There are lots of ways to make a horror film but it seems there are two key approaches that dominate the genre. The first is to tell a carefully structured tale where the scares and other unusual elements are built into the storyline. The other is what you might call sensation-based: the storyline, characterizations and other standard storytelling concerns are subordinate to the steady flow of weird ideas, visuals and head-turning shocks.

Italian filmmakers are quite good at the sensation-based approach but any filmmaker anywhere can get in on the fun.  An interesting British example of sensation-based horror is Xtro.  Its clever ad campaign pitched it as a dark variation on E.T., complete with the tagline “Not all extraterrestrials are friendly,” but that’s too neat a description for this sloppily intriguing cocktail of shocks and early MTV-style surrealism.

The plotline of Xtro, such as it is, revolves around a family coping with the aftereffects of the father, Sam (Philip Sayer), having mysteriously vanished after a UFO-style event three years ago. He suddenly returns, eager to rebuild his bond with young son Tony (Simon Nash) and complicating things for wife Rachel (Bernice Stegers), who has taken up with photographer Joe (Danny Brainin). A bigger problem is that Sam is no longer himself: he’s now an alien being determined to (A) bring his son into the fold and (B) procreate for his alien overlords using human women.

If you watch Xtro expecting the plot/characterization satisfactions of a conventional narrative film, you’ll be disappointed.  The storytelling is very choppy despite a decent pace and the characterizations are just a pretext to providing cannon fodder for the alien machinations and special effects setpieces.

The key to appreciating Xtro is to watch it as a string of genre-minded sensations.  On that level, it delivers like a champ.  Highlights include Sam returning to earth by being born from a woman as a full-grown man, Sam passing on his alien DNA to Tony in a way that suggests David Cronenberg reinterpreting vampirism and Tony using his newfound extraterrestrial abilities to create midget clown and life-size action figure surrogates that kill his cranky neighbors.  There’s also an au pair girl, played by future Bond girl Maryam D’Abo, who provides some impressive gratuitous nudity until she’s transformed into a Giger-esque breeding chamber that dispenses alien eggs.

The story stuff in Xtro is just a delivery mechanism designed to facilitate moments like those described in the prior paragraph.  The opening credits give away the game: a script written by two writers is based on another script by two writers plus a fifth writer gets credit for additional dialogue. Beyond that evidence, director/co-writer Harry Bromley Davenport has admitted that distributor/producer Robert Shaye of New Line Cinema took a heavy hand in development, demanding the inclusion of the aforementioned clown as well as a black panther(!).

As director, Davenport does the only thing one can do with such a jury-rigged screenplay: he paces it as quickly as he can and piles on the style, the slime and the splatter.  The style he achieves evokes a cheap but artsy music video of the early ’80s that happens to be spiced up with dashes of nudity and plenty of extraterrestrial grue (the delightful burbling/twittering synth score, composed by the director, adds to this feel). There are even a couple of decent performances from Sayer and Stegers to prop up the hastily conceived dramatics.

The results are often erratic when it comes to storytelling but they are so amusingly trashy and odd that it’s hard to care, at least if you’re a sleaze/grindhouse aficionado.  Thus, Xtro remains a potent little time capsule for those who groove on sci-fi/horror in a sensation-minded vein.

Blu-Ray Notes: the best version of this title is a recent edition from Second Sight in the U.K.  It’s a region free blu-ray that includes multiple edits of the film and a slate of new and vintage extras.  It even throws in a bonus CD with the film’s memorable synth score.