Paste’s ABCs of Horror is a 26-day project that highlights some of our favorite horror films from each letter of the alphabet. The only criteria: The films chosen can’t have been used in last year’s Century of Terror, a 100-day project to choose the best horror film of every year from 1920-2019. With some heavy hitters out of the way, which movies will we choose?
When I first sat down to watch Xtro, I had a vague idea that this was not exactly a film for the squeamish. I was aware that there were going to be body horror elements here, and sci-fi grossout weirdness that might seem familiar to those who have seen the likes of Galaxy of Terror or Inseminoid. In other words, I knew things were going to get icky. But I still didn’t realize just how icky.
Xtro is a uniquely gross, determinedly transgressive science fiction horror movie, which also possesses that rare quality of “horror from which one can’t look away.” God help me, the film is so committed to its batshit ideas and so competently executed that it inspires slack-jawed amazement at both its creativity and willingness to be bizarre. Even the lack of a budget can’t hold it back, as its practical effects and cinematography are rendered with the care of a production that cost 10 times as much. This is a true diamond in the rough, although it was unsurprisingly pilloried at the time of release, both for its gruesomeness and suggestively taboo content.
The film starts with a bang that is both massive and literal, as a young boy named Tony (Simon Nash) witnesses his father Sam (Philip Sayer) being violently abducted by an alien craft in broad daylight. Three years later, Dad is presumed dead and mother Rachel (Berniece Stegers) has a new beau, but Tony is left with disturbing dreams and a premonition that Dad will soon return … and in a new form too terrible to imagine.
This sets the stage for Xtro as a bizarre combination of alien body horror and dysfunctional family drama, and despite what you might expect, the film actually gives equal weight to both of those seemingly disparate genres. Rachel’s new boyfriend Joe (Danny Brainin) is particularly sympathetic—a decent man dating a single mother and attempting to bond with her son who is uninterested in his affections, he then has to contend with the sudden reemergence of his girlfriend’s husband after three years … and her seemingly instant forgiveness of Sam after he claims to have amnesia about where he’s been for the last 1,000 days. He’s a man placed into an impossible situation, and it hurts to watch him come to terms with the fact that his girlfriend is likely going to leave him for the man who already broke her heart once before.
Oh, and did we mention that Sam is also a ravenous alien? That kind of whiplash is Xtro in a nutshell—one moment you’ve got a genuinely hideous-looking alien beast running around, killing motorists and impregnating women in secluded cabins, and the next moment it’s a surprisingly effective drama about four people struggling to find their roles inside and outside a nuclear family unit. Its characters, especially mother Rachel, are believably fallible in their misplaced desires to look past the circumstances of Sam’s disappearance, in the name of somehow returning to the idyllic time before it happened.
The body horror elements, meanwhile, push well past the extremes of good taste for 1982, occasionally putting the likes of Cronenberg to shame, and with more than enough alien penises to satisfy Ridley Scott. Not to put it bluntly, but the most notorious of these sequences involves a horrifically engorged woman, giving birth to a full-grown man in a shower of gore and effluvia—and that’s just one such sequence. Things get even stranger in the back half of the film, when Tony begins manifesting powers of his own, demonstrating an ability to shape the very fabric of reality around him. At this point, Xtro becomes something like a cross between Alien and the “It’s a Good Life” episode of The Twilight Zone—silly at one moment, and undeniably creepy in another. There’s nothing else quite like it.
Xtro didn’t make a sizable impact upon release—it certainly wasn’t the pop cultural juggernaut for a young New Line Cinema that A Nightmare on Elm Street proved to be two years later—but it left a deep impression on a new generation of science fiction and body horror devotees, to be paid off in a forthcoming generation of transgressive science fiction movies that would largely be attributed to Alien. Those paying closer attention, however, will sense the disturbing presence of Xtro as well.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.