Thursday, August 10, 2017

Case 03, File 14: Grotesque

AKA: Gargoyles Are My Design

A lot of great horror is found in subtly, ambiguity, the sense of not being sure what's going on, which is why it's a bit of a shame The X-Files doesn't indulge in it very often. The Shining is one of the greatest horror films ever made, and that final shot, which makes you question everything that came before, is one of the big reasons why. Although, I will say, the usual lack of any ambiguity makes those moments where it pops up very memorable.

This episode starts with an artist, deciding that instead of drawing the model he's been assigned he should draw a gargoyle. It's a thing he does a lot apparently. Something else he does is murder and mutilate the model, whereupon he is immediately arrested by the FBI who have been looking for him for a while. But no sooner has he been arrested than a copycat murder happens, causing Mulder and Scully to be called in.

They go and talk with the killer, who claims it was actually a demon who possessed him, but before they can go any further, the agent in charge of the investigation interrupts. It turns out that the agent leading the investigation is Mulder's old mentor Agent Patterson, who Mulder never got along with. It also turns out that Patterson is one of those investigators who believes that you need to get inside the head of the killer to catch the killer, and having spent 3 years on this case, he's beginning to feel a little squirrely, so he accepts Mulder's help.

I don't really remember enough about That 70's Show to make a reference here so...just imagine your own reference?
Heading off to the killer's place, they discover that he's got a room full of creepy clay gargoyles, which only get creepier when they discover that he has bodies hidden in the clay. Gross. Meanwhile, another person is attacked and survives, but is in a coma and thus can't identify his assailant, conveniently. Mulder, being a paragon of great judgement, decides Patterson was on to something and starts trying to get inside the head of the killer, and is immediately attacked by a gargoyle like creature.

Scully is beginning to worry her partner is cracking (honestly, how can you tell?) but Patterson brushes off her concern, even after she finds a weapon with Mulder's prints at the scene (which turns out to be one missing from the evidence locker). Mulder, after a nightmare that's a little too close to the nightmare from the cave in Empire Strikes Back, wakes up back in the studio and finds blood and a severed arm. Not sure how the weapon they're using severs arms, but never mind.

Scully calls the cellphone of another Agent who's been hanging around, only for Mulder to pick up, answering the question of who's arm that is. After a brief search of the studio, Mulder finds the agent's body in one of the sculptures and then immediately runs into Patterson, which is where our Shymalan twist comes in: The killer is Patterson! He's gotten too deep into the head of the killer and went psycho...or maybe was possessed by the demon. Anyway, they capture him and the episode ends on an unusually bleak note, with a raving Patterson in jail and Mulder musing about the nature of hunting evil.

"Oh my love, my darling, I've hungered for your touch..."
Grotesque fits in oddly with the rest of the season 3 episodes. In terms of tone, content and theme it feels more like testing the water for the kind of stuff that would start coming out in season 4. That's not a complaint, a lot of great episodes hit in season 4, but it does make this episode feel a little out of step with the rest of the season. But that's a minor issue, and one that's restricted to the season rather than the episode on its own, the episode as a singular entity is pretty damned good.

I mentioned the episode's intentional stabs at being ambiguous, and that does add a lot in the way of making the ending stick with you. You're so used to the series being about to supernatural goings on and the episode pushes the demon stuff so hard that the sudden twist that the killer is actually just Patterson gone insane feels like a big twist, even if under other circumstances it would be your first guess. It works really well in the context of the series, and Kurtwood Smith sells it pretty hard, which is what you want when you're working with an objectively silly twist.

Of course, it helps that the episode goes right along with the tone, making the episode dark and not just in tone. Yes, the episode turns down the lights in all senses, emphasizing dark blue lighting and shadows  to give the episode the grim visual tone it needs to make the bloody and brutal story fit in the show. The show usually (usually) does a good job of keeping its direction and lighting on board with the tone of the story, but this is an especially good example.

The script is also pretty good, feeling more like lighter version of a Thomas Harris book than a more traditional X-Files episode. The serial killer's MO is pretty grim, but not so much that the episode has to overtly avoid showing things. The dialogue doesn't lean too heavily on exposition and it moves at a good clip. Even the acting is really good, especially from Kurtwood (who seems to be born to play assholes) and Duchovny (who sells his own descent into semi-madness pretty well).

"Okay, I can't tell if this is bad crazy or normal Mulder crazy..."
The episode has quibbles, mostly with how it handles the plot, namely the rather lengthy stretch in the middle where the episode is trying to make us think Mulder is the killer. Put simply, no one would ever believe that the main character of a long running series is gonna turn serial killer (as much as it might resemble a Thomas Harris book, its not actually Hannibal) so the entire section can't help but draw attention to itself as a red herring. I guess they could have brought in a secondary character to go through those motions, but they would need setting up and characterizing and that would take away time from Patterson, who's already on the thin side (which is another flaw) so I guess they did the best they could.

Grotesque may not feel much like an average X-Files episode, but that doesn't mean it doesn't work on its own peculiar merits. And I like giving The X-Files room to breathe and try new things. Getting too stuck in a rut kills a lot of otherwise good shots, and one of the things that kept this show doing as well as it did for as long as it did is its willingness to try new stuff and this episode is a great example of that. It might get overlooked in favor of more interesting episodes surrounding it, but I think we should pay more attention to it. Anything that lays the groundwork for Season 4 is good in my book.

Case Notes:
  • The model in the cold open is reasonably attractive, but I'm not seeing wang guys, don't tease me. 
  • I like how the episodes manages to communicate that there is something actively wrong with the artist (by acting like a lunatic) before we even see that he's drawing a gargoyle.
  • The artist straight up bites one of the FBI agents arresting him. Hardcore.
  • The episode keeps the visuals of what Mostow did to the victims off screen, but what little we see is pretty grim.
  • The guy playing Marstow is realllllly intense and he keeps hinting at a horrifying backstory back in Uzbekistan. I wish he was in the episode more, he's an interesting character.
  • The first exchange of dialogue between Patterson and Mulder is Patterson being an asshole and Mulder calling him an asshole. Good stuff.
  • Mulder says that Patterson's advice was "If you want to catch a monster, become one," which I guess is that Nietzeche quote in reverse. 
  • A cat scare. A literal cat scare. Come on X-Files you're better than that.
  • The room full of clay gargoyles and subsequent body found entombed in clay is pretty freaky, I'm not gonna lie.
  • When you know the twist the misdirection and foreshadowing become kind of obvious, but I guess that's true of most mysteries.
  • I do love how the episode just stops for a Mulder monologue about gargoyles. Good stuff.
  • Mulder's conversations with Patterson and Scully are supposed to indicate he's going over the edge, but honestly, Mulder is always like that.
  • Hey, a tracking walk-and-talk longshot. The West Wing may not start until 3 years after this episode, but it's still all I can think of when I see one of those scenes.
  • I do get very amused when other FBI Agents talk about Mulder as if he's some sort of superhero, instead of a paranoid weirdo who works out of the basement.
  • The episode gets a little bogged down in its misdirection that Mulder is the killer, mostly consisting of Scully wandering around investigating stuff, and it's not very interesting. Mulder's hallucinatory battles with the gargoyle are much more engaging.
  • The final reveal and confrontation is well staged, and Duchovny sells it pretty hard, which is definitely a point in this episode's favor.
  • This ending is really fucking bleak. I don't have much to add to that.
Future Celebrity Watch:

Kurtwood Smith, who plays Agent Patterson, would go on to some reasonable fame as Red Forman in That 70's Show, which does make the presence of Laurie Forman in the previous episode somewhat amusing. He was also known for being in RoboCop a few years earlier where he worked for DICK JONES!

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