Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Case 02, File 21: The Calusari

AKA: The Omen-Corcist

That The X-Files occasionally cribs ideas from pre-existing media is, in my mind, a given, although my indulgence for it varies from episode to episode. We established, as far back as Ice that the series is not above pulling whole plot outlines from other movies, and I guess I'm conceptually okay with that. Creating a new story every week is hard, and if you can borrow from another story to create the bones to build yours on, well that's no crime. You do have to build an interesting story on top of those bones, which is what trips some episodes up.

Our episode this time around kicks off with two parents, Maggie and Steve, at an amusement park with their infant and their weirdly disaffected 10 year old, Charlie. To make a long story short, the infant gets free of its restraints, follows a balloon onto the tracks of the miniature train and, well, you get the idea. Mulder, who gets a picture of the event a few weeks later, decides that the balloon was moving impossibly and wants to investigate. He discovers that the picture viewed some electromagnetic energy in the shape of a person and we're off.

When they arrive they discover family tension, mostly due to the Romanian Grandmother (Golda) who calls her grandson a Devil Child, but still draws protective symbols on his hands. Scully suspects munchausen by proxy and suggests that Charlie see a Social Worker, but before they can get there, Steve gets his tie caught in the garage door opener and is strangled to death while Charlie finally seems upset. While investigating the death, Mulder finds some strange ash on the car and Scully finds evidence of weird rituals in Golda's room, who is conversing with some elderly Romanian gentlemen.

"And you see Agent Scully, this right here is some bullshit I'm making up."
Golda begins a ritual with the Romanian guys (named the Calusari) which causes Charlie to have a seizure when the Social Workers arrives. Maggie discovers the ritual and orders Golda out, but she grabs Charlie and tries to continue it. But Charlie fights her off, brings back a pair of dead chickens to life and uses them to kill her (sentences you never thought you'd write). Mulder and Scully bring Charlie in to talk to the Social Worker finally, who blames the events on Michael, which Maggie reveals was Charlie's stillborn twin. Hey, wasn't that the plot twist they were gonna use for Chang in Community?

ANYWAY, Michael physically manifests himself and attacks a nurse, before convincing Maggie to take him home, while Charlie isn't doing so great. Mulder sends Scully to the house before calling the Calusari, who perform a not-Exorcism. Scully and Maggie have an explosive, and not particularly successful, confrontation with Michael, but the Calusari finish the ritual in time and the episode ends with Maggie caring for the now not-evil Charlie.

As I said above, borrowing plot ideas from other media isn't necessarily a bad thing, and this episode is pretty shameless about it, pulling the main plot outline from The Omen and its climax from The Exorcist. Now those are both good movies, and not bad things to borrow from, but the episode isn't able to parlay those plot setups into anything interesting or memorable. Its manages to make a reasonably good impression while watching it just because of its big impressive scenes, but it quickly sours in your memory, or fades away entirely.

When I first saw this episode as a kid, I was pretty sure this dude was about to get decapitated.
The problem here is the plot, and ironically those big impressive scenes. The episode is so stuffed to the gills with big scenes that it has almost no room for anything else. A good episode of The X-Files like Die Hand Die Verletzt will flow from scene to scene, while still leaving room for the big moments. The Calusari's plot is so conceptually dense and the big scenes eat up so much time that the plot points have to be thrown at the wall as fast as possible, and have to fend for themselves amidst a confused script, at least when they're not dropped entirely (a possible subplot, that Golda hates Steve for unexplained reasons, gets a lot of talk in the first act and is dropped the moment Steve dies). 

The whole episode feels like it's paced poorly as a result, lurching forward sometimes before coming to a dead halt at others. The Calusari wander in at the midpoint with very little preamble and are suddenly vitally important to the plot. Meanwhile, the fairly important plot point that Charlie's stillborn twin is left to a random bit of exposition in the middle of a busy third act, and never gets the time to land as hard as it might have otherwise. If the episode had taken more time to let each individual plot point breathe, rather than rushing through them quickly, the whole might be better. Apparently the episode was subject to some pretty major post-production editing, but the result is the result, and the result isn't great.

Which is a shame, because the episode does have some great scenes. It's pretty brutal for an early series episode (the last 4 or 5 episodes of Season 2 all are, as I recall) and the big scenes ramp up in intensity and some of them are very well crafted. And yeah, the finale is one of the more blatant Exorcist knockoffs I've seen in television, but it's a pretty well realized scene, at least as far as Exorcist knockoffs go.

"Your mother sucks cocks in-"
"Come on kid, we're trying not to get sued."
Maybe that, ultimately, is the issue. The episode was so devoted to getting the big scenes right, and making sure they got good actors to play the parts (and they did, most of the actors are good) that they never noticed the plot is sloppy and inconsistent. There are a few memorable scenes in here, and a couple of solid visuals, but that's not really enough to carry an entire episode.

Case Notes:
  • Why are the parents letting the barely ambulatory infant hold his own ice cream? Or am I overthinking it?
  • I had totally forgotten, until I started it up, that this episode opens with an infant getting killed by a train. That's dark X-Files. Like Season 4 dark.
  • I don't have any other place to mention this, so I might as well bring it up here; The kid who plays Charlie/Michael also played Kevin in the season 1 episode The Conduit.
  • This case took 3 months to hit Mulder's desk, which seems like an oddly long time, at least if it ever came up.
  • Hey, first appearance of Chuck. Chuck will be an occasional source of psudeo-scientific nonsense to back up Mulder, and he hits the ground running by finding electromagnetic energy reading on a photograph. Never change X-Files.
  • I feel like any normal parents would want to know how the hell their infant got out of the restraining harness. At the very least they'd want to sue someone.
  • The grandmother draws an altered Swastika on Charlie's hand. Yeah, it has older meaning than Nazis, but it's still awkward, especially given uh...current events.
  • The grandmother telling her daughter she married the devil when her husband is standing right there is pretty hardcore. Still, it's no wonder no one takes her seriously.
  • This episode puts a lot of effort into its red herrings, both in the story and to the audience. I appreciate the effort episode.
  • I'm not totally clear on why Maggie hates the idea of Charlie seeing a social worker, except to manufacture tension between the characters. I'd just roll with it, but it never gets brought up again.
  • Getting hanged via your tie on a garage door is a pretty nasty way to go, not gonna lie.
  • Maybe if Golda and the Calusari want more people to listen to them about demons, they should be a little less ominous all the goddamn time.
  • The ash Mulder collects off the garage door opener contains nothing organic or inorganic. You think that'd be the sort of thing you'd want to show to other people (like say, all the scientists in the world), but Mulder just keeps it to himself.
  • Scully sassing Chuck is a great example of why I love this show.
  • Golda and the Calusari summoning the image of Michael in the smoke is A, kind of a weirdly pointless scene and B, based around some graphics that haven't aged super well.
  • Mulder and Scully just show up when Golda grabs Charlie, without any explanation of why they're there.
  • Shit, Golda gets fucking pecked to death by chickens. This episode is totally brutal.
  • Mulder sees a bunch of weird old men saying stuff he doesn't understand and decides to immediately trust them. I hope he didn't act that way as a kid.
  • Apparently the spirit possessing Michael/Charlie is the same evil that possessed both Cain and Hitler. That seems like a little unnecessary overhyping of the evil.
  • The reveal that the spirit of Charlie's stillborn twin is responsible for Charlie being evil kind of sucks the air out of the room for reasons I can't totally explain. I guess it feels like a bit of a letdown from a lot of buildup.
  • No mother in her right mind would walk out of the hospital with her son without talking to the doctor, regardless of what her kid says, come on.
  • This episode requires Scully to ignore a LOT of shit to maintain her skepticism, just saying.
  • The kid actor in this episode is decent at selling the normal kid, but the "Evil little shit" act he starts doing in the climax is aces. Yeah, it's just intentionally weird, stilted overly formal delivery, but it works. He should have done more of it throughout.
  • The shot of Scully wandering into Maggie floating is absolutely hilarious, and I don't think the episode intended it that way.
  • I suppose descending into a Romanian Exorcist homage isn't a terrible way to end the episode, but it feels kind of lazy.
  • The green ooze leaking from the walls reminds me way too much of Barry Lyndon. Also, how are they gonna explain that to the hospital staff? It's still there at the end.
Future Celebrity Watch:

This is a pretty minor one, but Christine Willis who plays the Social Worker, went on the play Granny Goodness on Smallville. Also, this is even more minor, but the actor who plays the head Calusari would go on to play the Latvian Orthodox Priest on the Seinfeld episode, The Conversion. This episode becomes a lot funnier if you assume they're the same character.

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