In a space of wannabe pretenders, ‘Xtro’ penetrates the final frontier of H.R. Giger’s grotesque imagination.
In space no one can hear you scream…but on Earth, you can scream all you want especially after your dad is abducted by aliens, returns from space after three years, eats your pet snake’s eggs, your mom’s new boyfriend, and gifts you terrifying psychic powers that you squander on transforming your toy box into a demonic army sprung forth from Pixar’s nightmares. In the wake of 1979’s Alien, a series of films desperately tried to recreate Ridley Scott’s gothic slasher, but the results were often bargain basement pretenders unable to capture a tenth of the grotesque imagination put forth from H.R. Giger’s creature design. Films like Galaxy of Terror, Leviathan, and Deep Star Six attempt to recreate the Alien stalk-and-slash monster movie, and succeed, for the most part, in conjuring a memorable KY Jelly beast. However, these wannabes never fully secure the unknowable terror of Alien.
Released in Britain during the winter of 1982, Harry Bromley Davenport’s Xtro appears to be the twisted sister of Steven Spielberg’s E.T., but it’s central creature certainly extends from the same hellscape that torments H.R. Giger. Working on a micro-sized budget, in partnership with New Line Cinema’s Bob Shaye still waiting for A Nightmare on Elm Street to catapult him into the big leagues, Davenport would never be able to replicate the gothic cathedrals of the Nostromo. So why bother? Instead, Xtro makes use with what they had, a quaint English suburb, a willing cast ready to subjugated themselves for their art, and an unparalleled latex-caked invader.
The title card is the first indication that this film is playing in the same field as Alien, or at least it’s the first tool that the producers have to evoke the masterpiece they have no chance in duplicating. Starry night, a twinkle in the far distance flickers splits the universe into a gargantuan X, and the title XTRO is birthed from its supernova. A screaming synthesizer announces the arrival of terror, and the title card flashes blood red. Dun…dun…dunnnn.
The plot itself is totally mental. Young Tony and his dad Sam are playing catch in the backyard with their dog, Katie. Sam tosses the stick high into the air; a crack in the sky blinks and explodes. Day crashes into night, a wind machine ruins all their yardwork, and Sam is sucked up into the fire in the sky. Smash cut to Tony waking from a nightmare, mom rushing to his side, and Tony begging for his dad to return. It’s been three years; mom has moved on, and hooked up with a hip, young American lad.
Naturally, Dad returns from his close encounter, but Xtro does not simply open the pod bay doors, and let Sam walk back into their lives. That night a glowing triangle crash-lands in a nearby forest. While the woods burn, a creature burrows out of the wreckage, wanders out onto the road, and is nearly squashed into road kill. After making a quick snack of the two passerbys, the extraterrestrial commits a B&E on the nearest house. Possibly thinking that Giger’s facehugger was not phallic enough in its insemination, the showering homeowner is orally assaulted by its space dick. The resulting pregnancy is not a graphic shock of chest-bursting horror, but a seemingly never-ending birthing sequence in which a full-grown Sam crawls out of her vagina. Once witnessed, it cannot be unwitnessed.This new Sam follows Tony to his school and reunites with his family through the act of kidnapping. Rather than calling the police, Mom allows Sam to take up residence with her understandably distraught boyfriend, and their free-loving nanny, played by soon-to-be Bond Girl Maryam D’Abo, in her first feature role. Is it weird that this is the only actor I mention in this entire diatribe? Nope, only she could pull herself free from this monstrous oddity. The new and old family try to work out the logistics of their relationship, all the while, the reborn Sam is secretly infecting Tony with psychic powers.
A total loner at school, the newly gifted Tony’s first act of business is to transform the only friends he has, his toys, into life-size abominations that radically alter Xtro from simply being an alien invasion story. There is a psychotic clown with a penchant for face smashing and a life-size G.I. Joe that he sics on his downstairs neighbor after she relishes in squishing his pet snake. That poor damn snake. Tony develops a thirst for blood, and Xtro takes another detour into a zombie film. There is just no keeping pace with its genre channel surfing, and with every new corner comes another mind-bendingly bizarre delight.
Xtro has an endless stream of surprises for its audience. Not simply satisfied with being one kind of creature feature, Harry Bromley Davenport dumps every outlandish idea he has into the production. When the film was released in the United States in 1983, it was critically reviled by every person who dared put their eyes upon it. On Siskel & Ebert, Roger Ebert lambasted the film as “ugly,” “mean-spirited,” and “nihilistic.” In his one-star review, Ebert chastised the filmmakers for creating “an exercise in sadness.” He is not wrong. Xtro is an emotionally abysmal film. However, you cannot simply drop it into the pile of castoff pretenders.
Xtro is an epic in weird cinema. It’s a true head-scratcher that leaves every one of its audience members in awe of its very existence. A film destined to be abandoned on video, but worthy of rediscovery as we build to this week’s new chapter in the Alien franchise. For all, it’s cheap theatrics, and questionable morality, Xtro will be a stamp on your psyche.