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The X-Files – Excelsis Dei (Review)

This August (and a little of September), we’re taking a trip back in time to review the second season of The X-Files. In November, we’ll be looking at the third season. And maybe more.

The horror genre is much maligned.

Horror films typically fight harder for recognition than films in many other genres – often finding themselves consigned to the same ghetto as science-fiction or fantasy films. They are less likely to take home major mainstream awards, and it seems like horror films typically have to wait longer for reappraisal. Outside of aficionados, there’s a wariness of the horror genre – a skepticism towards it.

Window of opportunity...

Window of opportunity…

There are a lot of reasons for that. Some of them make sense; some of them don’t. One of the more common assumptions about horror is that the genre is more likely to produce “cheap” or “trashy” entertainment, as opposed to something more profound or insightful. There are, again, lots of reasons for this assumption. Most obviously, there’s the absurd cost-to-profit ratio of cheap terrible horror films that incentivises studios to churn out as many as they can as fast as they can. There’s a reason there’s an absurd number of Saw sequels.

However, that “cheapness” or “trashiness” isn’t just a result of business decisions. There are certain story tropes and narrative techniques that exist within the horror genre that feel like the cheapest sort of thrills. If you want to make an audience uncomfortable, just throw in something one of those trashier elements. As long as the audience squirms in their seats, it doesn’t matter what the implications of your decisions are. After all, your job is to creep them out?

Bitter little pill...

Bitter little pill…

So horror takes all manner of shortcuts, without any real thought as to what those elements actually mean. They are just something that catches the audience off-guard and makes them sit up in their seat. So horror tends to indulge in the worst sorts of racism and sexism as a means of drawing any sort of response from the audience. These tried-and-tested horror staples become effective storytelling shortcuts. The foreign becomes horrific. Conservative sexual morality is enforced with brutality. Rape – literal or metaphorical – is a cheap thrill.

The X-Files struggles with these sorts of issues as it tries to bring horror to television. It occasionally does a very good job. However, there are also times when the series gives into its baser instincts. Excelsis Dei is an absolutely terrible episode, and an example of why the horror genre gets written off by so many people so quickly. It’s a poorly constructed hour of television, one about how old men are perverts, the rape of an under-developed character is a story hook and foreigners are magic.

The writing (or fine art) is on the wall...

The writing (or fine art) is on the wall…

Excelsis Dei is a really terrible episode of television. From a practical point of view, it is terribly written and directed. There’s very little engaging or exciting about the horror of Excelsis Dei. The scene where an orderly is thrown to his death should be one of the most uncomfortable sequences of the episode, but it feels incredibly dull and lifeless. The sequences is horribly choreographed and edited, with no attempt to disguise the obvious limitations on the episode. During the episode’s climax, it looks like the ghosts wandered off the set of Ghostbusters.

The script is similarly clunky. Leaving aside all the larger problematic elements, the structure of the show is rather bizarre. It begins with elderly residents using a magic drug that treats Alzheimer’s to cause all sorts of mischief on the grounds of an old nursing home. However, this apparently isn’t enough for an episode of The X-Files. Not only does the magical drug allow these residents to leave their bodies, it also somehow opens a portal to the after life, allowing the souls of the deceased to wreak havoc upon the current residents.

This gets old quite quickly...

This gets old quite quickly…

The logic here is somewhat fuzzy, even by the standards of The X-Files. It is obviously ridiculous to question the science behind a drug that gives its users psychic powers, but it doesn’t seem very internally consistent. How does a drug that allows the elderly to mentally project themselves open a gateway to the netherworld? “The mushrooms we take to speak with the dead, to see our ancestors in the spirit world,” Gung explains. “But the spirit in this place is very angry and the souls that died here continue to suffer. And now they have been awakened.”

Wait… if the point of the drug is to help patients with degenerative illnesses, why is Gung feeding them a drug that allows them to see dead people? Surely that’s not going to be conducive to mental health? It seems really weird that the magical fungus does two magical things that are only vaguely magically related. It helps repair damage done by degenerative neurological conditions and also opens a portal to the spirit world. Forget broccoli, this is a super vegetable.

Who you gonna call?

Who you gonna call?

More than that, why are the spirits able influence people who haven’t taken the pills? Is it like a gateway to another world using the subject’s brain as a receiver? And if the drug is meant to call somebody’s ancestors back, and since Gung is growing it in the United States, doesn’t that suggest that the ghosts should be linked to the person having the vision rather than the place where the vision is had? After all, there’s something really depressing about the fact that these old spirits have nowhere to haunt but a nursing home. Why not haunt the kids who never visited?

It also raises all manner of vaguely interesting existential questions that Excelsis Dei is less interested in addressing. Are these actual spirits? Are they really the ghosts of past residents? Or are they simply a psychic foot print? After all, there’s a whole school of paranormal thought about how certain actions tend to leave an impression on a particular place – the “stone tape” hypothesis. It serves as a pretty potent metaphor about how past actions leave indelible marks.

The episode is a wash...

The episode is a wash…

The idea that the eponymous nursing home might have been “tainted” by past horrors and a history of neglect and indifference is an intriguing story concept. Indeed, it might have made for a compelling episode in its own right. Unfortunately, the idea of the past residents returning to torment the living is simply a convenient last act twist that serves to up the stakes, a story element clumsily grafted on to the end of Excelsis Dei.

The episode is dull and pedestrian and generic, which makes many of the underlying issues all the more unsettling. It feels like these stereotypes and stock horror conventions were all heaped on to the episode in order to “spice up” an otherwise dreary installment. They are gratuitous and lazy, a collection of worn-out horror tropes that would be shoddily executed even if they weren’t offensive.

He's clean...

He’s clean…

Let’s start – as the episode does – with the rape. Rape is a bit of an awkward horror trope. It’s the most basic and primal of body horrors, the most familiar violation of bodily autonomy. However, it’s also frequently used to victimise and objectify female characters. There’s a tendency to trivialise or gloss over a real world horror for cheap thrills, to diminish female characters in order to provide motivation for male characters. (Wong and Morgan rather skilfully subverted that narrative in One Breath.)

Despite the fact that it generally does a good with issues of gender, The X-Files frequently has a great deal of difficulty dealing with rape. Even otherwise well-written episodes like Small Potatoes and The Post-Modern Prometheus casually use rape as a jumping-off point for stories that ultimately gloss over the issue. And Excelsis Dei puts sexual assault front-and-centre. It is the focal point of the teaser, complete with lots of tension-building shots of restraints being opened and a close-up on a screaming woman’s face.

She wants to believe...

She wants to believe…

It is quite possible to construct a good horror story around rape. After all, the Alien franchise is built around the imagery and iconography of sexual assault. However, what made Alien so effective was the way that it brutally subverted expectations – it’s a movie about a female survivor of a female monster that has forceably impregnated a male member of the crew. It’s such a brilliantly twisted reversal of the standard rape horror narrative that it forces the audience to confront the horror in a thoughtful and powerful way. In contrast, Excelsis Dei is just cheap.

Inevitably, any discussion about rape as a storytelling trope inevitably returns to the issue of why rape is treated differently from other horrors. This is a perfectly justifiable question – why is the rape of a character subject to more scrutiny than the murder of the same character would be? Certainly, horror films tend to treat murder rather gratuitously, arguably featuring it and even sensationalising it more heavily than rape. The X-Files has no shortage of murder victims over its run.

Hang in there...

Hang in there…

However, the difference is that murder is more readily and unequivocally accepted as a crime in the real world. Families of murder victims are less likely to have their experience trivialised as compared to rape survivors; society is a lot less likely to try to brush it murder or make excuses for it; and murders are statistically a lot less likely to go unreported or unprosecuted. The trivialising of rape in fiction is troubling because it is merely one facet of a much larger cultural issue.

One could be generous and argue that this is the central point of Excelsis Dei. Michelle Charters is raped, finds no support for her claim, is subject to all sorts of character assassinations, and is ultimately vindicated. Charters does ultimately receive her cash settlement, out of court – “though no clear blame has been placed.” Framed like that, the episode seems like a sympathetic portrayal of a victim’s plight.

Not mushroom for debate...

Not mushroom for debate…

Unfortunately, the episode is not framed like that. Michelle Charters serves to launch the case. She is brought back to work at the facility. She is put in peril at the climax. Outside of the first act, she is never in focus for the episode. More than that, only Scully appears to be vaguely sympathetic towards her and Mulder – one of the two lead characters in the show – doesn’t even bother to apologise to her (or Scully) for dismissing her claims out of hand.

Let’s focus on that for a minute. Mulder is a character who believes in alien abduction. In Aubrey, the episode directly following Excelsis Dei, he will advocate the idea that memories can be passed genetically. Here, he seems to accept that magic mushrooms can open a door to the afterlife. He has testified to the events of Tooms in front of a public hearing. And yet, despite that, he refuses to even believe in the possibility of “entity rape.”

The art of the horror film...

The art of the horror film…

Indeed, he’s explicitly dismissive of the case. “I think this will turn out to be a huge waste of time just like all the other X-files on entity rape,” he informs Scully. “Unsubstantiated phenomena.” Isn’t that the entire point of his job, to try to substantiate the unsubstantiated? The X-Files would be a pretty different show if the duo only investigated “substantiated” phenomena. These are the sorts of cases that Mulder spent the first block of the season fighting to reopen.

To be fair, Mulder is a jerk. One of his most endearing traits is his complete inability to work well with other people. He spends a great deal of the show’s refusing any attempt that Scully or Skinner makes to help him. He is arrogant, and infuriating, and stubborn, and righteous. However, despite all that, Mulder is a guy with a great deal of sympathy for the powerless and the exploited. Episodes like Conduit and Sleepless and Duane Barry (or even 3) stress Mulder’s ability to understand the sensation of being a victim of something beyond your control.

It makes me sick...

It makes me sick…

Of course, a sympathetic reading of the episode would suggest that Mulder’s refusal to accept the possibility of “entity rape” is meant to reflect the skepticism that many victims of sexual assault face. However, Mulder’s cynicism feels implausible and arbitrary, given what we know of him. It’s also very weird how the episode treats this as the traditional banter between Mulder and Scully, without Scully ever even suggesting how weirdly obtuse Mulder is behaving or pointing out that Mulder is being particularly jerkish this week.

“I think you’re looking too hard, Scully, for something that’s not there,” Mulder rather condescendingly tells Scully at one point. “I think Michelle Charters concocted this story to get out of a job she hates.” Mulder is pretty much regurgitating the logic of Ms. Dawson, the administrator running the care home. It feels weird for Mulder to embrace the official narrative so readily over that of the victim, particularly when there is evidence supporting the victim.

He always knew Gung was a fun-gi...

He always knew Gung was a fun-gi…

Keep in mind this is after Scully has told him that “the abrasions and contusions here would be consistent with her claims as would be the medical report which cites the kind of injury and tearing associated with sexual trauma.” Nevertheless, Scully patiently makes the point again, “Her lip required 13 stitches. The blow to her head resulted in a subdural hematoma. That’s quite a concoction.” We never get any suggestion that Mulder acknowledges his mistake, whether to Scully or to Charters, by the end of the episode.

It all feels weirdly out of character. Given the concept of the episode, you’d expect both agents to accept the assault at face value. Scully would be the one to argue that there must be a rational cause for the assault and the wounds, while Mulder would be more willing to accept supernatural explanations. It feels like Excelsis Dei is forcing the characters into roles that make the script easier to write, but don’t seem true to what we know of them.

Down to Earth...

Down to Earth…

It’s also worth noting that the script doesn’t seem too bothered about Michelle Charters once she gets the case going. She returns to work at the nursing home, but that seems to be so Mulder can rescue her at the climax. She gets a total of three lines after she returns to work and through the climax, and none after the events would seem to prove her version of events. Her vindication is reserved for a throw-away line in Scully’s closing monologue.

As if this isn’t bad enough, the episode’s climax throws in some good old-fashioned racism, because… well, why not? This is another one of those “things that horror movies do so often and so recklessly it makes them easy to write off.” People are afraid of things that are strange and different, things outside their experience and comfort zone. That’s why something like Frankenstein’s monster or Dracula is so effective. They run counter to so much that we take for granted. However, horror movies occasionally get a bit lazy, and so decide that foreigners are scary enough.

Into darkness...

Into darkness…

This is, of course, horrible racist and more than a little insulting because it assumes that the audience are on the same wavelength. The answer to the question “why are the residents ghost rapists?” boils down to “some mystical foreign hocus pocus.” The episode doesn’t see a need to explain it further than that. The pills are magic because they come from Gung, and Gung doesn’t come from around here. The fact that the episode expects the audience to buy that logic is deeply unsettling.

Here, Gung (or – as Mulder helpfully describes him – the “Asian orderly”) is giving the residents mystical medicine from his home country. The episode plays on the idea of Gung as a mystical foreigner quite heavily. Gung’s home country isn’t explicitly identified until Scully’s closing monologue. Up until that point, Gung is just defined as generically foreign. He talks about “my country”, “my prefecture”, “where I come from.”

Half way between the gutter and the ground floor...

Half way between the gutter and the ground floor…

Naturally, Gung has magic medicine that cannot be explained by science. He also apparently has no understanding of how things work in America, and why giving supernatural powers to creepy old people who sexually harass the staff might be a bad idea. (Gung really doesn’t seem too bothered he’s an accessory to rape.) Instead, Gung has to have that patronisingly explained to him. “You’re not in your country now,” his boss states, one of those stock xenophobic phrases that is only mildly less racist than “go back to where you came from.”

There are other old clichés at work here, even if they are markedly less offensive than the rape and racism. “Lecherous old man” is a very tired character archetype, particularly since Stan and Hal seem to exist as nothing more than two-dimensional bad guys. The nursing home itself is under-developed, and we never get a feel for the place outside the broadest (and most familiar) of strokes.

Abandon hope all ye who enter...

Abandon hope all ye who enter…

It really is a terrible episode. Excelsis Dei is really just a collection of unfortunate and outdated horror clichés boiled down into a forty-five minute episode. It’s precisely the sort of racist and sexist horror elements that The X-Files should be smart enough to avoid at this point. It’s the worst episode of the season so far, and continues what has been a rough patch since One Breath.

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

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4 Responses

  1. There are other old clichés at work here, even if they are markedly less offensive than the rape and racism. “Lecherous old man” is a very tired character archetype, particularly since Stan and Hal seem to exist as nothing more than two-dimensional bad guys.

    Which sort of defeats the legitimate value of treating the elderly well within the community, rather than ostracizing them. The elderly are one of the most poorly represented classes in media, and I think this episode backfired in the attempt to respect their situation.

    • That’s fair.

      That said, there are nice old people in the episode – Dorothy and the painter dude are both generic pleasant, albeit two-dimensional elderly residents who don’t use the medicine for evil. But you’re right – like virtually everything else in the episode, they are incredibly generic and stock characters with no real personality or depth to them.

  2. Yeah this episode was pretty dissapointing, too bad they pulled the X – Files from Netflix though 😦

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