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Wednesday, October 29, 2014

HubrisWeen 2, Day 24: Xtro (1983)

Story by Harry Bromley Davenport and Michael Perry
Written by Iain Cassie and Robert Smith
Directed by Harry Bromley Davenport

Philip Sayer:  Sam Philips
Bernice Stegers:  Rachel Philips
Simon Nash:  Tony Philips
Danny Brainin;  Joe Daniels
Maryam d'Abo:  Analise Mercier

One of my favorite B movie genres is the coattail riding ripoff. Think of all the movies you've seen where a bear (or a killer whale or an alligator or a devil car or an octopus or a bunch of little carnivorous fish) works its way through the template established by Jaws. The filmmakers' assumption is that if enough people liked the big blockbuster movie, they can siphon some of that good will and box office mojo by doing the same thing, but cheaper and nastier. Roger Corman is the acknowledged master of this technique (his Jurassic Park ripoff Carnosaur actually beat the movie it was ripping off into theaters, starring Laura Dern's mother, no less). And now there's at least one direct-to-DVD studio with a business model based on making movies that easily confused people will rent or get from Netflix because they sound pretty close to existing A-list properties. And while Dreamworks SKG was finding its footing in the late 90s, it used the same technique to get Deep Impact and Antz into theaters before Armageddon and A Bug's Life. Looks like Steven Spielberg took that Carnosaur lesson to heart.

And that brings us to today's film--I don't quite know what chain of events led someone to think "I've got it! We'll do a cheap, nasty body-horror ripoff of E.T. and make millions!" but I'm so glad it happened. Even the tagline on the poster points out what movie you're supposed to be thinking of in case the title didn't quite serve as a signpost. And, wonder of wonders, it's actually a rather solid movie that didn't have to be nearly as competent as it is in order to get butts in the seats (or people renting the VHS or buying the DVD). I can remember walking past the videotape cover hundreds of times without checking it out when I was Kid Telstar, but plenty of other people had to have taken the bait because the film has not one but two in-name-only sequels, and a third has been promised.

The movie doesn't waste any time getting started. A family (Sam and Rachel Philips and their son Tony) are at an English country house. Rachel drives off to do some errands and the other family members remain home. When Sam throws a stick for their dog it freezes in midair and then there's a flash of light. The sky goes black and a bright light and wind come out of nowhere. Tony gets warned away from the epicenter of the effect by his father, who gets yanked into the sky and taken away.

Flash forward three years. Rachel's moved on with her life as best she can, moving in with a photographer named Joe Daniels; Tony, for his part, is thought to be delusional and traumatized thanks to his father abandoning him when he was so young. His "a bright light came out of nowhere and Hoovered my dad up into the sky" story is thought to be some kind of fantasy projection he created to soothe his mind when his father ran out on him. For that matter, Tony's convinced that his father still loves him, and will return for him some day. his relationship with Joe is pretty bad because of this--although, to his credit (and the filmmakers'), Joe is a very patient man who realizes that Tony's a very young kid who had a life-altering case of abandonment trauma and he's doing the best he can to be supportive and kind.

And what do you know--the kid's right on both counts. One night a bright light lands in the English countryside by that cottage from the prologue, setting trees on fire and disgorging a creepy skittering alien creature (realized by a bodysuit constructed so the person wearing it is crab-walking backwards with the alien's face on the back of his head; I really like seeing creative solutions like this in my low-budget horror movies). The alien monster beast thing walks towards the cottage and has the amazingly bad fortune to travel hundreds of billions of miles only to get hit by a car within half a mile of the house. When the driver goes looking for whatever the hell it was he smashed into he finds it and gets stinger-tongued to death. The woman in the car gets murdered to death by the alien as well, somehow getting her foot caught in the steering wheel during her assault.

Meanwhile, Tony has a weird dream and walks in on his mother and emergency backup father figure having sex; he gets sent back to bed where he will have odd dreams and wake up covered in blood (and when a doctor is summoned, it turns out the blood isn't even Tony's--where it came from is a mystery to every character in the film, but soon enough they'll have other things to worry about). The doctor is at a loss to explain what happened, but says if it was Tony's blood he'd be in shock and need a transfusion. He also thinks sessions with a child psychologist wouldn't be the worst idea in the world, regardless of what's going on with body fluids.

The alien creature makes its way into the cottage and forces an ovipositor into the throat of the woman living there, so it turns out that Alien is among the movies this one is stealing bits and pieces from. The woman wakes up with blood caked on her mouth and goes for a glass of water, getting waylaid by horrible abdominal cramps accompanied by stretching sounds that soon enough turn into tearing noises and finally cracking and splintering ones. She collapses to the ground, her stomach swollen grotesquely and gives birth to a fully-sized Sam Philips (who bites through his own umbilical cord as the last nasty moment of his delivery). This is instantly fatal to the woman, who never even gets a name in the film. Sam rinses the blood off his body at the sink and makes a call to Rachel; he can't make his vocal cords work yet and accidentally melts the phone handset (!) so he can't try again when all his systems are working. He also strips the clothing off the driver that smacked into his delivery vessel monster and dresses so he'll blend in a little better in England.

The next morning, Tony's playing with a soldier doll at breakfast and doesn't appear to have any memory of the "covered in blood" incident from the night before, though it might just be that he's smart enough to know that saying more stuff about dreams, his father, and assorted weirdness results in adults not listening to him anyway. He goes off to school, accompanied by the au pair girl Analise (and watched by the Sam-replicant from a distance). A van driver bumps into the car Sam used to get there and finds the woman from the first act eviscerated in the passenger seat when he goes to apologize and exchange insurance information.

Analise bumps the rating to R by having sex with her boyfriend while she's alone in the Philips / Daniels apartment. Meanwhile, Rachel leaves Joe's photography studio to go pick Tony up at school. When she gets there a teacher says that Tony's father just picked him up, and Rachel flatly tells the woman that's impossible. She searches on foot, finds Sam quickly, and gives him a slap in the face that is richly deserved from her point of view. Sam says that he's come back, but cannot remember from where. Rachel's not willing to let him back into her life (or Tony's) quite yet, again very understandably. But she does allow him back to the apartment so he can at least get a shower, shave and change of clothing. Tony's overjoyed, of course, and introduces his father to his pet snake, Harry (who just laid a clutch of eggs; I'm thinking maybe Harriet might have been a more feminine name).

While talking to Joe and Rachel, Sam says the last thing he remembers from three years ago was being held in the light that came from above. It was hot and the wind was blowing, and then everything went blank. Some extremely stilted polite small talk ensues between the three adults, but when Rachel leaves the room for a moment Joe drops all pretense of affability and asks Sam point-blank what he wants. Sam wants to be home--and Joe doesn't want him in the apartment. Rachel, probably against her better judgment, believes the amnesia story and Joe doesn't trust the returning man at all. If he saw Sam crushing and eating the snake eggs the next day, he'd certainly trust him even less than he does already. Tony flees the apartment and Sam follows; meanwhile, Harry escapes his tank and slithers off unobserved.

All of Joe's suspicions and Rachel's fears appear to be confirmed when they get home in the evening and neither Tony nor Sam is in the apartment. They run out to search (again, on foot; doesn't anyone call the cops in this movie?) and Sam finds his son hiding in an alley. He explains that the aliens changed his body so he could live on their planet and that he needed the snake eggs for some reason. He appears to have been selected randomly by his abductors but he's convinced them to let him come back for his son. Then, when he hugs Tony, he injects something (snake egg paste?) into the boy's neck from his mouth. It raises a huge, nasty, throbbing blister when he does it but Tony doesn't appear to be feeling any pain.

When Joe and Rachel return to the apartment they find Sam and Tony in the living room; Sam explains that they went out for sweets and seems properly abashed when Rachel gives him the ProTip that leaving a note would be nice, so that nobody thinks he kidnapped his son. Some plot threads get advanced; the downstairs neighbor, a mildly disagreeable old woman, watches a news report about the eviscerated woman found in a parked car and Tony finds that night that he can make a toy top spin without touching it. And at dinner that night Joe announces that he and Rachel are going to put a ring on it; Sam tosses a wine bottle at him. Tony calls for his daddy and both Joe and Sam stand up; Sam stares the other man down and goes to talk to his son. It turns out that he's the one Tony needs to talk to because the kid's a little weirded out about developing telekinesis. Sam explains that through concentration and will, he can make things happen in the world. He says it's their secret for the time being, and worryingly enough tells the boy not to "damage" Analise.

Meanwhile, the escaped snake slithers down the chandelier over their downstairs neighbors' dinner table and lands in her salad; when she discovers it she beats it to death with a meat tenderizer and returns it (in a plastic baggie full of blood and chunks) to Rachel, saying she thinks Tony's obviously too young to take care of a pet. Tony gets furious and stares at his soldier toy--and Sam tells him "No," first, but then also the single word "Later". That's the same day that Rachel reveals she never threw out Sam's old clothes. She gives him some more of his old things to wear and obviously was either expecting or just plain hoping he'd return some day if she hung on to them.

That night Tony has another weird dream and mumbles in his sleep. He turns a wooden clown toy into a dwarf clown that does yo-yo tricks to entertain him and the downstairs neighbor thumps her ceiling with a broom handle in annoyance. The soldier doll gets telekinetically turned into a life-size plastic war toy that breaks down her door and bayonets her as she hides under her sofa (and the mime performer in the plastic costume settles pretty comfortably right in the center of the Uncanny Valley for this scene).

In the morning, Sam is looking through old family photos while Sarah finds a photo of another woman in the jacket Sam was wearing. What the audience knows--but she doesn't--is that the woman in the photo is the woman in the car that hit the alien in the beginning of the movie; the Sam-thing didn't check the pockets when he put the jacket on so he missed the photo and a gigantic bundle of currency. When Rachel asks him about those items he doesn't have any answers--not even an obvious lie or an evasion.

Rachel goes to Joe, notifying him that she's taking Sam to the cottage in order to try and jumpstart some of his memories; she also gives Joe the photo (and Joe's explanation is extremely likely:  The woman in the photo is the person Sam left his family for, and has now dumped him). While they're off on what could optimistically be termed a holiday, Analise and her boyfriend are at the apartment; Analise is watching Tony (which means she's playing hide-and-seek with him until the clown doll figure drops down on her from the elevator ceiling, knocks her out, and drags her back to the apartment where Tony injects something blue and nasty into her stomach from his mouth). When the boyfriend goes looking for her a toy tank goes all Killdozer on him and a panther fatally attacks him. And in the bathroom, Analise is stuck to the wall, all webbed up and spitting out eggs from a fleshy tube at the base of the cocoon.

At the cottage, Sam is shivering and cold and Rachel's concerned for him. She calls the apartment to see if everyone's all right in her absence but nobody answers. Back at the apartment, the clown is mixing up some glop that he puts into the refrigerator (which is knocked on its back to provide easy access to its inside); the alien eggs go in the glop and get ignored till the end of the film. The building's handyman gets a call from Rachel and promises to look in on Tony; he winds up getting his throat slashed by a yo-yo blade instead. And when the handyman never calls back Rachel calls Joe to check on her son.

Before Joe leaves for that errand he sees the headline MACABRE CAR PARK SLAYING on the Daily Heil and notices the victim's picture in the paper is identical to the woman in the photo from Sam's jacket. He charged off to pick Tony up and drives him to the cottage, where Rachel and Sam make love until the unfortunate woman notices the gigantic suppurating wounds on his face and back. His skin is flaking and peeling off in chunks when Joe and Tony arrive; Joe finds Rachel (with an immense bruise on the side of her face) in the cabin and they agree to leave. Tony's left the car, though, and his father strokes his hair tenderly as his skin and flesh rot away.

Joe and Rachel see a light in the woods and run towards it; when the Sam-creature sees Joe he screams inhumanly loud and Joe bleeds from the ears until he dies. Rachel sees Joe's body and walks on, just in time to see a fully transformed Sam and Tony walk into the light and get collected by a boom tube or something. She's left utterly alone and returns to the apartment the next morning, where a cheapass ending occurs (one of the fridge-goop eggs hatches and kills her) and then the credits roll.

Crap ending aside (Rachel didn't do anything that deserved a death sentence, even by the standards of a horror movie), this one has a lot to recommend it other than its bent premise. The makeup effects are extremely creepy and gruesome on a limited budget--if that's your sort of thing you'll really dig Xtro. And, wonder of wonders, the storyline isn't just killing time between gooey setpieces. Actually, the setpieces don't make a hell of a lot of sense (what were the eggs for if Sam and Tony were getting picked up by the aliens at the end, anyway?) but they're nasty and look good. But the performances--especially Bernice Stegers as the conflicted Rachel--hold the viewer's interest more than some of the alien sequences. I wasn't expecting a low-key drama about Rachel choosing whether or not to let a former husband back into her life, but that's what I got and it's a very welcome change of pace to the "spend ten minutes burning celluloid between horror sequences" plot outline that a lot of movies have.

This review is part of the HubrisWeen 2014 marathon. The other reviews for movies beginning with today’s letter are:

The Terrible Claw Reviews:  Xtro II:  The Second Encounter

Yes, I Know:  Xtro II:  The Second Encounter

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