Britain loves a good moral panic, and the video nasties controversy of the early 80s was a classic. The new home video market was flooded with uncertified, uncut films, many of which would never have got past the censor intact or even edited (and in some cases still haven’t). Compared to the parade of American psychos and Italian cannibals that hit the tabloid headlines Britain’s own horror output looked pretty innocuous, and only two homegrown films got into any hot water. One was the erotic thriller Exposé, for its sexual violence. The other was Xtro.
The film’s directed, co-written and scored (with requisite 80s synthesiser sounds) by Harry Bromley Davenport. His name may sound more evocative of Ealing-style comedy than sci-fi body horror, but here he’s crafted an imaginative, often disgusting and very enjoyable blend of Alien, E.T. and Cronenberg (and obviously it’s all the more enjoyable for being British).
The film starts with young Tony (Simon Nash) witnessing his dad Sam (Philip Sayer) being beamed aboard a spaceship. Three years later Sam’s wife Rachel (Bernice Stegers), thinking she was just abandoned, is living with grumpy American photographer Joe (Danny Brainin, who looks rather like TV irritant Alex Zane with a bad hangover):
See what I mean? Anyway, Joe and Tony don’t get on too well, but never mind as Tony’s dad’s on his way back, sort of. In the countryside the spaceship returns and beams something down (Tony, meanwhile, wakes up covered in blood). A hideous, crawling creature emerges from the earth, and after a temporary setback when it gets run over by a Sloaney couple (it kills them horribly though, so that’s all right) has the luck to stumble on a lonely cottage inhabited by an attractive blonde. This leads to what’s probably the film’s most infamous scene:
Yes, she’s impregnated through the mouth by the creature’s impressively flexible organ, and then gives birth to a fully grown man, who obligingly bites through his own umbilical cord. Which is just as well as the mother didn’t survive the birth, and meanwhile the father’s looking like a right dog’s dinner:
Once he’s cleaned himself up a bit we can see that the unusually large newborn looks just like Tony’s dad Sam. He steals the Sloaney man’s clothes and car and heads off to pick Tony up from school. Rachel’s understandably shocked by his reappearance. ‘What are you doing here?’ she demands, ‘I’m back’ he replies, ‘Back? Back from where?’ I was hoping he was going to say ‘back from outer space’ and launch into a Gloria Gaynor-inspired production number but sadly it wasn’t to be. Sam denies all knowledge of the last three years and uncomfortable domestic drama ensues when Rachel brings him home to stay with her, Tony and Joe (and their French au pair Analise, played by future Bond girl Maryam D’Abo). Joe gets even grumpier than before, and even Tony, who was overjoyed to see his dad again, is a bit distressed when he catches Sam gulping down his pet snake’s eggs. Fortunately Sam manages to restore the father-son bond by granting Tony amazing mental powers. The way he does this, by sucking a phallus of skin out of his son’s shoulder, looks dodgy to say the least, like child porn directed by David Cronenberg:
By this point Xtro is already far more peculiar than most of the sci-fi horror films that followed in the wake of Alien, but it gets really bizarre when the now noticeably more evil Tony uses his new powers to turn a toy clown into an extremely sinister dwarf henchman with a lethal yo-yo. Here he is, being sinister with his yo-yo:
In his creepy, silent way, the clown eggs Tony on to take a terrible revenge on mean old neighbour Mrs Goodman (Anna Wing, who in a couple of years would be cast as EastEnders’ original matriarch Lou Beale), who we earlier saw beating his snake to a bloody pulp with a meat tenderiser after it escaped and ended up in her salad. In a scene that’s pure 70s Doctor Who (if a bit more violent), a giant Action Man figure breaks into Mrs Goodman’s flat and thrusts a bayonet through her as she cowers under an armchair:
There’s no stopping Evil Tony now. As things between Sam and Rachel go all soap opera and they head off to their old country cottage in the hope of a reconciliation, he puts a malevolent alien plan into action. Analise is jumped in the lift by the clown, and her boyfriend is savaged to death by a black panther that Tony’s conjured up. Analise’s eventual fate is especially grim – in another particularly disturbing bit, Tony does something unpleasant to her midriff area. She’s then imprisoned in a cocoon and starts producing eggs from a strange protuberance, which the clown stores in a gunge-filled upturned fridge:
Things are starting to get a bit nasty in the country as well, as bits of Sam start flaking off and Rachel notices during sex that he’s covered in open wounds (that can be a bit of a passion killer). He’s changing into something else, and he’s not the only one. In case you want to watch Xtro (why’s it called Xtro anyway?) for yourself I won’t spoil the ending, but I can tell you it’s not quite as brilliantly weird as the ending originally planned, which featured a pregnant Rachel returning home to a flat full of Tony clones. The effect was achieved with a group of masked and bewigged children. It wasn’t used on the grounds that it doesn’t look very convincing, but it certainly looks wonderfully spooky:
Xtro is certainly a much better film than most of the others that were vilified as video nasties. The cast (especially Sayer and Stegers) are excellent, although Tony sounds a bit too working class for a child with such RP parents. It’s a shame that Harry Bromley Davenport never did anything else very interesting after Xtro,getting stuck in world of the straight-to-video horror film. His subsequent work of in-name-only Xtro sequelsthat went straight to video – Xtro II: Watch the Skiesis on the same DVD as the original but I don’t know if I’ll ever bother to watch it.
Finally, my favourite thing in Xtro: the toaster in the background here. Good pans too.
You can watch the whole film here if you feel so inclined: