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July 1, 2014

Crazy-Ass British Horror: Xtro

(1983, Directed by Harry Bromley Davenport)

Review by Ben Thompson

There is a strange and secret land to be found within the depths of horror. Beyond the big names and cult classics, past the surreal foreign flicks and gory shockers; right out the back of the shop, behind the dumpsters where even the bargain bucket B-movies dare not venture. Here, in this dark hovel where no light or production values may enter, we find the sludge at the bottom of the bin bag; the low-budget, malformed creatures brought agonisingly to life through the determination of people who likely funded the entire project with the spare change from their own pocket and anything found down the back of the sofa. These are labours of love, likely having had more effort poured into them than entire franchises. They reside in a kind of uncanny valley of terribleness, where the amount of imagination and sheer cheesiness just about cancels out the unashamed shittiness of the whole thing, leaving behind a finished product not unlike that slice of leftover pizza that's still got plenty topping left on it but carries a faint, bitter-sweet hint of bin juice.

This guy has such a marbles-in-your-mouth English accent,
stroke victims have better diction.
Xtro, as you might have guessed, fits into this most exclusive of communities quite comfortably: an awful piece of horror trash, but by god is it a beloved piece of horror trash. Something made all too evident in the opening credits by the fact that the soundtrack was composed and performed by the film's director. Yes, it sounds exactly as bad as you would expect.

Often when I review a film I spend a little too much time lingering on the quality of the acting, but luckily Xtro has made that aspect pretty easy for me by having all of the actors, well, not act at all. Every single character is played with the enthusiasm of an Autistic weatherman reading out the winners of a local pie eating contest, distinguishable only by the ridiculously overly-emphasised accent that each actor has adopted. This leads to some truly hilarrible (hilarious meets terrible, you're welcome) scenes where four actors try to stumble through a supposedly serious conversation with overzealous American, English, Super-English and French accents flying everywhere. It's glorious, and helped along further by a script that was probably written on the back of a napkin.

I think you lost that game a loooong time ago, mate.
Let's talk about the script for a moment actually. Firstly, it is absolutely nonsensical; why would you offer a clearly clean-shaven man a razor? I recommend playing the "Spot the Awful Dialogue" drinking game while watching this. Secondly, an odd thing happens in Xtro that's never really explained (ok, so the evil clown and telepathically-controlled murder toys aren't either, but nyeh): almost half of the cast speaks exclusively in questions. In every scene in the film a character will rather bluntly ask, in their adorably silly accent, about something often horrifically mundane, completely inappropriate or just repeating the lines of the other actor with a questiony inflection at the end. The mum is the worst, case in point:

Skin falling off mid-shag is never good for the mood.
"What are you doing here?"
"I'm back."
"You're back? Back from where?"
"I'm not sure."
"You're not sure?"

Continue ad infinitum. I kind of hope in my heart of hearts that it's meant to subtly suggest that half of the world's population have been secretly lobotomised and can now only question everyone else's actions in a slightly judgemental tone, but the truth is likely plain old lazy writing; if you can't come up with a line, just repeat the last one. Problem being that by doing that for a whole film, Xtro is essentially a series of encounters where everyone stands facing each other taking it in turns to say "What?". So yes, all in all everyone in this movie is hilariously awful and infuriating in equal measures; particularly the mother's American boyfriend, Joe. Why are you such a dick, Joe? Why?

The sound editing makes for a lot of fun, too. Much of the dialogue was quite obviously re-recorded in post-
production, which isn't at all unheard of, but what strikes me as odd is some of the dialogue that the film makers thought it really necessary to add back in. Thank the gods that they made sure we could hear a shoe model shouting "Cheese! Bloody cheese! Harry, give me back my sandwich!" in the background of a scene, though; it's a highlight.

A surprisingly adequate aspect of the movie is actually the visual effects. They're nothing we've not seen elsewhere before but the monster design is nicely yucky and there's plenty of ooze and gunk to satiate any monster-movie aficionado; it's no The Fly but a bold effort nonetheless. The lighting and cinematography can almost approach what you might call good in some of the scenes nearer the end of the film, too, giving them a little bit of muchly-appreciated eeriness. Plus you get points for having a scene where a woman dies by giving birth to a fully grown man after being impregnated through the mouth (I've no idea how, ask a doctor) by an alien skeleton monster.

They tried so hard, they really did, and as I said before you can really see the effort that the director put in to making his film a reality; but sometimes, no matter how much you love them, your child still has learning difficulties and looks like a potato. All in all, if you want to watch a splendidly awful movie that features exploding sticks, stupid characters, buckets of ooze, a clown midget putting alien eggs in a fridge, and panthers for some reason then you have weirdly specific movie tastes and would you please just...not come near me ever? Also, Xtro will be your catnip.


: said...

This is one of the first horror films I remember my dad renting from the local videostore when I was a kid. I don't recall much about it other than the woman giving birth to the full-grown man, but I do remember that the movie scared the hell out of me. The title alone was so weird it gave me goosebumps (I know that makes no sense, but it did). I've often thought about revisiting XTRO at some point, though I've always assumed that when I finally did get around to it the movie would be pure crap. You've confirmed that. :)

Great review, as always!


Ben Thompson said...

Thanks so much, always great to hear my ranting is actually coherent!
It's probably worth it just for the nostalgia factor and the chance to have a giggle at other people's effort. But yes, utter shite.