An Exercise in Sadness
Often, somewhat justifiably, derided as a low-rent video nasty, 1982's Xtro is a piece of British horror that looks unflinchingly at grief and trauma, says Daniel Pietersen...
I grew up on a little estate, in a little town, in the middle of little England. The only prospect for many of my peers was a job in the town’s pork pie factory or, in later years, the Müller yoghurt plant.
It wasn’t a bad place to live – it had a second-hand bookshop with a seemingly endless cache of Fighting Fantasy books and a stall on the weekly market sold budget ZX Spectrum games – but it was often boring, which feels worse when you’re a kid. There were many ways to relieve the boredom in that little town but the one that attracted me most was relatively prosaic; the video shop.
I say “video shop” with a slight smirk as this was no Blockbuster, not even a dedicated store, but a wall in the local corner shop, next to the crisps, converted with shelves to hold rows of VHS tapes in the oversized, sharp-edged plastic boxes of the time. The various genres were identified by faded labels attached to the shelves themselves.
They said FAMILY or COMEDY or DRAMA.
There wasn’t much in that section but I remember them all. Jaws was there along with The Fly and The Thing. Ghoulies and Critters sat alongside Day of the Dead, bookended by an erratic selection from the Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street series. Monsters and skulls and aliens and blood-smeared killers leered down at the not-quite-teenage me. It would be years before I’d actually watch any of these films but the box art lingered in my mind as I tried to imagine what they could be like. Few of them turned out to be as good as I’d thought they’d be. Even fewer were as weird as I’d hoped they might be.
One was, though, and that was Xtro.
Xtro was filmed in a single month – February 1982, just after the so-called Big Snow, where temperatures in parts of Britain dropped to almost -30°C, and a few weeks before the beginning of the Falklands War – for a mere £500,000 and, frankly, looks like it. It’s hard to call it a good film in any real way; the plot is meandering, the effects are cheaply done and the performances are erratic at best. Taken at face value, the film often seems to be more a low-rent endurance exercise in bleakness rather than horror. Film critic Roger Ebert agrees and, in his unrelentingly negative review of the film, he denounced Xtro as “a completely depressing, nihilistic film, an exercise in sadness”.
He’s right, of course, but for entirely the wrong reasons. Xtro has always fascinated me, had a strange hold over me that defies the terrible reviews it gathers around itself. In order to investigate why that might be this article will, inevitably, contain spoilers.
Xtro is an unusual film right from the start. The opening credits are standard enough – the cast and crew are named against a star-field background – but the eerie, burbling synthesiser score from director Harry Bromley Davenport is unsettling and off-kilter. This jars with the first true scene of the film, in which a father (Philip Sayer) and his young son (Simon Nash) are playing happily with their dog outside a large cottage in the countryside. It takes a moment to realise that, unlike the setting of all the films I listed earlier on, this is the British countryside. Countryside, in fact, not that different from the fields and woodlands I played in as a kid. Not idyllic, the fields are waterlogged and the trees bare, but far more recognisable than Amity Island or Crystal Lake. Suddenly, this scene is plunged into darkness and the father, Sam, is abducted by an unseen force as his son, Tony, looks on in horror.
Three years pass with no explanation for Sam’s disappearance and, despite her son’s obvious trauma from the event, Tony’s mum Rachel (Bernice Stegers) now lives with new husband Joe (Danny Brainin) and French au pair Analise (Maryam d’Abo, some years away from her leading role in The Living Daylights) in the faded grandeur of Artillery Mansions, Central London.
Tony becomes increasingly agitated and disturbed, convinced that his father is coming back to him. Nightmares wake him constantly. One evening, Rachel finds the boy drenched in blood despite being otherwise unhurt. Joe suspects that Tony is playing pranks to gain attention but we viewers know the real reason. Sam has indeed returned.
Returned from where, though? Like much of the film, this is never fully explained with Sam simply revealing that “I went to another world”. For this to happen, Sam claims to have been changed by his abductors and, in what will be revealed as a masterpiece of understatement, he admits that “I’m not the same as before”. For many viewers, this first section of the film is the most memorable and for good reason. Sam initially returns to Earth as a spindly, skittering alien (played by mime artist Tim Dry). In this form, he kills a young couple who accidentally collide with the creature in their car. Later, he forcibly impregnates an unfortunate woman who, in the film’s most unpleasantly gruesome scene, quickly gives birth to the fully-grown, apparently human Sam. Yet this takes up only the first twenty minutes of the film’s eighty-minute duration.
The rest of the film is not about Sam but, to a very large degree, about Tony.
Tony appears to be a lonely child and, even if nobody is truly unpleasant to him, he’s often either ignored or dismissed. Joe finds the boy’s conviction that his father will return infuriating, Analise is more interested in her boyfriend’s affections than Tony’s requests to play hide-and-seek and even Rachel doesn’t seem to have much time for her son. Yet Tony has a deep rapport with his father, even after it becomes obvious that Sam is more alien than human, and this reveals itself as a wider psychic power that allows the boy to shape reality through sheer force of will.
Sam manifests a sinister clown (Peter Mandell) as an assistant, uses a life-size Action Man to murder the neighbour (Anna Wing) who killed his pet snake and animates a toy panther which kills Analise’s boyfriend (David Cardy). Analise herself is transformed into a cocoon-womb, apparently for the sole purpose of creating alien eggs. In fact, there’s a perfectly valid reading of the film where even Sam’s return is a creation of Tony’s reality-bending powers; the initial alien form simply sprouts out of the ground and impregnates its victim by ‘kissing’ her, hinting at a childlike misunderstanding of how sexual intercourse works.
Regardless of how literally Sam’s return is taken, the vast majority of the film appears to explore Tony’s lingering grief around the disappearance of his father. In many ways this allies Xtro with another British horror film about trauma; 1987’s Hellraiser. Although very different films in many ways, both of them explore grief through the sordid lens of 80s Britain; not the neon, turbo-charged Britain of New Romantic pop music but the grimy, litter-strewn Thatcher’s Britain of miners’ strikes and The Specials’ ‘Ghost Town’. Both films also have a similar cast dynamic where a fairly bland couple are divided, and eventually destroyed, by the suspicious reappearance of an old lover, one who has been transformed by experiences only hinted at.
Yet where Hellraiser’s trauma is an adult one – sex and pain and control all mingling into a sadomasochistic blur – Xtro’s trauma, Tony’s trauma, follows the nightmarish, absurd lawlessness of a child’s game. Xtro’s plot famously makes little sense. Is this because the world makes little sense to a child?
One of the most telling indications of how central Tony is to the film’s concerns is revealed in the original ending, which was cut for the film’s theatrical release by New Line Cinema founder Robert Shaye. The most commonly-seen ending has Tony leave Earth with Sam, now completely (d)evolved into a kind of exo-skeletal figure. Rachel then returns to the London apartment where the bath is full of pulsating eggs extracted from Analise’s transformed body. One of these eggs explodes and appears to impregnate Rachel in the same way the unnamed woman was impregnated at the start of the film. In the original ending, however, by the time Rachel returns these eggs have already hatched into clones of Tony. To a strangely looped chant of “Mama” the clones appear to recognise Rachel and, for her part, she seems to accept them.
This is where I think Ebert’s summation of the film as “an exercise in sadness” is more correct than he might have imagined. Tony is an only child whose father, for whatever reason, has left him. He lives in a small London apartment, apparently friendless, with distracted adult guardians and a nanny who finds him an inconvenience. He knows the damp passages and rusted ducts that riddle the apartment building, perhaps having spent many hours playing there alone.
Tony dreams of his father’s return, of his toys coming to life and looking after him. He dreams of siblings, other children like him. Xtro is indeed a very sad film when we look at it through Tony’s eyes. What Ebert does get wrong is calling the film nihilistic. It is grim, certainly. It is bleak and filled with arbitrary, vengeful violence. Yet it is also strangely hopeful, at least from Tony’s perspective. Tony appears to increasingly enjoy himself as the film progresses and the last we see of the boy is him holding his father’s hand, albeit one transformed into an alien claw.
It is this which, for very personal reasons, makes me think of Xtro as a much more sorrowful and affecting film than it has any right to be.
Curiously, as a coda to this piece, there is no greater critic of involved readings like this than Harry Bromley Davenport himself. In one of the film’s making-of documentaries, the director quite cheerfully calls Xtro “a mess” with “nothing to it at all”. It makes me chuckle slightly to think that more people would agree with the film’s actual director in calling Xtro simply “rubbish” than they would with my conjecturing.
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