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The X-Files – Darkness Falls (Review)

Darkness Falls is the best script Chris Carter has written so far. It it is far superior to Fire or Space or Young at Heart or The Jersey Devil or even The Pilot. It’s quite possibly the strongest normal “monster-of-the-week” episode that Carter ever wrote, discounting his work on “special” episodes (like Post-Modern Prometheus or Triangle) or even some mythology stories (I’m quite fond of Redux).

Darkness Falls is – at its most basic – just a very strong monster-of-the-week installment, hitting all the right buttons to provide an atmospheric horror thriller.

If a tree falls in the woods...

If a tree falls in the woods…

Watching the first season of The X-Files, it seems quite clear that the show worked a lot better when it was loosely riffing on horror tropes than when it was rigidly updating classic monsters. The blandest episodes of the season include Shadows and Shapes, which are both network-mandated “classic monster” stories. Shadows was an adaptation of The Entity, an old-school revenge haunting horror story, while Shapes was a werewolf adventure with Native American trappings.

It’s a trend that would hold across most of the rest of the series. The show would attempt to do a conventional vampire story with 3 in the second season, an episode that is probably the weakest of the season up to that point (and possibly beyond). The sixth season would waste an Andrew Robinson guest appearance in the disappointing werewolf story Alpha. The show always seemed sort of hemmed in when asked to play up to classic archetypal horror movie monsters, and seemed to do better when allowed to go in its own direction.

The lone (forest) ranger...

The lone (forest) ranger…

The show’s best vampire-centric episode is undoubtedly Bad Blood, an episode that plays with all the audience’s expectations of these stories to craft a tale of fading cultural identity. The Post-Modern Prometheus is Chris Carter’s take on Frankenstein, but it’s also completely off-the-wall, playing with Carter’s love of classic horror films, comic books, small-town Americana and even camp. It’s cut free of the expectations of what a Frankenstein story “should be”, and that liberty gives it an endearing energy.

So while Shapes fails as an attempt to do a straight-up werewolf horror, Darkness Falls works a lot better as The X-Files doing classic survival horror. If Shapes seems cut from the same cloth as Shadows, Darkness Falls feels like a companion piece to Ice. Both are stories about our heroes and guest characters stranded in a remote location facing creepy monsters, and both play better as takes on familiar horror ideas than as straight-up adaptations of archetypal horror monsters. (Even if Ice riffed on The Thing, The Thing was only a decade old at that point.)

A bit drained after the day's activities...

A bit drained after the day’s activities…

So Darkness Falls is very much Chris Carter writing a survival horror – one of those “if you go down to the woods today…” sort of tales. It’s a familiar set-up. A bunch of people decide to venture into the forest together, for whatever reason. Maybe they are investigating a disappearance – as is the case here – or maybe they just think that nature is fun. Bad things happen, and inevitably there’s revealed to be something lurking in the woods, provoked by the presence of man. Not everybody makes it home. Sometimes, not anybody makes it home.

It’s something that has tended to endure over the years, perhaps because it offers a wonderful setting for a horror story and a great deal of freedom for the author. The monster lurking in the woods can take almost any form – an axe-wielding maniac, an infectious disease, a large hungry beast. Here, it’s a swarm of CGI pixels. I’ve been quite harsh about some of the special effects in this first season, and the insect swarm is hardly the most effective visual.

Going green...

Going green…

That said, there’s something almost elegant in the simplicity of the swarm and the green spotlight, even if it hasn’t dated quite as well as it might. This is most effective in the shots of the insects at rest, as green glowing shapes in shadows or on trees, or even on hands. The idea of a killer we can’t even see until we’re in total darkness is horrifying – the only time we’re aware of these creatures is when we’re at the most vulnerable.

There’s something beautifully primal about the monster in Darkness Falls, something elegant in the way that it cuts so obviously to the heart of that most basic of terrors – the fear of the dark and what it might hold. Indeed, Spinney doesn’t even identify the creatures as the episode’s antagonists. Instead, he argues that the darkness itself is the enemy. “Why did you say that darkness was our enemy?” Mulder demands, as it turns out Spinney can’t really offer a particularly comprehensive description of the creatures.

Never get high off your own supply...

Never get high off your own supply…

He speaks in general terms about terrors that strike in the dead of night. “I don’t know what it is,” he confesses. “They come from the sky, take a man right off his feet and devour him alive. I saw it happen.” It’s a description of the swarm of bugs, but it could just as easily describe Mulder’s memory of the night his sister was taken, or offer an account of an alien abduction. The creatures might be microscopic bugs, but they are only dangerous in the dark. “We’ll be safe as long as we stay in the light,” Mulder assures his fellow cast members, articulating advice that isn’t just relevant to this case, but a good rule to live by in horror.

In a way, Darkness Falls provides the perfect forum for Carter to articulate just what makes The X-Files so effective, and the episode serves as a fairly efficient microcosm of the series’ themes and ideas. Rather telling, for example, is the nugget of optimism at the heart of the show. The X-Files turned “trust no one” into a nineties mantra, an idea recently reinforced by the show’s decision to have Deep Throat betray Mulder and Scully in E.B.E. However, it’s also a bit of a red herring.

Cocooned...

Cocooned…

Despite the series’ paranoia, The X-Files is ultimately a show that is completely about trust. The defining relationship is the relationship between Mulder and Scully, two people with dynamically opposed attitudes and views, two people who have no reason to trust one another. Scully should think Mulder is crazy, and Mulder should think Scully is a spy. And yet, despite that, they trust each other. The vocal internet fans waiting anxiously for the two to pair off missed the point a bit. Mulder and Scully have always been in love with one another, even if that love didn’t express itself through lying in together on Sunday morning or shopping as a couple.

Far from a warning to trust nobody, The X-Files almost plays out as a romance – suggesting that maybe two radically different people can find mutual ground to trust and to hope and to love. Mulder and Scully’s relationship plays out against the backdrop of alien conspiracies and sinister assassinations and shady dealings, but it’s made clear that no force on this world could keep the two from one another. Despite its cynical exterior, The X-Files was a very optimistic show.

Are you afraid of the dark? He should be...

Are you afraid of the dark? He should be…

And that plays itself out in Darkness Falls. Mulder saves the team by making the split-second decision to trust Spinney with the last of the camp’s gasoline. This is a man who has sabotaged equipment. He is quite possibly a murderer – or at least an attempted murderer. When Spinney points out that Moore has no reason to trust him, Mulder counters, “He’s got no reason to. Neither do I.” And yet, Mulder makes the spontaneous decision to give Spinney the necessary gasoline, cutting down on the fuel that will keep the generator running.

It’s a leap of faith, and much is made of how reckless and stupid Mulder was. When Scully confronts him about it, Mulder can’t even bring himself to mount a credible defense. “Look, it’s done. I shouldn’t have let him go. Let’s just move past it, okay?” Of course, this is entirely in keeping with Mulder’s character. Despite his professed cynical detachment, Mulder is far more trusting than Scully. In E.B.E., it’s Scully who voices her concerns about Deep Throat, while Mulder initially refuses to hear her out.

I hate it when bugs get into the car...

I hate it when bugs get into the car…

However, Darkness Falls allows Mulder to see his faith in Spinney vindicated. The eco-terrorist returns for Mulder and Scully, allowing them to make it far enough down the mountain that the can be rescued. It turns out that the completely unjustifiable decision to trust Spinney was the right thing to do, and Mulder’s optimistic faith in the man’s better nature was the correct choice. Carter seems to concede that The X-Files is not – despite its content – a bleak or bitter show. If anything, it’s about the ability of people to be decent and honest even when authority is corrupt.

While Darkness Falls does a wonderful job articulating some of the core themes of the first season, it also benefits from a brilliant atmosphere. The decision to film the show in Vancouver was motivated primarily by financial concerns. The show occasionally struggled to get past the restrictions that Vancouver placed on the scripts. E.B.E., for example, struggled to convince us that the Iraq/Turkey border could look like Canadian forest. Darkness Falls, however, is perfectly suited to the show’s production headquarters.

Spiked...

Spiked…

Forests are beautifully eerie and atmospheric locations, and Darkness Falls features some of the most beautiful cinematography of the first season. There’s a palpable sense of dread and isolation – assisted by the oppressive sense that a storm is about to break, and the fact that the episode was filmed in the aftermath of torrential rain fall.

There are a number of incredibly stylish shots that give the episode a sense of scale – the scene of the gang arguing by a fallen five-hundred-year-old tree is almost haunting, and the teaser is unsettling by virtue of the fact that it makes the forests of Vancouver seem like some sort of malicious maze. Darkness Falls manages to exploit the dreary and foreboding atmosphere of British Columbia to great effect. As a late first season episode, it provides a succinct demonstration of the atmosphere the show lost by moving to Los Angeles.

Wel, at least he wasn't allergic...

Well, at least he wasn’t allergic…

Darkness Falls also connects with a recurring theme throughout this second half of the first season. There’s a sense of America as a haunted and ethereal realm, and a sense that the European settlers are still newcomers who don’t know the land half as well as they think they do. Miracle Man played out a two-thousand-year-old story in the most ham-fisted manner possible. Shapes delved clumsily into Native American folklore. Darkness Falls focuses on the American wilderness itself.

Coming across a massive fallen tree, the Forest Ranger dismisses Humphreys’ attempts to justify felling the mighty giant. “This tree’s 500 years old if it’s a day, Steve,” Moore bluntly informs the logging firm employee. The tree is older than the United States of America, and is likely more firmly rooted in this country than any of the people inspecting its fallen remains. The bugs at the centre of the episode were trapped in those rings, probably before the Declaration of Independence was even conceived.

(Micro)scoping them out...

(Micro)scoping them out…

The American wilderness has an almost mythic quality. Home to all manner of tall tales and folk heroes, the landscape has become a part of the historical tradition of the United States of America. Part of that tradition includes a desire to portray the countryside as an untouched paradise, as if it were a promised land awaiting the arrival of the European settlers to “tame” it, forging character and helping fashion cultural identity. This belief is so widespread that it even has a name, “the pristine myth.”

Never mind that this myth would seem to have little basis in historical fact, and that the Native American people had done a lot of work managing the land before Columbus even dreamed of setting sail for India. It’s a good story, so tell. After all, it’s a much nicer story to tell our children, and a version of history that manages to downplay the damage done to Native American culture by downplaying the significance of that culture.

"We need a massive supply of bug bomb, delivered as soon as possible..."

“We need a massive supply of bug spray, delivered as soon as possible…”

The romantic image of the American wilderness is, as Marvin Henberg suggests in Wilderness, Myth and American Character, a very ethnocentric type of historical myth – one very particular to one specific group of people, at the expense of others who hold equal claim to American cultural identity:

Exactly whose character was formed by the ‘challenge’ of the wilderness? Not Native Americans – to them, according to Standing Bear, an Oglala Sioux, the land of North America was never wild in conception, but rather tame. Not to African-Americans, enslaved first on plantations of the New World and later confined, many of them, to urban ghettos – “city wildernesses” in the parlance of Robert A. Woods’ turn-of-the-century book, The City Wilderness. Not to Polly Beamis, a young woman kidnapped in her native China and carried off to Oregon Territory. Her character was formed by fending off lustful drunks in saloons, where she served as hostess and eventually purchased her way to freedom by surreptitiously sweeping and collecting gold dust from the floors.

The myth of the American wilderness as a preserved paradise belongs to a very narrow-minded school of thought, a very particular and selective vision of American history. The X-Files has spent quite a lot of time playing with America’s attitude towards its own history, and the way that popular history glosses over morally questionable behaviour with the wallpaper of mythology.

All good under the hood?

All good under the hood?

This critical attitude towards the traditional narrative of American history has been most obvious in the way the show approaches the Second World War. The typical approach to the conflict presents America as the unambiguous heroes of the piece, doing the right thing for the right reasons. Much of the first season of The X-Files has been critical of this view, albeit indirectly. The shadow of the conflict and its consequences has loomed large over this year of television.

It seeps through both the stand-alone and the mythology episodes. Eve hinted at dark post war secrets like Operation Paperclip, with American scientists using decidedly amoral methodologies and schools of science associated with the Axis powers. Fallen Angel suggested that certain military attitudes and operational patterns might trample on the ideal of liberty the county holds so dear. Both Fallen Angel and Ghost in the Machine evoke the spectre of Robert Oppenheimer, the scientist who watching his discovery harnessed for destructive purposes.

Riding shotgun on this case...

Riding shotgun on this case…

Darkness Falls seems to do something quite similar, albeit with a more primal myth. It dares to attack “the pristine myth”, suggesting that ancient America might have been anything but “pristine.” Speculating as to what might have created these bugs, Mulder suggests these creatures might be the result of “a large amount of radiation that was released from inside the Earth.”

Not only does the suggestion of “radiation” immediately hint that the wilderness might have been a lot dirtier than we imagine, but it also hints that the Earth itself might be fighting back against the settlers. Far from an idyllic Eden waiting to welcome the pilgrims, the country is still actively resisting attempts to colonise it. We don’t hold a monopoly on the use of atomic power, it would seem.

Food for thought...

Food for thought…

And, yet, there’s something almost cheerfully about the episode’s promise that there are monsters lurking in the darkness, as if Carter almost hopes that there’s still something that wild and untamed waiting for us. Writing the same year that Darkness Falls aired, Henberg suggests that the attempt to “manage” the wilderness is counter-intuitive:

Some wilderness areas are so popular as sanctuaries from the hazards and trials of urban life that it is now virtually impossible to find solitude – one of the prime values of wilderness recreation. For better or worse the four federal agencies responsible for administering wilderness lands have been forced into “wilderness management” – a paradox if ever there was one. It doesn’t take a philosopher to point out that managing something wild risks laying down conditions for its eventual domestication. For instance, winter feeding of elk and deer – a widespread policy of many state wildlife agencies – may over time tame animals whose present attraction is that they are wild.

The X-Files can often seem like it is lamenting the passage of a particular tradition or myth into history, as if it’s sad to see a little piece of the darkness lost to the era of globalisation and smart phones.

They're all lumberjacks, and they're okay, they sleep all night and they work all day...

They’re all lumberjacks, and they’re okay, they sleep all night and they work all day…

This would become most obvious in the middle seasons of the show. Home seemed to mourn the loss of creepy local urban legends, while Bad Blood saw an unconventional small town community trying to deal with changing times. There have already been hints of it in the first season. Gender Bender ended with a community of pseudo!Amish weirdos living on the outskirts of a small town vanishing into the mists of history, subsumed into some grander globalised UFO mythology.

Part of Darkness Falls seems romantic about the idea that there are things lurking in dark and damp forests, waiting for an opportunity to strike out at us one last time, before they are safely wiped off the face of the planet through “a combination of controlled burns and pesticides.” Carter seems to write Darkness Falls as a eulogy for a wilderness that is still wild, for a part of the world that is – to quote the Wilderness Act of 1964“untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” The world is shrinking all the time, and the monsters have fewer and fewer corners in which to hide.

I hope they don't mind cobwebs...

I hope they don’t mind cobwebs…

Darkness Falls also benefits from the fact that Carter’s writing idiosyncrasies find suitable outlets. The somewhat clumsy dialogue is offloaded from Mulder and Scully, two trained FBI agents, and given to Spinney. Spinney is meant to be a romantic zealot with questionable ties to the world. Giving the eco-terrorist grandiose on-the-nose dialogue helds define him quite quickly and effectively. “That would be rather poetic justice, don’t you think?” he asks. “Unleashing the very thing that would end up killing them and your friend Humphreys?” It would sound awkward coming from Mulder, but it suits Spinney perfectly.

Similarly, Carter’s attempt to invest paranoia in authority fits quite well with the decision to cast a large lumber company as the human villains of the piece. The Jersey Devil suffered because Carter insisted that the New Jersey Police Department would be so concerned about reports of a monster they’d proactively cover it up, but here Carter gets to cast a large corporation as a conspiratorial villain. Having “the head of security” for a major corporation show up on an official FBI investigation carrying his own rifle does more to suggest corrupt authority than heavy-handed intimidation of Mulder by the New Jersey police.

Well, if you gotta go, you might as well go atmospherically...

Well, if you gotta go, you might as well go atmospherically…

In a way, the presence of Humphreys feels surprisingly prescient. The X-Files occasionally dabbled in corrupt corporate politics, but it was always pushed to the background as part of the show’s grand conspiracy mythology. Redux II mentioned links between the government and a biotechnology firm, but it seemed that The X-Files was primarily fixated on the “military” side of the “military-industrial complex.”

Looking back at the show, it seems like The X-Files’ lack of focus on corporate involvement in government was a missed opportunity, especially given concerns about the relationship between various large corporations and the White House in the wake of 9/11. Then again, you could argue that The X-Files was a show that managed to foreshadow post-9/11 paranoia, but somehow with less cynicism or mistrust than ultimately proved necessary. (Certainly, the show’s limp ninth season argues that The X-Files simply wasn’t cut out to survive in the post-9/11 climate.)

If they go down to the woods today, they're sure of a big surprise...

If they go down to the woods today, they’re sure of a big surprise…

Still, Darkness Falls is a wonderful late season entry, and perhaps Carter’s finest script of this first year of the show.

You might be interested in our other reviews of the first season of The X-Files:

4 Responses

  1. Bravo! My second favorite episode! I loved the digital bugs. I had the VCR tape back in the day and almost wore it out watching this episode. It was very creepy. You could just see the chemistry flourish between Mulder and Scully. Mulder was so worried for Scully…but the next episode they were back to be professional again. Excellent episode.
    Still looking forward to that review on Home ツ

  2. A wonderful, intelligent review of one of my favorite episodes!

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