition and modest means, and would be pure exploitation if not for some creditable performances. It's nasty and ultimately just more cynical grist for the mill, but it has a basic competence -- sometimes the difference between a thriller like this and a higher-profile performer, is just pretension .
Young Tony Phillips (Simon Nash) has nightmares relating to his missing father, who disappeared three years ago and was assumed to have deserted his family. Mum Rachel (Bernice Stegers) has a new live-in boyfriend, photographer Joe Daniels (Danny Brainin) and a hired French girl Analise Mercier (Maryam d'Abo) who likes to entertain her boyfriend during working hours. Then father comes home, confused and apparently suffering from amnesia. Sam Phillips (Philip Sayer) claims not to know what happened during the missing time, but we've already seen the truth: He's actually been transformed into an alien monster, and then 'reborn' on Earth to spearhead a gruesome biological invasion --- and he's intent that young Tony should join him!
Nobody is going to confuse Xtro with a high-quality film, but for all of director Harry Bromley Davenport's claims to the contrary, he's assembled some good performances that make the picture worth watching. Bernice Stegers, Philip Sayer and Danny Brainin front a convincing dramatic situation - a missing husband reappears to put a new relationship in question. The direction of these scenes is quite good, and the acting is fine. Usually one expects to see amateur hour at pictures like this one, but the dramatics actually draw us into the story.
The story is of course a derivative series of gross-out setpieces for the grindhouse crowd. Most of the effects are cheap and obvious but their design is just strange enough to get our attention, as with the alien 'crawler' that inverts a man's body to make all the joints seem to go the wrong way. Nobody will be fooled by the stiff horror-head alien with its rows of pointy teeth, but it certainly demonstrates a variety of arrestingly disgusting functions as it slaughters people on the highway. The shockeroo is the horror-insemination of a helpless female victim and the almost instantaneous birth of a fully-grown 'new' Sam Phillips, a highlight in the childbirth-as-atrocity sweepstakes.
Xtro becomes a wholly cynical take on E.T. when the newly reborn Sam reestablishes contact with his son. In this fable the errant father returns, but his purpose is to reclaim his abandoned child and head hand-in-hand back to the stars, as monsters. It's an easy, unpleasant scheme that plays reasonably well. As opposed to most cheap monster films of the time, Xtro's main character is fairly unpredictable.
However, the content of the movie is predictable. Slimy monsters gush unrecognizable liquids and extend obscene appendages to rape and maim; just as in Alien the main gag attraction is the sight of bodies invaded by icky pupae of Lord-knows-what from beyond the stars. Infected and then tutored by his 'alienated' father, Tony conducts a secondary assault on the nosy neighbor downstairs by telepathically 'creating' giant toys - a dwarf clown and a life-sized GI Joe-type action doll. These episodes are the slowest going. Poor Analise (Maryam D'Abo from 007's The Living Daylights) just wants to bed her beau on the sly, but she gets 'cocooned' in familiar H.R. Geiger fashion. Her boyfriend is assaulted by a black panther that Tony apparently conjures out of thin air.
The minimalist opticals use bright lights to represent spaceships in the accepted Steven Spielberg style of the day. Although few of the optical effects still impress, they're not bad for sub-ILM work; only the dull main titles are on the pathetic side, supered over a starfield .
Image Entertainment's DVD of Xtro is a good-quality enhanced transfer of what are probably original elements. Color and sharpness are good, and much better than flat, greenish and blurry VHS tapes from twenty years ago. The movie appears to be uncut and comes with two alternate endings (although I couldn't tell what was different about ending #2. The ending used on the film is easily the best one. A still gallery also has many behind-the-scenes stills.
The fun extra this time out is a quirky interview featurette with director Harry Bromley Davenport, who is hilariously honest in his assessment of Xtro and its two sequels. Perhaps too honest. As if confessing before heaven's gatekeeper, he admits that the film is trash and only filmed with the cynical aim of making money. Not only is the mercenary angle common to 99 & 44/100% of movies, but Davenport is actually too hard on the picture, which is more entertaining than many of its ilk ... how many times do we stare at some ridiculous padding in a Corman-packaged quickie, convinced that Roger is laughing at us? Davenport rolls his eyes as he recounts things like his producers forcing the panther and clown into the picture, even though they make little sense.
Davenport's antics are never annoying as he's both sincere and generous to his collaborators, and anyone can tell that making Xtro was hard work. So here's to him --- his last few features appear to be self-produced, so maybe he's doing better now. Bruce Holecheck of the MondoDigital and DVD Drive-In websites is a contributor to the amusing featurette.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Interview featurette, alternate endings, still galleries.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 28, 2005
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson