An early scene details how father Sam (Philip Sayer) was playing outside his idyllic country home with his son Tony (Simon Nash) and the family dog one afternoon, when an explosion in the sky suddenly turned day into night ... and, moments later, Sam was gone.
Three years have passed since that event, and Tony still talks about his father's alien abduction. His mother, Rachel (Bernice Stegers), insists that Sam simply walked out on them. In the meantime, she's moved on and now lives with her new lover Joe (Danny Brainin) in an apartment block in London.
Tony doesn't take to Joe, and you quickly get the impression that the feeling is mutual. Rachel tries as a mother but finds her loyalties torn between the two. At least Tony has the support of European child minder Analise (Maryam d'Abo) to rely upon.
But lo, what's this? Another flash in the sky, and another alien visitation in the British countryside. a bizarre four-legged creature scuttles from its spacecraft's wreckage, stumbling onto a quiet country lane at night - and into the peripheral view of a motorist and his wife. They grind to halt, getting out to investigate ... resulting in predictably grim consequences. This is just the beginning: the extra-terrestrial then finds its way to an attractive cottage where its even more attractive owner (Susie Silvey) becomes a victim of intergalactic oral rape. This allows for the (impressively gross) rebirthing of Sam, thus enabling him to find his way to London and reconnect with Tony.
Naturally, Joe is reluctant to take in Sam as a house guest but Rachel's sympathetic overrules any protestations. The atmosphere is fraught, certainly, but at least Tony is ecstatic to have his dad back in his life. As for Sam? He speaks candidly to his son of the startling experiences he's had in a world far away, and promises to take Tony there sometime soon ...
That's the gist but there's so much more to XTRO. The sci-fi-horror elements were clearly influenced by the success of Ridley Scott's ALIEN, and yet there's a sub-plot involving this dysfunctional family unit which makes time to consider the angles of each protagonist (something that, superficially at least, had me recalling Andrej Zulawski's POSSESSION). The script, co-written by director Harry Bromley Davenport, Iain Cassie and Robert Smith, is crammed with moments of schlock (which I'll get to) but is also paradoxically and unexpectedly concerned with the dynamics of this unorthodox family set-up.
And the cast are up to the task of supporting it. Stegers is believable as the resilient but warm-hearted mother, wife and lover; Brainin breathes sympathy and understanding into what could've been a redundant role; Sayer resists the temptation to play the monster and instead conveys as much emotional confusion as anyone in the film: he can't quite grasp how he's been replaced in his wife and child's lives. Even Analise's character is fleshed-out somewhat, albeit it could well be that giving her a photographer boyfriend is a mere excuse to get d'Abo naked and ultimately up the body count by one more.
And the aforementioned schlock? Well, in-between the keen relationship observations there is some really rum dialogue to be endured - and the script does contain its fair share of absurdities (Joe and Rachel's casual reaction to finding Tony covering in someone else's blood one morning is a typically head-scratching moment).
Now, as for the film's more exploitative elements ... Davenport positively ladles these on. At regular intervals. There's no fucking about here: XTRO is chock-full of gore, rubbery practical FX work (courtesy of Tom Harris and team), bare breasts, cheap action set-pieces, creative monster designs ...
There are so many memorable moments. Some are laughable, admittedly, but never less than entertaining. Sam eating the eggs laid by Tony's pet snake; the child's toys coming to murderous life (as part of an underused subplot concerning Sam passing on the gift of telekinesis to his son); the gruesome pregnancy and birth scene; nosy neighbour Anna Wing's (yes, Lou Beale from "EastEnders" in the 1980s!) novel demise; the aforementioned nudity; the random placement of a live black panther in a latter scene; the crude but effective splatter (which at times resembles a poor man's VIDEODROME, particularly when Sam pushes his way out of a woman's vagina, or when he's sucking on Tony's shoulder).
Davenport has since gone on record, in a most enjoyably flamboyant manner, discrediting the film. However, it has many strengths. Not only is completely free from any dull moments, it benefits from some truly inventive camera angles, taut editing and a really ambient (incessant!) synth score from the director himself. We even get a few scenes which employ stylish giallo-esque colour-filtered lighting to striking effect.
The cumulative result of all of the above is a film which is as entertaining and rewarding on repeat viewings as it is totally fucking bonkers. That's high praise.
Just avoid the sequels (1990's XTRO II: THE NEXT ENCOUNTER and 1995's XTRO 3: WATCH THE SKIES), also directed by Davenport. They're shite.
XTRO makes its debut appearance on UK blu-ray thanks to our friends at Second Sight. It's a title that fans have been screaming out for - so, appropriately, Second Sight have deemed its HD debut as something fitting of the special edition treatment ... and then some.
For starters, this release comes with no less than four versions of the film. The first is the original theatrical cut with an ending which no-one ever really found overly satisfying (86 minutes and 1 second in length); then we have the same theatrical prep but with a gorier alternate ending which was shot at the distributor's request, and is the better version (86 minutes and 50 seconds); next up is the original UK video version (85 minutes and 41 seconds) - this retains that alternate finale but features slight trims to snaps of dialogue in a bid to improve pacing; finally there's an all-new colour-corrected 2018 "director's version" (86 minutes and 48 seconds) - which is preceded by a 34-second video introduction from Davenport explaining how this new variant has given him the opportunity to "mess around" with the film's look.
The latter version is something of a travesty if you're already familiar with the film. Right from the opening credits, which have been unnecessarily modified to pop out you a la the ones from SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE, every adjustment (psychedelic hues during some FX sequences, new digital applications, overly warm colour correction etc) is an unwelcome distraction. It also has an overall darker look to it. At the very least, it retains the preferred alternate ending.
Anyhow, the fact is these new HD transfers, MPEG4-AVC affairs one and all, are very impressive. XTRO is presented uncut and in its original 1.78:1 ratio. The film has never looked so clear, so vibrant or so colourful. Blacks and contrasts are superbly controlled throughout, while detail is amplified significantly over previous home video releases. A fine layer of grain ensures that a natural filmic quality endures. Only the new director's version disappoints, suffering from an overly contrasted "boosting" effect from start to finish.
English audio is clean and clear on each option. The first two cuts are proffered in DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0; the latter two versions come to us in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mixes. Each mix is problem-free and comes with the option of English subtitles for the hard-of-hearing.
The disc opens to an animated main menu page. Each version of the film has a pop-up scene selection menu allowing access to it via 16 chapters.
And if you're looking for extras (XTRAS?) ...
XPLORING XTRO is a fantastic new 57-minute documentary which opens with a great statement from the endlessly entertaining, charismatic Davenport: "We just wanted to make a bloody horror film, you know, and horrify everyone". Amusing, insightful, fact-filled and painfully honest, this is a great proposition. The film's original title was to be MONSTRO; the fantastic anything-goes nature of PHANTASM was an influence; the budget was roughly £450,000; TIK and TOK reveal how they got the gig, and delve into the tribulations of being caked in latex for their roles; Davenport underplays his self-composed score; the alternate ending's origins are explained, along with amusing insight into the stand-in actress who substituted for an unavailable Stegers; yes, the dog called Divine was named after the actor famed for John Waters trash classics such as PINK FLAMINGOS and FEMALE TROUBLE. Stegers, Forstater, Davenport and Alan Jones are among the other talking heads on offer here. Interspersed with clips, stills and even some brief storyboard illustrations, this is the best overview of XTRO we're likely to get.
Next we're given "The World of Xtro", an excellent new 27-minute featurette offering more Davenport and Forstater goodness, as well as benefiting hugely from the contributions of mega-fan Dennis "Xtro" Atherton. This looks deeper into the film's themes along with the scenes that work so well in it. Atherton shares the same affable Lancashire accent of Johnny Vegas but knows the film inside-out and insists that Davenport's self-effacing comments are nothing more than a smokescreen designed to deflect from the care and attention he put into making such a unique proposition. I don't agree with his assertion that the film is "a British giallo" though: a couple of scenes which employ colour-filtered lighting does not a giallo make. He's on point with his "foreshadowing" observations. On the self-effacing front: "It leapt like a demon from my imagination" counter-argues Davenport.
"Beyond Xtro" sees the film's producer and director discuss the sequels, XTRO 2: THE NEXT ENCOUNTER and XTRO: WATCH THE SKIES. Both were "totally unrelated" to the original movie, Davenport insists. The main draw of this 7-minute featurette is the mention of an all-new XTRO: THE BIG ONE. "I can show you bits. We have test bits and things" - which of course is an open invite for us to preview five minutes or so from the upcoming feature. Most of it looks to be reliant upon cheap CGI, in that slick but phony Sci-Fi Channel style, but at the very least it could be argued that the scene where a girl kisses a guy and sucks his heart out through his mouth ... then spits it onto the ground, at which point a spindly alien dog crawls out of it, is - well, as creatively fucked up as anything in its progenitor.
"Loving the Alien" may only be 3 minutes in duration but it's a highly valid tribute to Sayer, who died of cancer in the late 80s. Stegers, Davenport, Atherton etc speak very highly of the man who died prematurely at the ridiculously young age of 41. We get a sizeable clip of a song written by Brian May (the Queen one, not the MAD MAX one) and dedicated to Sayer: "Just One Life". The song recalls the cheesiest of Eurovision pap in fairness, but I appreciate the sentiment.
All of the above are new featurettes produced for this release by Nucleus Films, who are fast becoming the Gods of bonus material productions. Quite rightly, each offering opens with a warning that spoilers will follow. So, newcomers - watch the film first!
Next up we get the archive documentary "Xtro Xposed", a Digital Roadshow production. This originally appeared on Image Entertainment's US DVD from 2005. Davenport is a lot more disparaging of the film here - "an extraordinary mess ... everything about this film is pretty dreadful" he insists - than in the later featurettes, suggesting he's warmed to it over the years. This is an amusing prospect, though the version here is abridged at 11 minutes in length - the original Image offering was 17 minutes in length. My memory isn't strong enough to detail what's missing.
The film's original 114-second trailer is a scratchy affair - enjoyably so - and a great relic of when previews were salacious affairs, replete with an earnest deep male voiceover proffering tosh like "Xtro - some extra-terrestrials aren't friendly".
A US TV spot is shorter at only 32 seconds in length but arguably more effective.
Although not available for review purposes, this release also comes armed with a collectors' booklet containing notes by Kevin Lyons and a rigid slipcase packaging offering reversible artwork.
XTRO is an incredible triumph of go-for-broke insanity over budgetary restrictions and paradoxically messy/astute screenwriting. It's blessed by strong performances, a riveting central theme of family dysfunction and engagingly deranged set-pieces. It's quite unique. And Second Sight's blu-ray release affords it the utmost respect: I can't imagine this film, worthy of the term "cult classic" for sure, will ever enjoy a better or more comprehensive release than what we're getting here.
Review by Stuart Willis
|Released by Second Sight|