On its first release in 1983 I thought XTRO was fairly ordinary – after all, the British cinema had turned out Inseminoid so the box for ‘low-budget Alien imitation’ was already ticked — but it’s the sort of film which improves with age, and even its ‘dated’ effects (all slimy stretchy rubber and goop) now have a kind of period charm. In a brief, confusing opening – director Harry Bromley Davenport explains that a lot of the linking scenes didn’t get shot so the film is full of suggestive ellipses and shifts in tone – Sam Phillips (Philip Sayer) is abducted by a UFO played by a light in the sky only a few degrees scarier than the flying saucer effect that plagued Cannon and Ball in The Boys in Blue. Years later, his wife Rachel (Bernice Stegers) has moved on – and in with a photographer (Danny Brainin), whose philosophy is ‘look Briddish, think Yiddish’ – but their son Tony (Simon Nash) still believes Dad was taken by spacemen rather than just walked out on the family. Sam comes back to Earth in a convoluted manner that involves a crab-walking alien rapist and a rapidly-developing pregnancy that tags this as basically an Alien knock-off (though it also looks forward to the more benign Starman). Posing as an amnesiac, Sam returns to his family and makes everyone uncomfortable except for the kid – I’m not sure whether Nash’s performance is terrible or a remarkable depiction of a deeply unlikeable brat, but it’s among the most unsettling elements of a production that’s constantly taking odd, disorienting decisions.
In its mix of British domestic drama and gloopy horror, it was almost a template for Clive Barker’s Hellraiser – which also features a family member returning unnaturally and shaking up a new relationship, plus gruesome deaths. Leads Sayer (the shadowy killer in Slayground) and Stegers (upon whom Hellraiser’s Clare Higgins might have modelled her look) are good – though the supporting cast offers several varieties of awkwardness. Maryam d’Abo is lovely as the au pair, but stuck with the sort of French accent that requires her to pronounce the ‘p’ in ‘psychiatrist’ – and her several nude scenes are a working definition of gratuitous, well before she gets slimed up and turned into food source for an egg sac. Davenport, also a composer, provides a droning syth score that’s more Doctor Who than Goblin. Besides the alien business, it offers Poltergeisty scary toys that come to life – a malign dwarf doll, an Action Man knock-off that gets revenge on a downstairs neighbour (Anna Wing) who murders the kid’s pet snake, a plastic panther, etc. It’s still hit or miss, but the new Second Sight BluRay – which includes four different cuts of the film (the ending was reshot between theatrical release and home video) and a ton of documentary background – offers as much XTRO as you could possibly want to take home.