Saturday, February 2, 2013

XTRO (1983)

Art is not science.  The failure of so many formula films clearly shows that movies can't math their way into society's heart.  But, good news, everyone, the reverse is also true.  Sometimes, a movie which at first glance seems an utter debacle somehow manages to overcome itself and attain a place of merit.  XTRO has flaws that glare across continents.  Upon its initial release, it was hated by professionals, like so—


U MAD BROS??  Granted, the acting here is frequently creaky, the effects aren't special, and the story as such is no epic.  BUT I violently disagree with the assertion that XTRO is brainless trash.  It's not and that + its arcane atmosphere make it an easy recommend.  Let me lay out my case.


Little British boy Tony is playing with his dad while his mom drives away and then the sky explodes.  Dad disappears, abducted by aliens, only to return three years later in crab-monster form.  Said monster indeed undergoes a second birth from some blonde woman (this is the scene you will remember), then goes to get his kid back.  He bites Tony, transferring alien powers of telekinesis and conjuration, and we get family drama and kid misbehavior until the superbly nihilistic conclusion.  


This thing is pretty patently juggling subtext about family breakup from a kid point of view.  Even the very first scene, in which Tony leaps over a fence after his departing mom, leaving his dad behind, makes this clear.  Tony pines for his dad during the three year absence, never warming to mom's new American boyfriend.  When dad Sam shows up, he tells Tony that he's been taken by aliens and transformed to live on another world.  Tony's forced to choose between his current life with mom and stunt-dad or alien adventures with his biological father, who now eats snake eggs.  


The snake's name is Harry, but it lays eggs, btw.  Given what Freud taught us about snakes, you can probably see that XTRO also has gender issues.  This movie kind of hates women!  But not in a seventies grindhouse way, more in a baffled pre-pubescent kid way.  An early scene involves Tony walking in on his mom having sex with her boyfriend and portions of the movie and dialog seem to call back to this experience.  "She's just a stupid woman!" Tony's mom tells him to soothe his pain about his snake being killed by a neighbor.  Later, when Tony tries to play hide and seek with his babysitter Analise (Maryam D'Abo), she feigns a headache so she can go get penetrated by her boyfriend.  "You're always lying down!" Tony whines.  XTRO exudes a mild disgust and disappointed anger about this whole sex thing.  Pretty common before puberty sets in, I'd guess, and pretty smart for the movie to exploit.


But all that is so much college talk.  You don't have to study XTRO to enjoy it because it also boasts incredibly fucked-up psychedelic elements that endear it to the wise viewer.  Once Tony gets his alien powers, you get scene after scene of murderous midget clowns, life-size GI Joes, and egg-spouting woman-cocoons.  This anything-goes approach really sets this movie apart from almost anything else in moviedom.  It gets so avant-garde and psychedelic and weird that you just give up by the time a clown fills a refrigerator with green sludge for alien eggs to incubate in.  


The harsh reaction to XTRO is a little baffling.  Granted, it has problems, but so do most horror movies that were hatched in the 80s.  If I had to guess, I would say that the visceral dislike for the film stems from a) it being British, but not restrained like good old Hammer films, which leads us to b) it's perverse, but doesn't restrict itself to sexual perversity.  That would just be mere bad taste.  XTRO is more interested in transgressing the whole idea of body itself, crossing those essentialist limits until what was human isn't anymore.  Plus, women giving birth to full-grown men!  It's simultaneously ambitious and nasty and it's not surprising that the arthouse crowd reacted like scalded grandmas to it.  But you, discerning reader, should give it a shot!  


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