“A brutal excursion in terror”

The reason for originally starting up The Cult Movie Review blog; was because of movies such as Harry Bromley Davenport’s wonderful Xtro (1983). A low budget British horror film that many suggest came as a result of New Line Cinemas attempt at trying to capitalise upon the favouritism of a growth genre market, coming on the back of the success rate of high profile films such as Ridley Scott’s, Sci-Fi, horror epic Alien (1979). The other extreme often referenced connection to cinema is the more family friendly orientated alien creation that is Steven Spielberg’s, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, (1982). Other thinly veiled comparisons with genre cinema which many of the critics of the day chose to compare – these titles also sprung to mind: John Carpenter’s, The Thing (1982) or closer inspection of Don Segal’s, original 1956 version of Invasion of The Body Snatchers or even Phillip Kaufman’s, 1978 remake, this latter version being TCMR’s preferred choice. Other comparisons may vary. Xtro was a film that entered the new video entertainment market, which had already gained a pace and most definitely offered this particular movie a larger second coming before its eventual fall from grace with the film censors of the time – but certainly not its newly formed fan base who became very bemused by the BBFC’s, pressured turn about regarding the films original classification which they had willingly provided on its uncut theatrical release and again in its subsequent video release shortly after. Xtro was eventually placed on the 1984, “Section 3” covert second list of the Obscene Publications Act by the Director of Public Prosecutions. Though the film was strongly considered as a probable “Nasty” it was never outright banned, though it seemed that many video rental outlets by this stage worried about its notoriety, where in large part unwilling to risk the wrath of an over zealous and often ill equipped, ill advised police force that seemed intent on taking the new “Nasty” laws to an extreme due process of only their understanding and not that of those trying to make a living in the video rental business I am afraid!

This very unusual independent film covers the demographic of Horror, Sci-Fi & Fantasy in one large swoop. Alien, E.T. or The Thing this film most definitely is not, therefore silly comparisons though frequently mentioned in the era of conception are therefore void. Even its poster campaign hinted at the darker side of its E.T. inspiration, however vague. What we do have here is a mad and often silly movie that through financial restraint and a lot of reliance on those involved in the project using their broad imaginations to task, does mean that on closer inspection this film indeed offers us an appealing work that actually delivers more than one could possibly imagine, even more than the films director ever envisaged in regard of its over all horror entertainment value – which eventually gave this underrated effort its cult popularity and obvious genre status and following. The film should also be noted for the directors self indulgent use of the films fabulously cheesy electronic soundtrack that defined the eighties era and its growing popular connective electronica culture. It inadvertently adding and often popularising this trend with a certain over expansive synthesizer glee. It also represented good financial value for the films director Davenport to use his own classical piano training background. The film has many flaws and yes the budget restraints do often show many obvious cracks in its production value and outlay – despite this however – what Davenport delivers in this messy and sometimes uncoordinated creation is a wonderful B-Movie type quest. In his attempts to deliver his end vision he often gives us an enchanting, possibly uneasy feel which is at times very strange and gruesome but also adds a substantial, unique and often quirky building fantastical atmosphere, one which befits such a madcap cinematic experience – and easily achieves this; pure and simple. If people wish to treat this film seriously, feeling they should somehow get all analytical about its message then you really need to go and get a life!… “No seriously?”

 

The plot-line of the movie is based around the alleged and sudden alien abduction of a young boys father – Sam Phillips played by the late Philip Sayer; A parent whom is unceremoniously taken while his son Tony – Simon Nash, (an irritable little bleeder throughout the movie) watches on. After the light show event (not on the same level or production scale as Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), which again is possibly a warped inspiration/interpretation perhaps?) The abduction or disappearance of Sam is explained away by the boys mother Rachel Phillips – Bernice Stegers, (who is in quite outstanding form in this film throughout, it has to be added). She also has decent genre form. She starred in Lamberto Bava’s Macabre (1980). Here her character Rachel simply puts this mysterious incident down to family abandonment issues. The resulting trauma regarding the mystery disappearance of her husband may also go some way to explaining, even formulating the sudden over active imagination of her son Tony, who suddenly becomes restless and as we soon witness may be involved in the beginning of some strange and bizarre set of incidents which start to make him the initial focal point of attention. The behaviour of a spoiled brat perhaps? All this sudden bizarre behaviour very soon coincides with the return to our planet of an alien species which may hold the key to the mystery surrounding the disappearance of Sam Phillips three years previous. This extra-terrestrial return from outer-space quickly becomes the main catalyst for all kinds of fabulous horror mayhem which in its retrospective reanalysis once again brought the film to the attention of the BBFC, this occurring during the films subsequent video release. Yes we are talking of the dreaded ‘video nasty’ period yet again (groan). I will on this occasion not go into greater detail other than say on both its original UK cinema release; yes, Xtro did indeed receive a modest cinema release let us not forget! It was however the eventual video release that finally gave it the genre recognition it deserved despite the growing concern over some of the films content. It rapidly became a firm favourite with the newly developed home entertainment audience in particular. I repeat that on its cinema release the film was originally given a 18 certification without cuts and then subsequently the BBFC followed suit and without any cuts or complaint again upon its video release. Sadly there lies the problem of a self created hypocrisy does it not? Anyway if we leave the eventual controversial nonsense it unceremoniously courted, place this aside, return to the actual film and its most visceral and controversial moment; then yes even today it is still quite disturbing but putting it into context of the films deep routed horror themes was it really worthy of the over the top outrage and its follow-on condemnation it actually raised on its original video release? I personally think not. I do find the infamous farmhouse scene which includes the violent impregnation and subsequent rebirth scenes (though there is no denying) can be viewed as quite shocking to many who originally viewed it during a time largely unfamiliar with the ever increasing use of the more amazing, exaggerated, even grotesque outlandish and extreme but quite spectacular visual effects; especially when you take in to consideration this films independent budgetary restraints.

For all the films much dated imagery and early 1980’s settings and dress sense, this particular scene is still extremely effective even now, 30+ years on from its cinematic inception. We must therefore give visionary credit to special effects company NEEFX which included special effects supervisor Tom Harris and creature effects by Francis Coates and visual consultant Christopher Hobbs and mention should also be given to the at times wondrous make-up effects of one Robin Grantham and John Webber. All of them whose combined work and effort is pretty amazing and continues unabated throughout other major parts of this movies more spectacular and monumental moments. At this point we must also add that what the films director Davenport provides is quite often some fascinating visionary film making. For a man who even to date is quite blasé about this particular work, he has even called this particular effort reprehensible. (a bit strong I personally think!) Despite his personal trepidation regarding his original Xtro, I have often personally wondered why he was never given greater opportunity to eventually make something on a more lavish and financial scale and footing. I would have liked to have seen that happen possibly – sadly it was never to be. Here we can also further illustrate the point of something as unique as this film was at the time and how someone as interesting as Davenport whose obvious carefree nature and directorial attitude and approach toward his work may be why both the movie and he make this whole experience quite unique in its approach. Would what works in this low key production and again makes Xtro so enjoyable – is surely the knowledge of having to work within such a restricted framework and if this is the case that less in budgetary terms creates greater improvisational output, it must then also beggar the question would this movie actually have worked as well as it did if it had been given blockbuster financing; which was most definitely not the original case. Whatever the facts in favour of or even against, both the director and in particular his film Xtro, we should not ignore or treat this work as anything other than a thoroughly exciting horror, sci-fi adventure of the highest imaginary perception and scope. I will also add that this is one of T.C.M.R’s all time favourite movies and we make no apology for having great fondness for a film that many may find ridiculous and trite. You tell us of a film that offers up as many restructured cliches and then offers a new and often overflowing – off the wall spectrum of ideas within the visual feasting of this gory, horror ride. If you know of such a film then we would strongly suggest you get in touch and direct us toward what possible delight we may be missing in our lives and then maybe… just maybe we can then add another possible future cult classic in its offering. Alas and until otherwise advised we feel there are not many if any films around that compare to this very unusual and special (of its time) film spectacle.

As our main protagonist attempts to re-adapt to his (new) physical self in both reestablishing his humanoid appearance and re-acclimatisation to his life back upon Earth, our alien version of Sam Philips begins to leave behind, a trail of dead victims in his wake. All this mayhem a mere process in order to get back home and return to the bosom of his family, those he had allegedly abandoned. The shock of all concerned upon Sam’s eventual return, in particular the effect it has upon his son and his estranged wife simply causes new upheaval and the resurfacing of many an old wound – many of which will also have major effects on those now a constant in the life of Rachel and Tony after Sam Phillips disappearance and they attempting to come to terms with such an event! The worst effected in this restructured new life is the interaction of Rachel’s current boyfriend Joe Daniels – Danny Brainin (token American presence) who not only has major doubts about the reasoning behind the husbands sudden return but feels there may lie an underlying ulterior motive other than wanting his old life back. We must also remember for those unfamiliar with this film that this was the début feature of actress and future Bond girl Maryam D’Abo who plays Analise Mercier, a live-in French Au pair, whom later on in one of the movies more bizarre and wickedly dark moments becomes the incubator for alien progeny in the newly formed hatchery? With father returned to the fold and the Phillips household in differing forms of individual turmoil we begin to see the consequence of the original abduction and why the alien adapted version of Sam Phillips has returned. His apparent telekinetic connection with his son and his eventual attempt to take control of his boy opens up a world of wonderful weirdness which begins to excite his impressionable son Tony, who slowly but surely uses the transference of his fathers newly found abilities to practice what can only be best described as alien sorcery which normally functions in the form of taking inanimate objects which he then ceremoniously brings to life. One of these constant creations comes in the guise of a deranged and often mischievous, psychotic and creepy, little person – clown played by Peter Mandell. Anyone suffering with coulrophobia – fear of clowns will doubtless be disturbed at this characters particular presence in the film, a presence you will not easily forget.

During the reappearance of his father, Tony learns to master his magical (other worldly) acquired alchemy skills and also has to come to terms with his fathers often off-putting but necessary, even extreme new traits. Tony begins to focus his new talents through the use of the various toys at his disposal, here his clown cohort being a prime example, which Davenport in his direction uses to its full creepy potential. From toy tanks with deadly pay loads attacking the Au pair’s boyfriend, (honestly I do not lie?) and the added bonus of the animation of a human size Action Man figure played by Sam Crawford aka Tok. His associate earlier in the movies proceedings, Tim Dry aka Tik plays the locust like alien life form that causes much in the way of mayhem and death. This includes the now infamous changing (metamorphosis) of Sam Phillips, an eventual amazing and visceral reincarnation.

To know who Tik and Tok are is to be a youth of the early 1980’s and know of both the newwave, electronic music and dance scenes which was what undoubtedly made these two gentlemen famous. They brought to prominence the famous robotic dance that made them a household name in the UK in particular.

The scene were the toy (Action-Man), commando dispatches Tony’s pet snake killer and token nosey neighbour, Mrs Goodman played by Anna Wing, who would in latter years become a soap opera legend in the UK, playing Lou Beale in the BBC’s flagship serialisation Eastenders. Her demise in Xtro is both greatly amusing and absolutely original and priceless?

Davenport in his creative imaginings also offers up a whole new meaning to the use of Yo-yos with cutting effect as the janitor Mr Knight – Arthur Whybrow, soon finds out when faced with the Yo-yo wielding clown? also see the character: Gobinda played by Kabir Bedi in John Glen’s, 007 outing, For Your Eyes Only (1983). We must also give a mention to the black panther that appears in the Phillips apartment during proceedings, this addition to proceedings coming about due the persistence of New Line CEO Bob Shaye who arrived at the films on location shoot and wanted Davenport to include the feline somewhere in the storyline, (I kid you not?) In mentioning the presence of said feline you get the generalisation of much of what the movies many surreal moments offer up, such surreality often giving its audience an additional and alternate dimension to that of alien abduction and extra-terrestrial body snatching. All this however is nothing more than a smoke screen that Davenport magically provides us with in order to stage what is to a large extent an often claustrophobic on location deployment. With a small film crew available what Davenport does admirably is make the use of the apartments interior space in which a large part of the films story is based and creates a far bigger world than one imagines and to be fair, he does it without you noticing the stories inconsistency because of the invention and madcap way he provides visual events within the restrictive apartment walls. Indeed we must also extend upon his abilities in how Davenport uses his time on outside location work, which must also be celebrated, for again his scope and use of the more organic, natural backdrops allows him to make great use of what very limited visual effects or lack of he had at his disposal by demonstrating his creativity in direction which is at times quite extraordinary and again the lack of a distinct presence of a spacecraft or mother-ship is made all the more outstanding by his use of on location camera work. What he does is actually create an alien craft presence that is never visually experienced at any time other than with the use of a distant and limited lighting platform and his use of cheap editorial effects. From the movies opening alien kidnapping and shortly after; the return of the Sam Phillips character, to the subsequent masterful way in which he creates the climatic end sequence, Davenport uses his ability to cleverly deceive with great gusto. For those of us who love the spectrum of genres that this movie provides and Harry Bromley Davenport deals with while working on a shoestring budget as compared to those who have produced and offered less with more expansive budgets, then we must rightly salute Davenport for his clever patchwork technique that creates this very unusual and at times crazy piece of cinematic work. This film is 83 minutes of pure horror joy for those willing to forgive its basic premise and frequently diluted plot and the inclusion of very occasional suspect acting. Sadly child actor Simon Nash must come in for particular criticism as he is the most dislikeable addition of what is otherwise great casting throughout. Those whom deserve particular mention for their acting endeavours are Philip Sayer, Danny Brainin. The best of all the performances is that of Bernice Stegers who gives the movie that genuine air of positive notability for a cheaply made genre orientated film. Even before Tony’s eventual alien possession the fact is you will be hard pushed to spot the difference in Nash’s weak and irritable performance. Perhaps I am missing the point and Nash’s performance is meant to get underneath ones skin but for me he is just plain old annoying throughout. It was often a bugbear in the early to mid eighties that British child actors were often poorly cast and sadly again this is a case in point that sadly lets the film down in this particular case only! If we take a close look at the child stars of American productions, often their casting was/is as good if not better than some of cinemas more mature casting. Okay I am finished being down on British child actors of the 1980’s now. My apologies if I have offended Simon Nash who is probably a thoroughly wonderful human being (or alien?) but on this occasion the truth will out and does sometimes hurt.

Right mini rant over and back to topic! This film does offer an abundance of memorable and quirky revelations that are darkly pleasurable and often very humourous in its committed unfurling. The whole movie enhances its genre outlook with touches of originality and moments of genius that many blockbusters even today lack on many entertainment levels. The infamous or now famous farmhouse scene featuring actress Susie Silvey still chills to the bone and is indeed still very uncomfortable to watch, and not easily unforgettable viewing, particularly for those who may be of a more delicate proposition. It was this scene in particular that gave this film its growing notoriety and for that reasoning alone we must give thanks to Davenport for willingly shaking things up within the establishment of the time. However it is not that scene but the latter and wonderful D’Abo’s cocooned surrogacy scenes which we here at T.C.M.R. find absolutely fantastic, though one imagines it was not entirely original and smacks slightly, though minus the (chest busting) but still possibly heavily influenced in concept – as a direct homage to Ridley Scott’s, Alien perhaps? Whatever lay behind this scene it still is unbelievably strange, twisted and quite repulsive even to this day. It also took a full and punishing days filming schedule for Maryam D’Abo who was literally hung on a bathroom wall care of the placement of a bicycle saddle for the entire shooting of this particular scene which for several long arduous hours must have caused great discomfort for the actress who was unable to move because of the special make up effects put in place and physically restraining her throughout these scenes.

This film is not has disturbing as those opposed to its final inception would have you think, nor does it take a genius to note the macabre fun that has to be had from this often dark and humorous close knit communal melee that the film pursues. What I also find refreshing about this film is the finale. There is nothing pleasant about it nor do we have an heroic saviour or happy (sugar coated) conclusion. What we get is a twisted ending that I can best suggest is again a deep rooted dark homage or bizarre metaphor for the opposite of how E.T. ended and his quite possibly the finale Harry Bromley Davenport would have pursued had he been at the helm of such a noted blockbuster. Perhaps he might have then traumatised a generation of children who would have grown up with ever present nightmares. Thankfully Spielberg’s effort was much more refined and befitting of a family movie despite that too having contained some troubling and darker moments along the way, though in the case of E.T. it was not because of the aliens presence? Davenport in his outlook is unrelenting and the pace though fast and often furious never overburdens the senses of the audience and never at any time has pretension above its set parameters, though it often surpasses its true self without overstatement. I genuinely have great affection for both this movie and its director and I often wished that Harry Bromley Davenport had done more work apart from what we here at T.C.M.R. Consider poor sequels to this film in particular.

Though it is common knowledge that Davenport still prefers his third instalment of the franchise. Maybe in hindsight someone should have possibly taken the risk with this maverick film director and offered him something more large scale in terms of budget and utilisation of a bigger cast and film crew and maybe as a result we would now be talking differently about both Xtro and Davenport. Whatever hypothetical or speculation we may deduce and note here, this is a film full of ideas and creative direction, a cast that largely makes the film much more than just another average horror B-movie type concern. I have also deliberately been brief regarding my synopses of this film only because I hope if there is just one single individual out there who reads this review and has never seen this movie, I then hope if they take the risk and except the challenge that is Xtro – then perhaps they may get the full reward and value that this film ultimately gave me on my first viewing, actually still does three decades on. This film ultimately and unashamedly defines cult movie status surely and therefore that is why it must be noted and respected by all genre fans around the globe. It most certainly is the case here at The Cult Movie Review.

If you have not yet seen this early 1980’s classic then may I boldly suggest you at the very least consider it. May I also suggest if you do choose to seek it out then may we recommend you find a copy that contains the delightful featurette “Xtro Exposed” which features the most blatantly honest and candid interview by a films director I have ever had the good fortune to view. Harry Bromley Davenport is a refreshing delight, a very funny, forthright and charming man who offers us an insight into this film and his other Xtro franchise experiences, warts and all. A true eye opener to the world of genre cinema. There is also mention of the dreaded ‘video nasty’ era in commentary which is quite fascinating when hearing about it first hand from the director of a film actually effected by the controversy. His response to the whole affair is worth watching the interview for that reason alone.   E.D. Leach.

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