Moments of Dread: XTRO (1982)

Most horror movies have a difficult time maintaining a sense of dread throughout the duration of their runtime, but even the worst films can sometimes muster a singular moment of dread that lingers long after the final credits have rolled. In this series, I recount the scenes that have left an indelible impression on me.

SPOILERS AHEAD! YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!

This is one of those movies that I don’t actually like (though I give it top marks for weirdness), but it does have one creepy moment of note near the beginning that has always stuck with me. Apparently someone in New Mexico had the same reaction because they started circulating the image online, claiming it was actual footage of a skinwalker (a person who can change into an animal).

There are a number of reasons why I think this works. Firstly, driving along an unlit road in the middle of the night is inherently creepy, especially if you are surrounded by woods. Your field of vision is reduced to what falls within the front lights, and anything could jump out of the darkness without warning.

In this shot, the creature doesn’t leap out at the camera like some spring-loaded cat gag; it’s just standing there on the side of the road, minding its own business. It is only the sudden cut that makes it appear quickly, emulating how one might not notice something weird on the roadside until it was too late to avoid it. The camera doesn’t zoom in on the monster, it just lets the viewer find it in the shot as they would in real life. I find this lends the sequence a startling verisimilitude.

This in itself would be sufficient to be unnerving, but just as the car is about to pass it, the thing moves. Only, its leg bends in the opposite direction from what you would expect as it retreats from the road, a weird effect resulting from its “head” facing right, and its “leg” bending forward as it moves backwards. It’s unsettling because you can tell it is some kind of animal (or life form), but its aspects are all slightly off in one way or another from what you’d expect. It is clearly a living thing, but it is not like any living thing you’d expect to see.

There is also the sudden, electronic sound that occurs when the creature appears. That electronic sting jarringly contrasts with the music playing just moments before, and it does a good job of conveying the shock one might feel suddenly coming across something like that on a dark night. On its own, it would not be sufficient to scare someone, but when combined with the visuals, it helps elevate the sequence to make it a memorable moment of horror.

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