As a kid in the early ‘80s, there were two movie posters that genuinely gave me the creeps in our local video rental store. One was John Carpenter’s The Thing, a film which set new standards in special effects and went on to be recognized as a horror classic; and the other was Harry Bromley Davenport’s Xtro, which didn’t. Somehow, I never did get around to seeing the film behind that still-impressive poster, but now that Amazon offers the chance to watch it, it would be churlish not to.

A labor of love for Harry Bromley Davenport, who wrote and directed and even wrote and performed the soundtrack, Xtro is a British entry in the wave of low budget horror movies that plagued the shelves of video stores under the influence of Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979). But whereas most movies as obviously post-Alien as Xtro is – Norman J. Warren’s Inseminoid is perhaps the classic example – achieved the visual level of a mid-‘60s Roger Corman sci-fi movie, Xtro has a genuine sense of style, although it is often defeated by the modesty of its budget. Although indebted to Scott’s masterpiece, by the time of its release in 1982, there was a more obvious reference point than Alien to cash in on, and the tagline for Xtro read “not all Extraterrestrials are friendly.”

Initially, it has to be said, the film doesn’t look too promising; in place of Ridley Scott’s superbly ominous slow reveal of the movie’s title, Xtro – which like that title, emerges as light from the darkness of space – has a font and execution that are more reminiscent of children’s TV drama of the era, or even a cartoon. The opening scene too, although admirably brief, lacks a little sparkle. We are introduced to the young Tony Philips (Simon Nash) and his father Sam (Philip Sayer) playing together in the garden of a rural holiday cottage when something happens; day turns to night, there’s a flash of light and wind and suddenly Sam is gone. Cut to three years later – though Tony appears to be the same age, perhaps the most jarring of the movie’s inconsistencies – and Tony, living with his mother Rachel (Bernice Stegers), her new partner Joe (Danny Brainin) and their French au pair, Analise Mercier (a very appealing debut performance by Maryam d’Abo) — is plagued by dreams of his father’s abduction, though his mother and Joe insist that Sam simply left.

Meanwhile, from space, Xtro – presumably, though it is never named – arrives on a country lane and it becomes clear that most of the film’s budget was probably spent on the monster. Although occasionally muppety in close-up, the first appearances of the creature, a wrong-looking semi-humanoid quadruped, are – especially when glimpsed from a car by night – vivid and shocking. Upon arrival, the alien kills the young couple from the car, before entering a cottage and attacking and impregnating the woman who lives there. In the first of several audaciously weird set pieces, we then see the now massively distended pregnant woman give birth to the full-grown adult Sam, who then backtracks and steals the clothes and car of the people the alien had killed on arrival.

If many of the individual sequences are a bit clunky, the movie’s various storylines and relationships are established with economy and efficiency. We see the slight tension between Rachel and Joe – a Canadian, Jewish photographer (“you know me Sam; look British, think Yiddish’) – caused largely by Tony’s obsession with his missing father – which is shortly to be exacerbated hugely by Sam’s return. There’s the young au pair Anelise and her boyfriend and the nosy downstairs neighbor Miss Goodman. Once Sam has returned, things escalate quickly; he claims, convincingly, to have no knowledge of where he’s been or what happened and Rachel lets him stay, though we never find out how long he would have been welcome for. After being caught eating Tony’s pet snake Harry’s eggs – why a male snake lays eggs is never explained – Sam attacks Tony in a weird, vampiric way, passing on some of his alien powers to the boy. Tony then uses his new powers to bring his toys to life; creating for himself a sinister clown henchman and an animated Action Man (GI Joe, to US audiences) doll, which in another of the film’s key weird scenes, he sends, now life-sized – to assassinate Miss Goodman, after she kills his snake.

Rachel, sympathetic to Sam’s apparently amnesiac plight, takes him back to the cottage where he was abducted, and while they are away, Tony, during a game of hide and seek, gets his clown henchman to attack Anelise, before killing her boyfriend. Tony molests the young girl in much the way his father did to him, before cocooning her and making her into a kind of queen, laying alien eggs in the bath. It’s surprisingly unsettling and weird. While Rachel and Sam are at the cottage, Rachel senses something is wrong at home and tries to contact Analise and Tony, but to no avail. She calls Joe, who discovers by chance the connection between Sam and the young couple who were murdered when the alien first arrived on earth. Tony appears, ready to accompany Joe – who doesn’t seem to notice how peculiar the boy has become – and the pair head to the cottage for the final showdown.

On paper, Xtro is not a particularly unusual film – but it’s atypical for a British movie of its era and that strange, distinctive flatness that was a trademark of UK cinema in the ‘70s and ‘80s is for once mostly an asset. The film has the peculiar sense of everyday wrongness that pervades Philip Kaufmann’s superb 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the early work of David Cronenberg and, in its modest way Xtro achieves something akin to Cronenberg’s disquieting body horror too. The acting is wildly variable, often dubious, but sometimes very good. The late Philip Sayer gives a fine, understated performance as Sam, and Danny Brainin as Joe is equally good. When they are on-screen together, especially in the first scene with Joe and Sam after Sam’s return, there is a real sense of tension and believability. Bernice Stegers is fine too, but it seems a shame in a way that the director didn’t make more use of her ability to be imposing and unsettling when the story could easily have allowed for it. Maryam d’Abo, now probably best known for her role as Kara Milovy in the James Bond vehicle The Living Daylights, adds a lighter touch and makes the viewer care when she becomes a victim of the creature, even though it feels like her actual function in the movie is mostly to provide some gratuitous nudity; it is ‘80s horror after all.

The effects range wildly too, from the amateurish – the blood is particularly unconvincing – to excellent, and if the scenes of violence are slightly weak, the more surreal and outré sequences are very effective and the creature design is distinctive and powerful. That said, unfortunately nothing beats the jolt when we first meet the alien, so that, horror-wise at least, the climax leaves something to be desired. Davenport’s electronic score is a weak spot too. On paper it’s a good idea and it may have seemed futuristic at the time, but although pleasingly old-school now, the main theme is just too jaunty and throughout the film the music rarely feels as dark and brooding as it needs to be. Something akin to Denny Zeitlin’s more low-key score to the aforementioned Invasion of the Body Snatchers could have added significantly to the film’s impact.

Xtro is no masterpiece, but nor is it disappointing. There are inconsistencies, absurdities and plot holes, but thankfully it doesn’t give the viewer too much time to brood over them — a rarity for a movie of its genre and vintage. Instead, Davenport concentrates on delivering genuine eeriness, punctuated by moments of audaciously repulsive weirdness. While enjoying the film it’s easy to think of many changes that would have made it a better movie, but regardless of that, Xtro is nearly good – and, far more importantly for trash cinema – it’s never boring.

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