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Night Stalker – Malum (Review)

This January, to prepare for the release of the new six-part season of The X-Files, we’re wrapping up our coverage of the show, particularly handling the various odds and ends between the show’s last episode and the launch of the revival.

Malum is a mess of an episode.

It has a number of very strong ideas, and some interesting twists along the way. However, the script has no idea how to fashion any of those ideas into a compelling narrative with tangible stakes. Instead, Malum gets tangled and twisted in its own wealth of story ideas. Anything worth exploring in Malum is suffocated by the sheer volume of material, affording the audience no opportunity to care about what is happening or invest in any of the supporting characters.

He's so proud of it, he put his name on it...

He’s so proud of it, he put his name on it…

It is a shame, because the basic ingredients of Malum are among the most interesting ideas of the show’s first season. Throwing out the script, the underlying story ideas of Malum are strong enough to support an engaging and exciting episode. Malum has a fantastic cast, with veteran supporting actors Tony Todd and Fredric Lehne making guest appearances. It also has stakes that should be very emotionally affecting, a very powerful central issue, and a structure that lends itself to this sort of horror storytelling.

It is just a shame that none of this actually works.

Bloody murder...

Bloody murder…

The fundamental problem with Malum is an overstuffed script. Even trying to summarise the script reveals the insanity of trying to fashion a single forty-minute episode from all these ideas. A teacher is murdered by lightning, leading into an investigation into a young boy at a school. This investigation tracks back to the mysterious death of the boy’s mother years earlier. The school psychiatrist discovers that the boy has scars on his back, suggesting patterns of abuse. Those patterns disappear and the psychiatrist promptly dies.

It turns out that the boy is adopted, and that his adopted father attended seminary; he was ejected for performing a botched exorcism. Meanwhile, it turns out that none of the deaths actually have anything to do with electricity. At the same time, the child’s best friend is kidnapped. The kidnapped boy’s father is a police man, who is directed into the woods where he finds the ex-priest with his son tied up in a car. The cop kills the ex-priest and adopts the now orphaned child. Then the child turns out to be a demon, so the cop’s son kills the demon and the cop takes the fall.

Talk to Tony...

Talk to Tony…

That’s a lot of plot for forty-minutes of television, even before considering the framing device around it. All of Malum is told via flashback as Carl Kolchak and Detective Carver are interrogated by a gruff no-nonsense investigator who is trying to construct his own narrative of events that would explain why a young child was found with their throat slit. There is a lot going on within the basic framework of Malum, and the episode creaks under all the pressure. There is never a chance to engage with everything that is happening, because something else quickly follows.

Most of the basic ideas at the heart of Malum are fairly solid. Night Stalker is a show that is fascinated with the idea of evil. As such, it makes sense to do an enfant terrible story, featuring a killer child. The idea of a child who would manipulate the adults around them is terrifying; there is a reason that children make unsettling horror antagonists. Frank Spotnitz is very familiar with this concept, with both The X-Files and Millennium making a number of “creepy children” episodes; both great and terrible. Eve, Schizogeny, Monster, Scary Monsters.

The root of the problem...

The root of the problem…

Given that ABC has nudged Night Stalker away from conventional horror monsters, basing an episode around a killer child is a great idea of itself. Of course, the execution leaves quite a lot to be desired. Part of this is simply down to the casting; Zach Winard is not the most convincing killer child to ever appear on television and film. While the idea of have one child kill another child is horrific and haunting, there is a sense that Malum is not sure exactly how best to work that central twist into the narrative.

The reveal that Justin was murdered by Ryan is very clever, with Detective Carver taking the blame in order to cover for his son. However, all of this happens far too quickly. The final four minutes of the episode are given over to Detective Carver and/or Ryan realising that Justin is truly evil and committing to murder him. Broadcast Standards and Practices would never commit to depicting the murder of a child on a prime-time television show, but the issue is never really dealt with. There is no emotional weight to that revelation. It is just a plot beat.

Just scratching the surface...

Just scratching the surface…

Given that The X-Files and Millennium are an obvious point of reference for Night Stalker, it is worth a direct comparison in this case. Millennium offers a similar story in Covenant, an episode about a father who takes the blame for the murder of his family even though he did not commit the act in question. However, Covenant builds very slowly and very meticulously to its central revelation. Malum lacks the same sense of finesse. It bluntly drops in the death of Justin as a plot point rather than a shocking emotional reveal.

The decision to structure Malum as a mystery is a problem. The episode features Carl Kolchak and Detective Carver being interrogated about the case. However, the script works hard to conceal exactly what the two are being questioned about. It is clear quite early on that it is a murder, but the episode seems to push the audience towards the idea that Detective Carver is being interrogated about the murder of Ezekiel Seaver. Indeed, once it is explicitly stated Carver is not being interrogated about the murder of Ezekiel, the episode lays all its cards on the table.

An artist's depiction.

An artist’s depiction.

However, there is not enough time for the audience to accept the murder of Justin, let alone to be shocked when it turns out that Carver is just covering for his son. As a contrast, Covenant opened with the murders and built to the revelation that William Garry was actually covering for his wife. It was every bit as much a plot twist as the revelation concerning Carver, but Covenant took the time to build to that big reveal. In contrast, Malum serves all over the place; it only seems to decide what it wants to be in its final few minutes.

Similarly, the idea of basing an episode of Night Stalker around child abuse makes a certain amount of sense as well. If Night Stalker is a show about confronting evil, then it should be able to address true depictions of evil. In fact, The Pilot firmly established a very Jungian approach to storytelling, with monsters representing childhood anxieties about much more grounded and realistic threats. Child abuse pushes that idea to its logical conclusion, a perversion and corruption of adult institutions supposed to protect children.

Mad road.

Mad road.

There are certainly aspects of Malum that lend themselves to a story about child abuse. The interrogation framing device could easily seem redundant, but it works quite well in the context of a story about childhood trauma. Child abuse is often reduced to a series of “he said, she said” accusations; it can very difficult to prove. In many cases, it can feel like an attempt to pit two competing narratives against one another. In a way, the framing device touches on this idea, as Kolchak and Detective Carver outline their version of events hoping to get to the truth.

More than that, Malum offers a number of twisted reflections of childhood trauma and abuse. The twisted roots of the tree in the playground are a wonderful visual representation of just how tangled and insidious this abuse can become, particularly when it takes place within a family. Schizogeny attempted something similar; after all, trees are great metaphors for families. Similarly, the detective investigating the case is very clearly attempting to abuse his power to protect Carver; it is a perversion of authority and trust mirroring that of abusers.

Tree of life...

Tree of life…

Indeed, child abuse lends itself to the metaphorical approach adopted by Night Stalker. It can be difficult to address these themes head-on, so it is best to talk about them in a more abstract sense. In fact, Reed explicitly states as much early in the episode. Cast in the role of skeptic, she assures Kolchak, “There is a story here. A very sad, very human one. About a man abusing his son.” There is nothing fundamentally wrong with wanting to use monsters as a metaphor for this sort of trauma.

The problem is that child abuse is a delicate topic that needs to be handled carefully and with consideration. Cramming it into an episode with everything else happening around it does the story no favours. Including child abuse (or even the spectre of child abuse) within a narrative creates a certain gravity. It is hard from Malum to escape from that gravity and it drags the rest of the episode down. What is a powerful and emotive subject is reduced to a simple red herring in a narrative that twists and turns so fast that there is no frame of reference.

Do I detect some antagonism here?

Do I detect some antagonism here?

Malum has a whole host of clever ideas. It just doesn’t down anything with them. The tree imagery in the first half of the episode if very effective, particularly when the burn patterns show up on the first body in the same pattern as the tree at the school. Similarly, the idea of building an episode of Night Stalker around competing narratives of the same event makes perfect sense; Night Stalker is a show about fear, and fear is highly subjective. However, the interrogation scene becomes little more than an exposition dump.

Malum lacks any real sense of cohesion or identity. The episode does try to work around it. If Malum absolutely has to have a framing device piled in on top of everything else going on, at least Tony Todd has a deep enough voice to smooth over any awkward exposition. From any other actor, the line “… so you went the school where you knew you’d find Detective Carver” would sound like an awkward attempt to cajole the narrative along; from Todd, that simple declarative statement plays as the gravest of accusations. However, there is only so much that Todd can do.

Copping to a plea...

Copping to a plea…

Even the basics of Malum seem awkward and ill-fitting, as if the writing staff have not yet figured out what Night Stalker‘s standard storytelling tools should be. In Burning Man, Kolchak processed his intuitions about the case in a series of quick flashes; the visual design recalled Frank Black’s flashes of insight in Millennium. However, Malum chooses to convey its information in a completely different way. When Kolchak outlines his theory to Reed and Jain, cuts wipe across the screen. It is a lot clumsier, feeling rather inelegant.

In many respects, the word “inelegant” sums up Malum. It is an episode overburdened with plots and twists, with far too much dialogue devoted to exposition and elaboration. It is a shame to keep comparing Night Stalker to The X-Files and Millennium, but the show invites those comparisons. Generally speaking, The X-Files and Millennium were more visual in their storytelling; the seemed to trust the audience to follow what was happening without such blunt dialogue and awkward flashback footage.

Branching out...

Branching out…

Malum is an episode with no sense of structure or identity, one that feels lost in all its twists and turns. Perhaps that is appropriate for Night Stalker at this moment in time. Certainly, the series is struggling with its own persona and its own unique sense of self.

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