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Xtro

by Glenn Erickson Jul 07, 2018

 

Nope, this isn’t ET, The Extraterrestrial, not by a long shot. Guest reviewer Lee Broughton offers an assessment of Harry Bromley Davenport’s British cult sci-fi shocker of modest means, a show that would be pure exploitation if not for some creditable performances. It’s nasty but has a basic competence and is not just more cynical grist for the mill. ‘Phone Home,’ my Aunt Fannie: sometimes the difference between a thriller like this and a higher-profile classic is just pretension.


Xtro
Region Free Blu-ray + CD
Second Sight (UK)
1982 / Color / 1.85 widescreen / 86 min. / Street Date, 18 June 2018 / £29.99
Starring: Philip Sayer, Bernice Stegers, Danny Brainin, Maryam d’Abo, Simon Nash, Susie Silvey, Peter Mandell, Anna Wing, Tim Dry, Sean Crawford, Robert Pereno, David Cardy.
Cinematography: John Metcalfe
Film Editor: Nicolas Gaster
Production Designer: Andrew Mollo
Original Music: Harry Bromley Davenport
Written by Iain Cassie, Robert Smith, Michel Parry, Harry Bromley Davenport, Jo Ann Kaplan
Produced by Mark Forstater
Directed by
Harry Bromley Davenport

Reviewed by Lee Broughton

Xtro is an inventive, unpredictable, surreal, reference-laden and strangely moving tale about a loving father-son bond that refuses to be broken by the light years in distance and the monstrous physical transformations that serve to test it. The series of unsettling and gory special effects that lead to the father-son reunion almost resulted in the show being prosecuted as a ‘video nasty’ when it was first released on VHS in the UK. Second Sight’s new Region Free Blu-ray set presents a full four versions of the film.

 

Sam (Philip Sayer) and his small son Tony (Simon Nash) are enjoying a summer’s day at the family’s country cottage when Sam is suddenly abducted by aliens. With no evidence present to corroborate Tony’s version of events, Sam’s wife Rachel (Bernice Stegers) is forced to conclude that her husband simply left her for another woman. Three years on she is living with a photographer, Joe (Danny Brainin). Nightmares about the abduction have never left Tony and he’s miserable because he doesn’t really like Joe or the French au pair who looks after him, Analise (Maryam d’Abo). Tony remains convinced that he can still feel a tangible connection with his father and he believes that Sam will return one day soon. And it’s a real shock for Rachel and Joe when he does. Sam can’t explain where he’s been but he exhibits lots of strange behaviour and his return appears to be guided by a sinister ulterior motive. When Sam grants Tony telekinetic-like powers, the boy puts them to petulant use just as Rachel and Joe’s relationship starts breaking down. Can anybody stop Sam returning to the stars with Tony in tow?

Xtro possesses a truly terrifying opening scene that really gets the show off to a flying start from which it never lets up. As Sam and Tony enjoy an idyllic day at their country cottage an innocent game of ‘throw the stick for the dog’ has startling consequences. In what is staged like a reference to the ‘thrown bone’ shot from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Sam throws the stick high above the cottage. It freezes in mid-air and the sky suddenly turns jet black and bright lights shoot from the cottage’s windows. There’s a raging wind blowing and Sam is sucked towards a triangular configuration of lights. The intensity of this scene, which is enhanced by Harry Bromley Davenport’s crazed synthesiser soundtrack score and electronic sound effects, still packs a punch 35 years on. Indeed, the mix of sensory overload and convincing panic that Bromley Davenport offers here plays very much like a precursor to Jason Eisener’s equally effective ‘Slumber Party Alien Abduction’ segment from V/H/S/2 (2013). As such, this opening scene is the first in a relentless series of highly accomplished set-pieces and unpredictable plot twists that are by turn bizarre, surreal, shocking, disturbing, moving and scary.

 

It seems that New Line Cinema’s Robert Shaye can take credit for being the driving force behind some of Xtro’s weirder and more unpredictable moments. When executive producers are hands-on types that make strict demands of their filmmakers it can spell disaster. Here it seems that unwanted interventions by Shaye actually had a fortuitously positive effect. It’s noted in the disc’s extra features that Shaye actively demanded that Bromley Davenport and producer Mark Forstater pursued a more ‘off the wall’ approach when they were finalising the script and readying to shoot the film. He stipulated that a number of seemingly incongruous elements should be included in the show, a prime example being the panther that suddenly starts prowling around Rachel’s apartment. The neat and noticeable background details and elements of mise-en-scene that Bromley Davenport and acclaimed art director Andrew Mollo expertly worked into the film in order to offer some justification — however slim or enigma-laden that justification might be — for the presence of these more surreal elements served to turn Xtro into something of a puzzle movie: that distinct breed of cult film that demands repeated viewings in the hope that the answers to its enigmas will eventually be revealed by a previously unnoticed clue.

In the course of seeking something ‘off the wall’ Shaye offered Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm (1979) as a point of reference for the kind of vibe that he was looking for. Interestingly, there are similarities between Xtro’s and Phantasm’s central narratives that seemingly allowed Xtro to be readily infused with a really effective oneiric air akin to that which runs through Coscarelli’s film. On one level Phantasm can be read as a film that has the theme of childhood anxiety provoked by loss through bereavement at its centre. And the film features odd disorientating moments where we wonder whether Mike’s (Michael Baldwin) encounters with the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) are dreams that his subconscious mind has generated in order to help him process and work through his grief. Similarly, on one level Xtro can be read as a film that has the theme of childhood anxiety provoked by loss through parental separation at its centre and there are odd disorientating moments here where we wonder whether Tony’s dreams about his father’s alien abduction — and his other night terrors — have simply been generated by his subconscious mind in its efforts to help him process and work through the fact that his father has simply left the family for a new life with a new partner.

 

Strange enigmas and oneiric atmospheres aside, other elements in Xtro fleetingly bring to mind Phantasm: a deadly blade-lined yo-yo that functions like the Tall Man’s flying spheres, a nighttime woodland set finale where a ferocious windstorm generated by extra terrestrial activity impedes the progress of the show’s protagonists, and a high contrast bleached out sterile white room that contains alien eggs as opposed to crushed down human cadavers in plastic canisters. Speaking of alien eggs, Xtro is also one of a number of shows that takes some inspiration from Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979). The alien in Xtro impregnates a woman in a manner that echoes the method that the facehugger in Alien employs to deposit its embryo inside its chosen host. Xtro’s resultant gestation and birthing process is highly original in its execution, not to mention gory and unsettling. It certainly tops the Alien scene featuring John Hurt in the gross-out gore stakes.

Another film that Xtro appears to draw inspiration from is Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession (1981). On one level both films are serious dramas that are concerned with the breakdown of an upper middle class marriage, the effect that it has on the family’s young son and the complications that arise thereafter. It just happens that extraterrestrial intervention is the cause of the marital strife in both cases. Both families live in anonymous apartment blocks and both films feature a highly effective and disorientating scene involving a strained interaction between a parent and their son’s teacher at their school’s gates. With its highly mannered, histrionic and alienating acting styles and affected dialogue, Possession’s content veers more knowingly towards that of the art house rather than popular cinema. But Bromley Davenport appears to briefly show that he can play at Zulawski’s game too during the evening dinner scene that takes place on Sam’s first night home. The conversation around the dinner table, and the acting styles that are employed to relay it, suddenly take on the texture and strange intensity of a typical scene from Possession, to great effect. Both films also feature an alien having sex with a human female and both films are pretty gory. Interestingly, Possession was rewarded with ‘section 2’ video nasty status while Xtro only made it as far as the ‘section 3’ list.

 

On reflection, I think it’s likely that close scrutiny would reveal that Xtro is actually a very clever postmodern love letter to a whole range of ‘aliens on Earth’ movies. For instance, as Sam loiters in a London street in his stolen suit, one lengthy shot shows him with his right hand tucked within his jacket’s chest flap, Napoleon-style. There’s no narrative reason for him to do this but he’s actually replicating the iconic pose that the alien-infected Victor Carroon (Richard Wordsworth) adopts in Val Guest’s The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) as he waits to escape from hospital. And when Sam starts to slowly revert back to his alien form there are a couple of shots where his plight brings Carroon’s own unfortunate transformation to mind.

All of this may make Xtro sound like a simple hodgepodge of ideas lifted from other films. Certainly there’s no denying that the show does follow the dictum of ‘repetition with difference’ that governs most genre films. However, Xtro is so much more than the above comparative analyses might suggest. Bromley Davenport and his team pull everything together with such incredible panache, and add so many original and at times jaw-dropping elements and ideas of their own creation, that the film becomes something positively unique and really quite special. As a more general point of reference I would liken Xtro to the films of Pete Walker and Norman J. Warren if only because – like Xtro – their films were unmistakably British yet thoroughly distinctive in terms of the gore and unpleasant scenarios that they featured when compared to most other British horror productions of the time. Their films remain startling and shocking to some extent as the wider received history of British horror films has only relatively recently begun to acknowledge that a small number of Britons did actually make the kind of films that could compete with the gory excesses of contemporaneous European and independent American horror filmmakers. Incidentally, Xtro does also appear to reference Warren’s own sci-fi film Prey (1977), in as much as the first thing that the aliens do in both movies after landing in the British countryside is attack and kill a courting couple in a car.

 

What distinguishes Xtro from the films of Walker and Warren is its obviously much bigger budget and the enhanced production values and technical aspects that New Line Cinema’s financial involvement brought to the project. The acting is pretty much topnotch as far as the main characters go and the two lead actors, Philip Sayer and Bernice Stegers, bring a sense of gravitas to the film. Some of the scenarios that they have to act out and some of the dialogue that they have to speak is that of generic sci-fi monster movies but they approach the material in a wholly serious, laudable and convincing way. There’s good supporting work from Danny Brainin and Maryam d’Abo too. Brainin’s American character is the film’s nominal hero figure and it’s interesting to note that the fact that Joe is Jewish crops up in one conversation that he has with Sam. Xtro was Maryam d’Abo’s first film. Her au pair Analise is French, which results in the actress adopting a kind of all-purpose Euro-something accent. She’s a pretty feisty character at times and it would be easy to assume that Bromley Davenport was looking to include a character in Xtro that riffed on Isabelle Adjani’s wild performance as Anna in Possession. However, Analise’s accent, her nude sex scenes and her general placement within the show’s narrative remind us more of the kind of characters that the marvellous Julie Ege used to play in early 1970s British horror films. Young Simon Nash performs well enough as the troubled Tony and he projects his telekinetic power trips in a suitably petulant and disturbing way.

British viewers steeped in local contemporaneous popular culture will also find some interesting personnel cast in minor roles here. As well as appearing in a handful of sex comedies and Jackie Collins adaptations, Susie Silvey was the go-to girl when British TV sitcoms, sketch shows and dramas needed a touch of glamour and/or sauciness. She was also a regular dancer on ‘Top of the Pops.’ In Xtro she gets impregnated by an alien and is centre stage for what is perhaps the most outrageous birthing scene ever to appear in a genre film. Anna Wing, who went on to play the matriarchal Lou Beale in the BBC TV soap ‘EastEnders’ (1985 – ongoing) is Rachel’s nosey neighbour in the apartment block. She has an unfortunate encounter with a life size, sentient and aggressive Action Man figure after she kills Tony’s pet snake. The Action Man is played by Sean ‘Tok’ Crawford, who was one half of the popular robotic dance-mime act Tik and Tok. His partner in that venture, Tim ‘Tik’ Dry plays the ‘back-to-front’ Xtro creature that scuttles around the British countryside on all fours early on in the show.

 

Xtro’s technical aspects are all very good. Cinematographer John Metcalfe had previously worked on Julien Temple’s Sex Pistols vehicle The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle (1980) and a couple of Norman J. Warren films (including Warren’s Alien homage Inseminoid [1981]). Metcalfe employs some noticeably stylish camera angles here and he’s adept at using his camera to gently pick out important aspects of the show’s mise-en-scene without necessarily drawing attention to what he’s doing. There are also some interesting lighting strategies at work here. Every so often a key scene will be excessively bathed in a striking and strongly coloured light. The show’s special effects are mostly practical but they all work really well. Francis Coates’ creature effects work draws upon a well matched combination of rubber and slime that has a convincingly organic look about it. Harry Bromley Davenport wrote and performed the film’s synthesizer-led soundtrack score himself. Some of his more noodly passages sound like the random synth tracks that were used as background music in Jon Pertwee’s early ‘Doctor Who’ adventures, while his more structured pieces possess a symphonic Progressive Rock-like vibe. Both approaches support and enhance his visual work extremely well. Bromley Davenport once described Xtro as being a bit of a mess. I would disagree with that assessment and can only conclude that one man’s cinematic mess can be another man’s cinematic treasure.


 

Second Sight’s Region Free Blu-ray + CD of Xtro is sure to be warmly welcomed by the film’s existing fans. It should also prove to be something of a treat for those who are new to the show. Three versions of the film can be viewed via a series of seamless branching options: the original version that features an ending that was ultimately vetoed by Robert Shaye; the US cinema version that features a replacement ending and the UK VHS version (essentially the US cinema version minus some cuts and re-edits). These three versions all sport excellent picture and sound quality. Also present is a fourth iteration dubbed the 2018 Director’s version. For this version Harry Bromley Davenport saw fit to alter the film’s contrast and colour timing while also reframing some shots and revisiting some of the show’s special effects.

The disc’s extra features include the highly entertaining and informative Xploring Xtro (2018, 56 min.) which features interviews with director Harry Bromley Davenport, producer Mark Forstater, actors Bernice Stegers, Susie Silvey, Tim Dry, Sean Crawford and Robert Pereno, writer Alan Jones and BBFC examiner Craig Lapper. It’s a comprehensive feature that crams in lots of interesting details about the making of the film. Beyond Xtro (2018, 7 min.) has Bromley Davenport and Forstater talking about a planned fourth Xtro film, Xtro: The Big One, while showcasing an assortment of tasty test footage. Loving the Alien is a tribute to actor Philip Sayer. It features contributions from Bromley Davenport, Bernice Stegers and Dennis Atherton as well as the song ‘Just One Life’ that Queen’s Brian May wrote and dedicated to the actor. Xtro Xposed (2005, 11 min.) is an older featurette that has an animated Bromley Davenport wilfully trashing his own movie at nearly every turn. In the interview The World of Xtro (2018, 27 min.) super fan Dennis Atherton talks about his love for the film and the joy that the show’s many enigmas offer to the repeat viewer. He also provides evidence to support his argument that director Harry Bromley Davenport is bluffing when he claims that he wasn’t trying very hard when he made the movie. Atherton’s observations are by turn contested or supported by contributions from Bromley Davenport, Mark Forstater and Susie Silvey.

Note: This limited edition set comes in a hard card sleeve which also houses a CD of the show’s original soundtrack and a 42-page illustrated booklet. These extras were not supplied for review.

Reviewed by Lee Broughton


Xtro
Region Free Blu-ray + CD rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Featurettes Xploring Xtro, Beyond Xtro, Loving the Alien, Xtro Xposed, The World of Xtro, original trailer, US TV spot, soundtrack CD and a 42 page booklet.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Card digi-pack in a card sleeve
Reviewed: July 2, 2018
(5770xtro)
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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.