The release and subsequent success of Alien (1979) seemingly opened the door to mind-altering tales of horrific space invaders. These films rejected the notions of friendly aliens that directors such as Spielberg had put in place with films such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) — and it seemed apparent that audiences were eager to face the ugly side of space.
And one of the most interesting films to come out in the wake of Alien is 1983's Xtro. It's hard to deny, this film is cheap, sleazy, exploitative filmmaking. However, it is also immensely enjoyable, and will undoubtedly appeal to connoisseurs of low-budget bad taste cinema that narrowly avoided being cut by the censors. With each gory, slimy, disturbing scene of mind-fuckery intact, director Harry Bromley Davenport delivered a delectable slice of cult cinema. Things are about to get weird.
While the plot to Xtro doesn't always make the most amount of sense, it does boast a wealth of interesting ideas. One of the most endearing aspects of exploitative cult cinema is how readily it lends itself to various interpretations, with often critically overlooked filmmaking striving to raise challenging and intriguing themes. Despite Xtro being hampered by a relatively small budget and some wonderfully weird moments of madness, the story is grounded with the familiar issue of a familial breakdown.
The film opens with father Sam Phillips (Philip Sayer) playing with his son Tony (Simon Nash) outside their cottage. All of a sudden day turns to night, a blindingly bright light washes over the area, and Sam disappears. Cut to three years later, and Tony is still suffering nightmares over the ordeal. His mother, Rachel (Bernice Stegers) has a new man in her life - Joe Daniels (Danny Brainin). Joe is struggling to connect with Tony, unable to fill the role of father figure. Meanwhile French au pair Analise Mercier (the rather sexy Maryam d'Abo) is tasked with the role of looking after Tony while Rachel and Joe work. Little do they know that Sam is heading home, about to throw their delicate family unit into turmoil. [Warning: Video may be NSFW.]
Sam's arrival back to Earth is perhaps the most memorable scene in this movie. An odd little alien creature crawls around the British countryside, dispatching an unlucky couple before discovering a cottage. Inside resides a woman, who soon finds herself the receptacle of the alien's forcefully implanted seed. The impregnation takes very little time to develop, and it's a matter of minutes until a fully grown Sam is clawing his way out of the unfortunate woman's vagina, killing her in the process.
Comparisons to Alien are unavoidable, but it's important to note that Xtro is featuring alien sexual assault in a significantly different context. The role of the alien creature in Alien represents a threat to gender and sexuality, raping and impregnating a male character. Throughout the entire film, there is significant imagery that highlights a fear of birth, most notably the scene where a razor-toothed phallus dentatus punishes the curiosity of one male crewmember and is born by gnawing its way through his chest. However, the alien birth of Sam in Xtro is not punishment, but instead celebration. He bites his way through his own umbilical cord, signifying rejection of a matriarchal society (it's no coincidence that the British Prime Minister at the time of this film's creation was Margaret Thatcher) and his readiness to reclaim his role as father.
From this point on the film seems to reinforce the idea of a patriarchal society, highlighting the strength of the bond between Sam and Tony. The mother figures, both Rachel and Analise, are severely punished by the time the closing credits roll — they're victims to the masculine alien's presence. These ideas largely form a backdrop against another of the film's main concern — that of a stable family unit.
Sam's reappearance causes Rachel to reconsider her feelings towards Joe, and a considerable amount of the film centres on the friction between the three adults. Thankfully, whenever it seems as though dialogue and emotion are threatening to overshadow the inherently sleazy nature of this film, Analise is at hand to strip off and provide a little titillation. But then Sam bites Tony, and things go from strange to amazingly mental, with the introduction of a midget clown.
Xtro is infused with an unshakable charm, from the overtly British accents to the hokey acting and the inexplicable scenes that are best not dwelt upon — it all really is fantastically entertaining. Admittedly, Xtro won't be everyone's cup of tea, but there's something addictive about this movie's descent into psychosexual madness, along with some superb gore scenes and an ability to effectively unsettle. It may be trash cinema, but it sure is glorious.