Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Xtro (1982)

There seems to me to be some sort of debate in the realm of cryptids and it relates predominately to preference.  A great many people will believe in either Bigfoot (and other hirsute hominids) or in the Loch Ness Monster (and other aquatic beasties) but not in both (we’ll leave things like the Chupacabra and Mothman out of this for now).  The reasoning typically boils down to their thoughts on what sort of organism could exist in what sort of environment and still manage to elude capture all these years.  Personally, I’m open to the possibility that both exist, but I lean more toward the Bigfoot camp (which should come as no shock to anyone).  It’s also been a source of humor that the only photos ever taken of any of these creatures are always blurry, and I think that means something (the blurry photos, not that they’re a source of humor).  When the pictures are clear, they are instantly suspect, as if the photographer got the animals to stop and strike a pose for a moment (and since they’re supposedly not prepared for these encounters, all the more questionable).  Yet, when they are blurry or indistinct, we tend to be more inclined to accept the likelihood of their authenticity.  In the same way that something like the Zapruder Film is true in its grainy, low fi style (it’s true because it actually happened, and this presentation on film reinforces the reality of it) so is the Patterson Film (and there are folks who still believe it to be real almost half a century later, despite the allegations of it being a hoax down through the years).  

In a time when people somehow manage to whip out their phones and take photos and videos of horrifying accidents and acts of violence (you know, rather than helping or doing something useful, but that’s a whole different essay) that can hold up in a court of law, is it only a question of time until somebody posts a video of a Yeti jacking somebody’s car on Instagram or whatever?  Either way, there’s a scene in Harry Bromley Davenport’s Xtro in which a couple (played by Katherine Best and Robert Pereno) drive by a bizarre alien (played by special effects), and the way it’s filmed is reminiscent of the better cryptid photos (the monster is seen fleetingly in the corner of the screen), and it’s extraordinarily effective, even though it was most likely shot this way in order to not have the makeup look silly or bad.  Interestingly, this idea is mirrored (and I freely admit that I’m making this connection in my own head) in the character of Joe (Danny Brainin), who is a fashion photographer by trade and the ad hoc father figure to Tony (Simon Nash), whose actual dad, Sam (Philip Sayer) was allegedly abducted by a UFO three years ago and has apparently come back now very much a changed…person.  Joe deals in clarity and beauty for a living, and there’s a falseness associated with this (as there is with all businesses that trade in glamour/skin/et cetera) that marks Joe himself as false and unsuitable to ever truly be a father to Tony (and moreso since he is ineffective outside his professional expertise).  By contrast, Sam is sketchy, indistinct (he claims to not remember anything before the morning he appears on Rachel’s [Bernice Stegers] doorstep), especially in his first encounter with humans (mentioned above), and that, to my mind, marks him as authentic, though whether it means he is a positive force is another matter.  Joe is the fantasy of a normal life.  Sam is the fantasy of an extraordinary life.  The two can’t really coexist, and the latter is incredibly bizarre, but still, this is one of the movie’s more intriguing aspects.

In this same way, the film is centered on family in the face of trauma, absentee fathers, and replacement family members.  Tony spends a lot of the first few times he’s on screen sweating and having night terrors.  He even wakes up covered in blood (whose it is, we never find out).  The Phillips family has been decimated by the disappearance of Sam, though the only one who knows the truth of what happened is Tony, and this truth both links him to his father and wreaks a terrible price on the boy’s body.  In the wake of her original, normative family’s disintegration, Rachel has tried to rebuild it with disparate parts.  Joe is supposed to replace Sam, though Joe is never truly vested in that role, and he can’t handle it anyway when push comes to shove.  He cannot fill Sam’s shoes (except possibly in the bedroom).  Analise (Maryam d’Abo) is the live-in housekeeper.  She takes Tony where he needs to go, looks after the house, and so on.  In effect, she is Rachel’s choice to replace herself, since the family proper has been dismantled.  Still and all, Analise cares about Tony only as a job.  Her attention is almost solely on getting laid by her boyfriend, even to the point of doing it while she’s on duty.  That none of these replacement components totally fits and this new family never really works is unsurprising, since the underlying thought I got was that none of this was done out of love, merely out of necessity.  Rachel needed a man to satisfy her, and she needed a woman to maintain the household.  She abrogates her familial responsibility because Sam left, and she is, at heart, a selfish person.  When Sam returns, his focus is on Tony, not Rachel, nonetheless she is willing and able to leave her ad hoc family for the false chance at a new beginning with her old one.  Naturally, this is destined for failure on all fronts (and how; I should also mention that this film isn’t especially nice to women in general).  Sam is punishing Rachel for not carrying the weight that was dropped on her, and she accepts this punishment at every turn.         

Now, I can’t say I liked Xtro.  The plot is nonsensical, and what is there is so thin it only has one side.  The acting is acceptable at best (though, to get crass, d’Abo doesn’t really need to show her acting chops off since she’s happy to show off her more physical attributes).  The characters are all a bunch of jerks.  Even the central relationship of the film between Sam and Tony doesn’t completely work, since these two are self-involved in the extreme (another major theme of the film being adolescent wish fulfilment which applies to all the characters, age notwithstanding).  This film lives and dies on (and appears to have been produced solely to showcase) its practical special effects, and they work very well, all things considered.  If nothing else, Davenport and company know how to stage and shoot effects work.  But even the effects have no consistency.  Sam goes through several metamorphoses, none of which are explained, and none of which feel like organic extensions of one another.  These chunks of latex rubber and goop and fake blood look good, and they have impact in terms of being visually memorable in a “did you see that shit?!” fashion, but they don’t resonate with any sort of lasting meaning or play any role in the sense of narrative coherence.  Being a massive fan of effects, I give the film props for its accomplishments in that area.  Nevertheless, in every other area it fails while trying to say something worthwhile, in my opinion.

MVT:  The effects shine throughout.  They are appropriately weird and offbeat, gory and slimy, and wonderful to watch on screen.

Make or Break:  There’s a famous (nay, infamous) scene (once aptly described by Fangoria’s Dr. Cyclops [if memory serves] as a “white knuckler”) involving an unusual birth.  I won’t say more, since it must be seen for oneself to be believed.  But wow.

Score:  5/10

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