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The X-Files – The Calusari (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 Calusari is very heavily and very clearly influenced by classic horror cinema. With its demon child and dramatic ritual sequences, the episode seems constructed as a gigantic homage to The Omen and The Exorcist, two of most iconic horror films of the seventies. On paper, this isn’t a bad idea. The show hasn’t done a straight-up quasi-exploitation horror episode since Fresh Bones, and “scary kids” worked well enough for the show in Eve.

On the other hand, the show has historically had trouble doing straight-up classic horror stories – Shadows was a misfire of a ghost story, while Shapes was a questionable werewolf tale and 3 was a disaster of a vampire show. More than that, The Calusari pushes the show into fairly uncomfortable territory, dealing as it does with the religious beliefs of immigrant communities. The Calusari is not as bad as it could be, but it’s also not particularly good, either.

A haunting tale?

A haunting tale?

The Calusari is the second credit for writer Sara Charno, and her final writing credit for the show. Charno has the distinction of being the only woman on the show’s second season writing staff, although she would depart at the end of the second season. Kim Newton would join the writing staff in the third season, although she would also only write two episodes before departing. Marilyn Osborn had written Shapes in the first season, and would write three episodes for Glen Morgan and James Wong’s Space: Above & Beyond.

It’s interesting to note that The X-Files never really had any “big” female writers. The show’s defining writers – those mostly likely to be identified as strong and distinct voices over the course of the show’s run – were all male. Indeed, the female writers with the strongest voices on any of the related shows were Erin Maher and Kay Reindl, the writing team recruited by Wong and Morgan for the second season of Millennium. (The numbers suggest that Wong and Morgan seemed more willing to recruit and develop female writers than Carter.)

That old black magic...

That old black magic…

To be fair, the issue of lack gender representation on the writing staffs of genre television shows (or even television shows in general) is not unique to The X-Files and its sister shows. Still, it’s interesting in the context of Sara Charno, because her two scripts on the second season of The X-Files seem to hit on some of Chris Carter’s favourite big themes – the nature of good and evil as absolute forces in the world. Given that Irresistible had provided the impetus for Millennium, it seems weird that Charno would depart at the end of the season.

After all, Carter seemed to imagine Millennium as a show about the absolute forces of good and evil wrestling over mankind’s mortal souls. The first season of that show was hardly subtle in how it tackled the subject. Charno’s writing hits on a lot of those themes. In Aubrey, evil was treated as a genetic trait that can be passed down from grandfather to granddaughter – as if an aptitude towards serial killing were some undiscovered chromosome on a DNA strand and denying any role of nurture when resisting the pull of those urges.

Don't leave him hanging...

Don’t leave him hanging…

The Calusari is even more straight-forward in its presentation of good and evil as forces at work in the world. “The evil that is here has always been,” one of the Calusari advises Mulder. “It has gone by different names through history – Cain, Lucifer, Hitler. It does not care if it kills one boy or a million men. If you try to stop us, the blood will be on your hands.” Apparently the demonic possession – or evil undead twin – of this young boy is all part of a tableau of evil.

It takes some ambition and commitment to explicitly connect a local haunting to the crimes of Adolf Hitler, but this proclamation feels like it fits with Carter’s worldview, at least as developed on Millennium – a show Carter himself described as “ultimately about good and evil.” According to this view, evil is one of the primal forces at work in the world, and it finds expression in any number of ways. Whatever form it may take, it remains evil. After all, Carter did have Donnie Pfaster manifest himself as a demon, just to underscore this point.

Knife to see you...

Knife to see you…

This is a very strong moral viewpoint, and one of several that helps to mark Carter as a very moral storyteller. However, this outlook leads to a tendency to draw the world in broad strokes. One of the problems with the first season of Millennium would be the sheer weight that Carter would give this idea, which is such a basic and easy-to-grasp idea that it doesn’t need repeating. Still, it’s fascinating that so much of Millennium seems to have manifested itself during the second season, with Carter setting up ideas that would become part of the DNA of his next show.

Still, as fascinating as it is to see The Calusari prefigure these themes, the episode remains deeply problematic on a number of levels. Quite a few of those problems come baked into the premise, as with Charno’s script for Aubrey, and the teleplay does its best to navigate them. It doesn’t always succeed, but at least The Calusari manages to come across less xenophobic than Excelsis Dei. That has to count for something.

Grandma Grim...

Grandma Grim…

Episodes of The X-Files set within (or about) foreign communities have to be handled very delicately. It is easy for the show to reduce these communities to stereotypes, misrepresenting and trivialising belief systems to produce exploitative horror stories. Indeed, if the horror originates within the community, it is quite easy for the episode to feel reactive or even xenophobic – suggesting perhaps that outsiders have brought their own monsters with them to a foreign country.

The Calusari struggles with its portrayal of the Romanian community. The eponymous religious leaders are able to do good work and save Charlie’s life. Indeed, Mulder and Scully don’t get to do much to save the day – salvation must come from inside the community itself. Mulder gets to hold down Charlie during the exorcism, while Scully gets thrown around the room as the Calusari work their mysticism. It’s not the worst possible portrayal. However, the show also wallows in the portrayal of Golda – Charlie’s Romanian grandmother – as a superstitious foreigner.

It didn't blow me away...

It didn’t blow me away…

Sure, Golda gets to be right at the end of the day, but it’s hard to blame anybody for refusing to listen to her. She refuses to assist local authorities with their inquiries. At one point, she helpfully warns her daughter, “You marry a devil. You have devil child!” That must be a fun family dinner table. Her son-in-law reflects, “Once she moved in with us, she started pouring hot water over the threshold to ward off demons, tying red strings around the kids’ wrists. One day I caught her throwing chicken guts on the roof.”

Given that Golda as the most developed member of the Romanian community who remains firmly connected to her roots – none of the Calusari even get names – this doesn’t paint a flattering picture. The episode seems to aspire towards some grand tragedy – as if to suggest that everything would have gone much smoother (and might have been resolved quicker) if people had been willing to listen to Golda’s concerns. However, it’s hard to fault Maggie or Steve for trying to minimise her impact on their son’s life.

Who ya gonna call? Evil-twin-ghostbusters!

Who ya gonna call? Evil-twin-ghostbusters!

Golda feels like a holdover from those classic horror movies set in Eastern Europe, the wise old local who is just alert enough to warn the protagonist of the dangers that lurk in the darkness, but too superstitious and irrational to provide any actual assistance. It would not be a surprise to discover that Golda had grown up in a version of Romania that looked like a set from a Universal horror film, in the shadow of a creepy castle with wolves howling at the moon at fog covering the landscape.

(In the real world, Golda’s history would likely be much more complex. A relatively recent immigrant, Golda is of the right age to have lived through the Second World War. Although it tends to get glossed over in coverage of the war, Romania’s experience in wartime was pretty heavy. The country initially declared itself neutral, then joined the Axis, and subsequently aligned with the Allies. Romania lost approximately 370,000 soldiers during the conflict, not to mention to massacre of almost 260,000 Jews by Romanian troops. That leaves a pretty haunting legacy.)

Devil child!

Devil child!

Still, there is some interesting material here. In Gilligan Unbound: Pop Culture in the Age of Globalization, Paul A. Cantor suggests that The Calusari could be read as a commentary on globalisation and the American experience for members of immigrant communities:

The episode ends with the leader of the Calusari warning Mulder about the evil: “It is over for now. But you must be careful – it knows you.” But the real question is whether Mulder knows the evil. The problem with America is its lack of historical memory. Obsessed with the future and the spread of economic rationality, it thinks it has left the irrational past behind it and especially its European heritage, a complex legacy that includes much that is problematic if not outright evil. The Romanian woman in The Calusari thought she had solved all her problems by marrying an American and moving to the United States. But in fact, the episode suggests, this kind of globalising movement creates its own problems, given the unsettling and alienating effects of uprooting people from their homelands and committing them to the migratory existence epitomised by the life of a State Department official.

The idea that the past cannot be left behind is one of the recurring motifs of The X-Files, where the sins of the parents regularly return to haunt their children.

"Yes, we do get confused for ZZ Top regularly, why do you ask?"

“Yes, we do get confused for ZZ Top regularly, why do you ask?”

Much of the show is anchored in American history following the Second World War, but significant sections of the show’s mythology reach back much further. This isn’t surprising. The X-Files is an American television, so it makes sense for the show to meditate on American politics and history. Part of what is interesting about The Calusari is the way that it does hint at a wider context of evil.

Indeed, Anazasi – the show’s second season finalé – goes so far as to suggest that America is tainted by the original sin of the early European settlers. The third season of the show pushes the idea further, suggesting that the American government willfully tainted itself through collaboration with and protection of members of various corrupt and brutal regimes. Paperclip is named for the operation to bring Nazi scientists back to America in the wake of the Second World War, while Nisei and 731 suggest collusion with immoral Japanese scientists.

Lighting the way...

Lighting the way…

All of this is fascinating, but it does little to resolve the underlying issues with The Calusari. Earlier in the season, the show had produced Fresh Bones, a careful and thoughtful story about Hollywood voodoo that managed to remain respectful of Haitian culture and history. The Calusari feels like it reduces Romanian culture to a collection of stock clichés. It reaffirms the idea that The X-Files needs to tread carefully when doing horror stories set within immigrant communities.

There are other awkward aspects of The Calusari. The show opens with the death of a toddler at an amusement park. The death of children still remains something of a “taboo” in horror films, for a variety of reasons. It is something that has to be done very carefully. If done well (as in Frankenstein), it makes for a powerful moment. However, it’s very easy to make the death of child seem exploitative. John Carpenter has admitted regret over the murder of a child in Assault on Precinct 13, admitting that he was “young and stupid” and that he wouldn’t do it now.

Taking a stab at fighting evil...

Taking a stab at fighting evil…

As such, killing off a toddler in the teaser of an episode of The X-Files is a pretty heavy moment. The show typically opens with the death of a minor character, but having a child killed by a train is a fairly shocking intro. It is something that could seem trashy and exploitative if done wrong – as if Carter and his production team are simply trying to grab that audience’s attention. The show needs to earn that moment. The Calusari doesn’t.

Mulder and Scully spend most of the hour being surprisingly flippant considering the fact that they are investigating the potential murder of a toddler. In fact, the episode seems to lose focus on the death of Teddy around the half-way mark. It just feels like any other case. There’s no sense that this family is tearing itself apart, no exploration of all the loss that comes with the death of so many people. The Calusari is structured like a stock episode of The X-Files, which makes the teaser seem particularly glib and cynical.

Mulder's tastelessness just balloons out of control...

Mulder’s tastelessness just balloons out of control…

It seems a little weird that this isn’t what Carter had to fight over with Broadcast Standards and Practices. According to The Truth is Out There, the episode’s biggest controversy was the death of the father, in a scene that feels like it prefigures a spate of late nineties “death by garage door” sequences:

Again, part of the action was structured to incorporate an interesting moment Chris Carter had thought up outside the context of this episode — in this case, a garage-door opener hanging. The producer did have to compromise with Fox’s standards department, however, shortening the sequence and obscuring the father’s face so as to soften the impact of the strangulation.

There’s a sense that The Calusari simply isn’t built to support the weight suggested by that opening sequence, and the episode never really tries. It’s quite similar to how the show bungled the sexual assault that opened Excelsis Dei. Though, at least there was a sense that Excelsis Dei was trying to say something about rape culture. Here, it’s just a nice visual to open the show.

"The power of rationality compels you!"

“The power of rationality compels you!”

Indeed, Mulder cracks wise during the post-opening-credits sequence. Explaining that Teddy had to escape his harness, he tells Scully, “So the C.M.E. took it home and put it on his own two-year-old and found it was physically impossible for the kid to reach around and free himself, so unless Teddy Holvey was the reincarnation of Houdini – and that would be an X-File in itself…” Mulder isn’t too emotionally aware at the best of times, but it feels too flippant and too divorced from the fact that the kid was killed by a train in front of his parents.

As a gigantic homage to The Omen and The Exorcist, The Calusari works well enough. It’s certainly better than most of the “classic horror” shows that the series has produced to this point, even if the plot feels like it zigzags a bit too much. So Michael can replace Charlie at any time? And he can manifest physically while Charlie is still in physical form? Where was Charlie at the amusement park? Locked in a closet somewhere? How come Charlie never mentioned this?

Don't choke on me now!

Don’t choke on me now!

It doesn’t help that the whole “Charlie has a doppelganger made out of pure evil” set-up feels a little on-the-nose, even allowing for the episode’s larger themes of good and evil as absolutes. Still, it leads to a suitably dramatic climax where Mulder gets to sit in on (and even assist – a little bit – with) an exorcism and Scully gets thrown around a lot. One can’t help but getting the feeling the climax might have worked better inverting their roles. Scully is a Catholic after all, so it would be interesting to see her take on these religious rituals.

The only other notable aspect of The Calusari is that it introduces the character of Charles Bucks, Mulder’s quirky science pal. Bucks would become a minor recurring character over the rest of the show, reappearing in the fourth, sixth, seventh and eighth seasons. That said, the casting of actor Bill Dow in another role for War of the Coprophages suggests that Bucks probably wasn’t planned as a recurring guest star. It is nice that the show did build up (and use) these sorts of minor characters, even if it never capitalised on them as it might.

"Oh, sorry, I'll come back later...

“Oh, sorry, I’ll come back later…

Director Mike Vejar does solid work here. In particular, his compositions involving characters peering under or standing in or listening through doorways all help to reinforce the idea that this is a story about catching a glimpse of something that exists outside the standard American cultural framework. It is a literal doorway into another world, one that doesn’t necessarily operate according to American cultural or social norms.

The Calusari is an episode that is reasonably well-constructed and competently produced, even if it remains deeply problematic. Still, it feels like another small brick that is building thematically towards the show’s season finalé and even beyond that towards Millennium.

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

3 Responses

  1. I found your blog and this specific review after noticing in the very start of the show, as they are approaching the Hovley residence, the window treatment had a swastika in its original form, not in a diagonal stance as Hitler had it, but anyway – it was still very noticeable, and with the show’s context of evil apparent throughout, just thought it was interesting to add. Though a slight gesture I’m sure, still wraps in and I felt it was interesting enough to add to your awesome blog review of the show.

  2. This is my third go-around reading your X-Files reviews. They’re entertaining and thought-provoking, and I take different thoughts away each time I read them. Your reviews overall are excellent. 😄 Thank you for sharing them.

    This time, I’m struck by how often our FBI duo end up contributing little to nothing to whatever they’re investigating. I’d noticed this before, but the actual extent of their ineffectiveness is really striking me now. Mulder and Scully are actually incredibly lucky; between the conspiracy and the monsters they’ve faced even at this early point in the series, they should’ve been dead or insane many times over.

    In the last review, you pointed out the agents frequently (and ironically) get saved by some arm of the government, which overall in this universe is supposed to be corrupt and treacherous. Given Mulder’s burgeoning status as a special or even chosen one in the conspiracy, it’s amusing to imagine a special government team that exists just to keep Mulder (and by extension Scully) alive. An episode from the perspective of that team would be hilarious, with everyone rolling their eyes at “Stupid Mulder” (their name for him) blundering into yet another danger he has to be rescued from.😆

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