BORDERLINE WEIRD: XTRO (1983)

DIRECTED BY: Harry Bromley Davenport

FEATURING: Bernice Stegers, Phillip Sayer, Danny Brainin, Maryam d’Abo

PLOT: A husband and father disappears one day while playing frisbee with his young son; three years later, he returns to the family as an amnesiac who eats snake eggs for sustenance.

Still from Xtro (1983)

WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINEXtro is vying for the spot on the List reserved for an incoherent low-budget sci-fi/horror combo movie.  Unfortunately, that spot has already been filled by Phantasm, a more involving and iconic film; is there room for two films in the genre?  Xtro is definitely a b-flick of interest, but it’s inconsistent, and there seem to be better candidates for the List running around out there.

COMMENTSXtro makes the most of some fascinating and inventive exploitation moments that stick out all the more because they’re set against a poorly developed background story.  It features so-so acting (particularly from the not so precocious child co-star), dull patches of domestic drama, and an annoying synthesizer score by the director, who is no John Carpenter.  But people tend to forget all that, remembering instead the graphic scene where a woman gives birth to a full-grown man, who helpfully chews off his own umbilical cord after emerging!  It takes some work to upstage the nude scenes by a debuting future Bond girl Maryam d’Abo, which by themselves would have insured the film a semi-legendary status, but Xtro manages to come up with multiple gross-out tableaux that push d’Abo’s ta-tas into the background.  Most notable is a sequence where a dwarf clown kills the French nanny by conking her on the head with a rubber hammer, then uses her body to incubate alien eggs. Bizarre, perverse sexual imagery abounds: a woman is impregnated (through the mouth) by a phalluslike appendage that emerges from an alien’s body through a zipper built directly into its skin. At other times characters exchange what one presumes is alien DNA by sucking on each other’s sides or shoulders, which appears to produce sexual ecstasy.  A murderous giant plastic solider and a prowling panther who appears from nowhere add to the mad quality. The movie is set in comfortably cliched horror movie territory, so you always feel like you know where it’s heading, and yet the plot often makes little sense.  Most significantly, there’s no explanation for the alien’s motives for returning to Earth.  Presumably, Sam only wanted to retrieve his son, but why kill random folks and hire a clown to train the tyke in phantasmagorical techniques to murder the neighbors?  Why not just zap the lad up to the mothership, the way Dad was abducted in the first place? Arthouse patrons will want to stay far away, but fans of crazed, excessive b-movies may want to snatch this one up; the weird money scenes make the film linger in the memory longer than it really deserves.

Xtro was mentioned in the same breath as films placed on the British “video nasty” list, but it was never actually banned.  Although it’s shocking and definitely earns an “R” rating, it’s hardly among the most sadistic and offensive movies ever made.  The original ad campaigns played off the success of Spielberg’s then recent E.T. with the tag line, “Some extraterrestrials aren’t friendly.”  The DVD contains the original ending (lopped off by New Line Cinema for the American release), which is much different in tone and even weirder than the climax with which most viewers are familiar.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Weird but not wonderful low-budget horror that is a succession of odd moments rather than a conventional narrative.”–Halliwell’s Film Guide

8 thoughts on “BORDERLINE WEIRD: XTRO (1983)”

  1. Nice review!
    My initial feeling is that it deserves a spot on the list, but I’d have to agree that it is more incoherent than weird. From what I’ve read the film-makers’ main intention was to shock rather than provoke thought.
    Perhaps untintentionally weird, but it’s still pretty weird to me.

  2. Borderline?! This movie defines weird cinema. In fact, I found this list with the hope of finding more stuff like XTRO. I’m very much into surreal, weird, incoherent, ambient, atmospheric, strangely-paced, low-budget, and obscure films like this. I’m disappointed it didn’t make the list because of Phantasm, which had a totally different setting.

    I guess the list I’m looking for would be obscure/weird/surreal/horror stuff.

    1. Paul, you illustrate the reason why I changed the title of the category from “Borderline Weird” to “List Candidate.” “Borderline” was misleading. (Unfortunately, I left the title in place because it’s part of the url). XTRO could still be re-evaluated and make the List, though it didn’t fare to well during our last reader’s choice poll (maybe because not enough people had seen it?) In the meantime I suggest you check out all of our horror listings for suggestions. These types of movies would likely appeal to you whether they made the List or not.

  3. I think the clown, panther and soldier were willed to life by the alien-infected kid…not that that makes it make more sense…

  4. “an annoying synthesizer score by the director, who is no John Carpenter.”

    Aw man, I’d honestly say that I preferred Xtro’s bizarre and wonderfully weird synth score over Carpenter’s stuff, if only because it reminds me of the stuff the BBC Radiophonic Workshop used to make. Seriously, the “Return to Nowhere” track that plays towards the end (when Sam and Tony return to their planet) is sublime, IMO.

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