Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Case 01, File 20: Darkness Falls

AKA: Not That Much Scarier Than Bed Bugs

It is a universal law of the X-Files fandom that everyone has an episode or two that they love fiercely and kind of irrationally. The wide variety of episodes and subjects means that some of them will appeal to some specific tick or preference you have, never mind the many different ways that you can first experience an episode that will make it mean something to you specifically. I am no exception, and there are a handful of episodes that are my irrational favorites. And, as you have probably guessed by now, this is one of them.

This episode kicks off with a bunch of loggers out in Washington (a setting that, for once, actually visually matches where they shot it) who mysteriously disappear. Mulder wants to investigate, because he remembers a similar case from the 1930s, even while he admits that a local ecoterrorist group is probably responsible. So Mulder and Scully head on out, accompanied by a Forest Service Ranger named Larry and a douchey logger named Steve.

When they finally arrive in the campsite (losing their car to the Ecoterrorist caltrop) they find the entire set of cars there have been wrecked the ecoterrorists. So while Steve tries to fix the shit the monkey wrenchers broke, everyone else tries to investigate around, eventually finding one of the missing loggers in a kind of weird web. When they return, Steve has run into one of the ecoterrorists named Spinney, who says that there's something out there that's been picking both his group and the loggers off, but that it only comes at night.

Come morning, after some more douchery from the logger, they find out the loggers were cutting down trees they shouldn't have been, in which they find an odd tree ring which has some weird bugs in it. Upon finding this out, Steve elects to double down on his douchebaggery and just up and leaves, going back to his truck and getting immediately eaten by the bugs.

I love Scully's outfit in this episode.
In the morning Spinney tries to leave with some of the gas and one of the batteries to power up his jeep and rescue his friends two valleys over. Mulder lets him, despite it pissing everyone off, and after a final tense night on the mountain, they all head down to the jeep to try and fix it, where they find Steve's somehow still douchey body. Spinney comes to rescue them, but his car gets wrecked by his own caltrops and the bugs attack. Spinney dies, but Mulder, Scully and Larry all survive and get rescued by the CDC who promise to wipe out the bugs.

And now, a different story: Back in the early 2000s, a young man would go to visit his home city of Anchorage every summer to see his father. And one summer this young man went to the Loussac Library to check out some books and videos. And one tape-alright, fuck this, the kid is me, the Loussac library only had X-Files tape that was ever in. It had this episode and The Erlenmeyer Flask on it and this was therefore the first episode of The X-Files I ever saw. And it's therefore always been very special to me.

And I got lucky, because the first episode I ever saw of this show was such a damn fine one. Not every element comes together, but the negative points are small and isolated. More than that, it has some solid Mulder and Scully character work, which made it a great introduction to the world and its characters which I love so much.

"Alright, I need to know what did this and if I can shoot it."
The only two elements that I can say don't totally work are the CGI used to realize the bugs themselves and the attempts to hedge its bets on the conflict between the monkey wrenchers and the loggers. The first is pretty straightforward; the special effects are 2 decades old and haven't aged super well (although the special effects for the guy in the cocoon are still pretty freaky). The second is a little more complex.

The question of Monkey Wrenching is an awkward one, because a lot of good people agree with them in principle, but not with their actions. The episode's solution is to hedge its bets. It bounces back and forth, making Spinney morally in the right but destructive while making the logger, as I indicated above, a complete and utter douche, but is legally in the right, but it just makes them both look bad. I guess the end result is that we're supposed to side with the Forest Service guy, who agrees with Spinney in principal but not his methods, but he's a non-entity, who pretty much fades into the bacgkround.

But those are minor problems. The episode as a whole is one of the better ones, both of the first season and overall. It builds its tension smoothly, slow dripping information on both the audience and the characters, without ever feeling like it needs a big explosive ending or any jump scares. Its climax is fairly quiet: Trap the characters in a small space, give them a ticking time bomb (the gradually depleting gas) and watch the results.

"I can't shoot it, MULDER I CAN'T SHOOT IT!"
It's also got some solid character work and acting out of Anderson. Scully in particular manages to sell her steadily mounting fear throughout the entire episode until her freakout at the end of the episode. Scully is usually pretty calm, so seeing her lose her cool is a really effective moment, and because she'd been visibly uncomfortable throughout the entire episode, it doesn't feel like it's coming out of nowhere.

And then there's the monsters themselves. The CGI on the bugs may not have aged well, but the concept of an omnipresent enemy who will come and destroy you the moment the lights go out is a good one, and the episode does a lot with it. Emphasizing the character's helplessness is a bold move, but it works to make the episode tense and engaging.

I've been trying to incorporate my own experiences with The X-Files as much as possible, but this was one episode I was really looking forward to reviewing. Its episodes like this one that remind me why I'm such a huge fan of the series. It's tense, it's engaging, it's got good character work, it's just solid all around. It's just a shame that the other episode on the VHS was The Erlenmeyer Flask since until I'd seen the rest of the season I had no idea what was going on.

Case Notes:
  • The cold opening of this episode is working so hard to keep what's going on vague. I guess they all know what's happening, so they don't discuss it, but still, you'd think someone would mention bugs.
  • Why are all the hikers in the opening running off in different directions? Shouldn't they all be going the same direction back to the road? Eh, I'm nitpicking.
  • Monkey Wrenching, as a term, is based on the book The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey. It's a good book, even if it is a little sexist.
  • Am I the only one who thinks its weird that the loggers in the 1930s got eaten by the bugs but no one figured it out? I mean, how did the bugs not then spread everywhere? It took controlled burns and pesticide dumps to keep them under control at the end of the episode.
  • Mulder's comment of "It'll be a nice trip to the forest" is the very definition of tempting fate.
  • I get a real Vince Vaughn vibe from the Forest Service guy, dunno why.
  • They keep making Bigfoot jokes, but I'm honestly surprised they never did a legitimate Bigfoot episode. They did a kinda Loch Ness Monster one, so it's not that it's too obvious.
  • The cocoon is really the scariest thing in the episode.
  • I love how angry the logging guy gets about them trusting Spinney over him. You have been nothing but an asshole to everyone around you Mr. Logging Man, that's why they don't trust you.
  • Also he goes out and yells for the bugs to come and get him, but he's still standing in the light.
  • They run through a handful of explanations for why the bugs exist, but they never settle on one. Little disappointing, but that's not really the point of the episode.
  • The third act conflict, Mulder letting Spinney go and the question of whether he'll come back is a good one.
  • That said, I do wonder why no one thinks to hike down to the Forest Guy's Jeep and try to get some of its gas.
  • Mulder and Scully's little conversation in the last act is such a small bit of of character work, but it really highlights the things that make this show work, which is Mulder and Scully's quiet chemistry.
  • The attack on the group in the Jeep fades to yellow. You don't see that much.
  • The long take at the end of the episode inside the containment lab is pretty good. I appreciate good camera work, especially when it's on TV.
Current Celebrity Watch:

Future Celebrity Watch:

Our friendly forest ranger was played by Jason Beghe, who is on a bunch of TV shows, most notably a recurring role on the Chicago P.D./Med/Fire...universe? Collective? I'm not certain what to call those TV shows. Anyway, he's on those. And while we're on the subject, Titus Welliver who plays Spinney is apparently the lead on an Amazon series called Bosch that I haven't seen, but has been apparently getting good reviews. He was also the Man in Black on Lost.

Audio Observations:

The noise they use to indicate the bugs is kind of weird, and I'm not sure it 100 percent works. It feels more UFO-ish than bugs-ish. Although, I dunno if they would work without it.

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