Creature-Feature Conversations is a series of movie reviews as dialogue between horror authors, with a focus on unique, engaging, or cult-status horror films.
Xtro (1982, directed by Harry Bromley Davenport)
With guest reviewer Max Booth III
JONATHAN RAAB: I get a special joy recommending this film to jaded horror movie fans, because unless you’ve seen excerpts of the absolute gross-out chaos this movie has to offer beforehand, nothing can really prepare you for Xtro. It’s both a triumph of disgusting practical effects and something of an hallucinogenic arthouse film. Watching it always leaves me with the feeling that I should probably go to confession. So, Max: Xtro. Great movie, or greatest movie?
MAX BOOTH III: I had never heard of Xtro before you recommended it. After you told me the title, I did a quick Google search, saw the amazing poster, read the brief Wiki synopsis (“the film focuses on a father who was abducted by aliens and returns to his family three years later, where he goes in search of his son”), and thought, “Okay, yeah, this sounds like it’ll be fun.” But never did I anticipate the actual fucking result. For one thing, I did not expect the movie to be so… erotic. Was really uncomfortable watching it in the lobby of the hotel that employes me. So, to answer your question: maybe greatest movie?
JR: I think it’s important to discuss the plot in any Creature-Feature Conversation, of course, but a summary like that doesn’t really do the film justice. When the wiki says “a father who was abducted by aliens” what that really means is that within seconds of the movie starting, the father and son throw a stick into the air which seems to shatter the sky, day turns to night, and a horrible light engulfs them both before sucking dear ol’ dad into the sky. I’m genuinely unnerved by it, like so much else in this movie, because it feels so disjointed and highly weird that my brain struggles to make sense of it.
And when the wiki says “returns to his family three years later,” what it really means is a UFO crashes in the countryside and a reverse-crawl-walking rubber-faced monster emerges, causes a car accident, kills two people, impregnates a third with a horrifying rubber hose sucker-thing, dies and its corpse is eaten by the family dog, and then dad returns by being birthed, fully formed, from the over-inflated womb of his victim. Complete with birth viscera and snapping… tissues. Then he gives himself a shower at her sink. Jesus Christ.
MB: Like I mentioned, I was at my job while watching this film, in front of a camera that management could view at any point from their homes and see what I was viewing, and still I went back and rewatched that birthing scene probably five times in a row. I even recorded a video on my phone of the scene and texted it to every person in my contacts without providing any further context. Twenty-four hours later, not a single person has responded.
So, what I’m wondering is: How long has this movie been on your radar? What was your introduction to it like?
JR: I last saw this a few years ago, and I will say that there is very little that I forgot about the film between then and now. As that scene played out—or any scene with the absolutely disgusting practical-effects variations on “birthing” that recur throughout the film—it felt like I had just seen it, and my first reaction was “why are you traumatizing yourself with this again?”
The smoky cinematography, fever-dream pacing, strange lighting, and dripping-gross special effects really stuck with me all this time. I believe the first time I saw it was probably many years ago, as my cousin had this shocker on VHS for some reason—back in the day when your choices were limited to random copies of horror movies you could find at Suncoast or Media Play. Regardless, I’ve been enthusiastic about this film since, recommending it to weird cinema and horror fans who have gone through the horror hits and are in search of some deeper cuts.
What are some examples of the film’s imagery that sticks out for you? Does the nonsensical, dream-like quality of the images and plot work for you like it does for me?
MB: It’s now been a couple days since I’ve seen it, so what continues to stick out for me are obviously the gnarly special effects. I will never forget that birthing scene. Also, I can’t stop thinking about the plastic soldier guy who somehow grows into a man and goes on a rampage. I’ve always been unnerved by mannequins and dolls, so seeing this fuckin’ thing kick down a door and shoot a couch was simultaneously hilarious and terrifying. Plus, oh man, those flesh sucking scenes? My god. I also really liked how bright everything was. A lot of movies are afraid to have… color on screen, but this one was vibrant and very pleasant on the eyes. A good example would be the kitchen. Love those colors!
The dream logic works well, I think. From the very opening scene with the bizarre stick alien abduction, we know exactly what kinda movie we’re getting into, even if I sorta forgot about the initial weirdness and was still surprised when that car nearly hit whatever the fuck was standing in the middle of the street. The creature design found in this movie is really well-done. I remember being surprised by how cool everything looked. I bet this thing was both a blast and a pain in the ass to film. I haven’t looked up any behind-the-scenes information about it yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it had an interesting backstory.
JR: There’s so much about the film that looks great and terrifying and silly all at once. The toy soldier murder scene is really goofy but also fundamentally disturbing, as is the dwarf clown manifestation handling the alien reproductive (?) cycle in the apartment. Those rubber eggs coming out of the cocooned nanny (I’m gagging just thinking about it) are gruesome, and the weird sludge poured into the overturned fridge, presumably made out of the boyfriend… Absolutely gross, all around. None of it is as well done as the effects in Alien, from which it is clearly drawing inspiration, but there’s a bizarre cartoon logic and humor that is so discordant it makes everything all the more revolting. I keep coming back to the images of the melting phone and phone line box, for example, inexplicable but disturbing visual representations of the film’s theme: everything—including flesh, biology, and time itself—is plastic and bubbling over with radioactive heat.
I only know snippets here and there of behind-the-scenes trivia, but apparently the director wasn’t pleased with this film for many years, but has since come around to re-embracing it as it has rightfully grown in popularity. I’ve seen Xtro 2, which is a sequel in name only, and not really worth a watch unless you’re overly forgiving of Aliens knockoffs with lesser budgets and production values. There are a few shots of an alien world in that film that are haunting, calling to mind the high strange weirdness of this film, but it is otherwise fairly pedestrian. I haven’t seen Xtro 3 but its reputation isn’t great, either. A rumored Xtro 4 is supposedly in the works, being more of a thematic sequel to the original in its weirdness.
MB: I don’t think I like the idea of ever watching the sequels. I just want the original to exist in my memory as a distancing dream until one day I can’t remember if I ever really watched it.
Max Booth III is the Editor-in-Chief of Perpetual Motion Machine, the Managing Editor of Dark Moon Digest, and the host of two podcasts: Ghoulish and Castle Rock Radio. He’s the author of Touch the Night, Carnivorous Lunar Activities, and several other novels. Bylines include LitReactor, CrimeReads, the San Antonio Current, Fangoria, and Film 14. Follow him on Twitter @GiveMeYourTeeth or visit him at http://www.TalesFromTheBooth.com. He lives in Texas.
Jonathan Raab is the author of numerous short stories, veteran advocacy essays, and novels including Camp Ghoul Mountain Part VI: The Official Novelization and The Hillbilly Moonshine Massacre. He is the editor of several anthologies from Muzzleland Press, including Behold the Undead of Dracula: Lurid Tales of Cinematic Gothic Horror and Terror in 16-bits. He lives in Colorado with his wife Jess, their son, and a dog named Egon. You can find him on Twitter @jonathanraab1.