XTRO (Harry Bromley Davenport, 1983)
[originally posted 27Mar2000]
In the world of 1983, everyone was happily proclaiming that alien life would be warm and happy, and would like to eat Reese’s Pieces and mashed potatoes. Ridley Scott? Who’s he? We remember the little guy with the healing touch and some greys who like to play Simon with a really, really big board.
Harry Bromley Davenport singlehandedly brought the menace back into extraterrestrial life with XTRO, a low-budget British film from 1983. I saw it once, upon release, and it scarred me for life. Of course, I was fourteen at the time, and I have often wondered whether I was exaggerating the brilliance of this little gem in my head when placing it in a position of prominence on my 100-best list [ed. note: as of 2013, it has slipped a few notches, but it currently sits at #26]. Thanks to the wonders of ebay, a copy came my way last week, and Saturday morning I had a chance to sit down and relive the wonderful world of nasty, disgusting aliens who like to abduct people and do extremely tasteless things to those still on earth.
It hasn’t lost a beat. Sam Phillips (Philip Sayer, best known—how depressing—for Shanghai Surprise; his career was cut short when he died in a car crash in 1991) is a family man abducted by aliens when only his son (Simon Nash, who only made two more motion pictures, Breakout and Brazil, before going on to a TV career in the nineties) is around to see. Of course, his wife (British TV mainstay Bernice Stegers) assumes he’s gone off and left them… until he shows up again three years later. How he gets from his alien abductors back home is the first twenty minutes of the film, a marvel of proto-splatterpunk low-budget effects making that must be seen to be believed– assuming your stomach can handle some of the nastier bits.
In a reversal of what Sam Raimi had done two years previous in his classic The Evil Dead, Davenport dispenses with the gore early on, for the most part, and spends the rest of the movie building suspense. It’s a tricky way to do things, since if you set the audience up with a gorefest for half an hour and then work on atmosphere, what most of your audience will leave saying is “good beginning, then it gets real slow.” Again, this movie isn’t for everyone– along with an appreciation of fuzzy horror [viz. The Ninth Gate review for a definition] (especially in the soundtrack), you have to have the stomach for some of the gorier scenes and an appetite for the surreal (Maryam d’Abo– in her acting debut, by the way– in the bathtub. If you’ve seen the movie, you know exactly what I’m talking about).
This is a movie that truly must be experienced to be believed– and it’s unforgettable, at least for seventeen years. My original ***** still stands.
The original red-band trailer.