Halloween Review: The X Files ‘Home’
We are living in a golden age of television. This is probably not news to you. But it has taken me a while to catch on.
Like a lot of latchkey kids I was basically raised by TV (You were wise Mum, but you were no Uncle Phil) so it was strange that when I went to Uni I pretty much stopped watching it. I had acquired quite a collection of DVDs by this point and when I needed some escapism/procrastination from my ridiculous course I would watch a film. But in the last 2 years I have come back round to TV. Cinema seems so dry and predictable compared to what television is doing now. Not ALL the shows work, of course. But I now have a laundry list of shows I missed the first time round that I am trying to get through.
Some of the so called ‘must see TV’ I just won’t get to and I have very little interest in. So how to find out which shows are for me? Back in the day you would just turn on the TV and ‘catch’ a random episode and if you saw something you liked you would tune in the next week. Now? It is a lot easier to start from the beginning and watch all the episodes in order. This seems so normal now that it is difficult to remember that, not so long ago, this was not a possibility unless you spent a lot of money on box sets.
In the future I want to write about the shows I love now that I missed the first time they were broadcast and also go back and watch some of my earlier favourites to see how they measure up but today is about a show that was huge in the 90’s that I was too young to really get into. It is a major TV institution but I have reached my adult years not only knowing very little about it but having never watched an episode. Until now.
One of my favourite websites is avclub.com and if you are a fan of film, TV, music, books…anything really, then you will probably enjoy it too. They often do TV roundtables where they discuss key episodes from TV shows. In anticipation of Halloween they focused on scary TV episodes and started with ‘Home’ the Season 4 episode of The X Files. I nearly read the result but I spoil too much pop culture for myself already so I decided to watch my first ever X Files episode first. 2 minutes in, I knew I wanted to write a little review myself. But please read The AV Club overview too. It will be better than mine.
For the record there will be spoilers a plenty. Can’t be helped. Please watch the episode first if you are in any way planning to. It is too good to spoil. But it is not for the faint of heart. I take no responsibility for your inability to sleep or listen to Johnny Mathis after viewing it.
What did I know about the show in advance? Nothing really. Aliens and the supernatural are involved, Mulder and Scully are the FBI. That’s it. I don’t think they are a couple…Although TV law dedicates they probably hook up at some point. I am aware of an episode with at least one scary doll and one where a guy slips between between thin cracks in walls and stuff. I was concerned I would not be able to follow the episode knowing so little about the world it is set in. I mean, this is four seasons in. But I thought it would be an interesting experiment and not something I had indulged in for a long time.
A quick google search for ‘Best X Files Episodes’ indicated that this episode left an impact on fans and critics alike. Not only that, it was the first episode in the show’s history to have a Viewer Desecration warning at the beginning and it was banned from Fox after it was first aired. So far, so intriguing.
For the record, I am not easily scared by films and TV shows but I am often left horrified. There is a difference. Being scared is about reacting in the moment to something unexpected or the anticipation of something unpleasant that triggers feelings of fear. Horror is about a lingering sense of unease after processing what you have just seen or felt.
I can handle scenes that are designed to be scary, I can take the anticipation and I never get carried away and forget I am watching a film. I would like to sometimes because I believe the journey would be more interesting but it just doesn’t happen for me. In the same way I never react strongly to magic shows. Sure it is impressive but it is all a trick. It is not real and I am more interested in what the film is trying to do than how I feel…until later.
Sure if my friend stands behind a door when I don’t know they are there and they spring out at me I am going to jump. So when badly written horror films insert lots of easy to anticipate jump scares in replacement of decent characters I may well react like a mammal when unexpectedly loud music plays, but I am not frightened or remotely invested. Some have called me brave. I am not just saying that: I could give you their names. And yet…I love horror movies. But where does the impact come from if I am not in for the jumps?
You see, while films rarely scare me in the moment but the effect is carried around hours, days and sometimes years afterwards. For example when I first saw Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ I was about 12 or 13. I did not scream or jump or hide behind pillows and I had no problem watching it with the light off. I took it in silently like I do with every film I see. (I am a hoot. You should invite me round for a party sometime) But after it was over I went to go in my bedroom and I struggled to turn the light on as the final image danced in front of my eyes. I can close my eyes now and hear the words: ‘Why she wouldn’t even harm a fly’ coupled with that smile and it gives me both the feeling of ‘that was a great film’ and ‘That was a horrifying character’
I am never going to freak out in a cinema or even alone in front of my laptop but the feeling of having seen something horrifying may linger. So I did not look away during ‘Home.’ I pretty much figured I knew where it was headed and I was mostly right. But there are two scenes that are right up there for me as they are completely horrifying. Not scary. Horrifying. And I doubt I will be forgetting them any time soon.
The story is there is a family called the Peacocks who are apparently the Monsters of the Week and Mulder and Scully try to find out their secret.
We open on a dark and stormy night which is just gravy for a Halloween review. But what follows is pretty hideous by any standard of any medium. A baby is born and then buried alive. I understood right away why the episode had gained a reputation for being…out there. Having never watched the show before, I was left wondering how often they do a cold open this cold.
After some 90’s-tastic opening credits which tells me everything I need to know about the show (they carry around flashlights looking for paranormal activity and the government deny that they do this) we cut to what seems to be the next day and some young whipper snappers are playing baseball when the ball goes into the garden of the scary family we saw birthing/burying the baby. I am glad we don’t get the classic sneaking into the yard scene and we don’t get cheesy exposition from the children being all: ‘Go get the ball!’ ‘No Way! That is Ol’ Man Marley’s house! Don’t you know what he did?’ They just stare regretfully at the departed ball and then carry on with their game.
We know when the camera zeroes in on the catchers mound as the dirt is being kicked up that the body of the baby is going to revealed and yet the tension is still being build expertly. There is some nice dark humour with one the characters shouting for the ball with a ‘Come on baby! Right here!’ as we see the tiny hand poke out of the ground all covered in, err, strawberry jam. I also love the way the characters react to this. There is no screaming. They just back away, shocked. Like in real life. Apart from the silly music. So far I am impressed. Just as I was thinking that this show is doing a good job the co-producer’s name pops up on the screen: ‘Vince Gilligan’ Ha. That explains a lot. Whatever happened to that guy?
And so Mulder and Scully show up to investigate. Why is this an FBI case? This is never satisfactorily explained. It is a small town with just two law enforcers, the Sheriff and his Deputy (Uh oh. I wrote RIP next to their names as soon as I saw them) and so…I think there is an explanation but, like I say, I don’t buy it.
Mulder and Scully see the Peacock Brothers watching the crime scene from their land and when they suggest going and asking them about it The Sheriff tells them he will not be questioning the family who live in the house because yeah…he just won’t. The episode started to lose me a bit at this point. You find a dead baby next to the creepy incest family and you don’t think to ask them if they did it? So the law enforcement recommends ignoring evidence/the fact the people responsible are clearly there and aware of what is happening because…people keep themselves to themselves around here? I would have been more angry at him except the Sheriff is both Black and world weary so it is clear he is doomed. I decided to bet how long he would last. I went with 29 minutes into the episode. He lasted 22 minutes and 40 seconds. But what an exit…
So who are the Peacocks? Some brothers who breed animals and keep it in the family in every sense. They did have parents but the Police ‘suppose’ they died in a car accident although they never did find the Mother…HMMM where COULD she be???? I ‘suppose’ she could be dead. Let us all suppose this together…nope. I am supposing she will pop up before the end.
Ok so at this point I felt like none of this was setting up a mystery to be solved. We know the brothers killed the baby, it has been heavily suggested that the family are a result of inbreeding and we know they have a woman because we saw her giving birth at the start and she is in all likelihood their mother as her body was never found in a car wreck. I hoped none of this seriously obvious plot was going to be executed as a big reveal later. Sadly it was. But what a reveal…
I am getting ahead of myself. So much so that I skipped past my introduction to Mulder and Scully themselves, played by David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson. Do you know, I rather liked them. Sure he talks about baseball while she is po faced, he is more relaxed, she is more professional…Excuse me while I yawn and take a nap.
There are a couple of weird moments between them like after she opens up the dead baby in a grotty bathroom (lovely) and Mulder remarks ‘I never saw you as a Mother before’ Wait, what? From what I gather this is setting up stuff that gets paid off later in the season but for me it comes out of nowhere and seems a bit like something a script writer wrote rather than something a person would said. Also she REALLY likes calling him Mulder doesn’t she? She says it a LOT. It is kind of a lazy way of letting us know there is sexual tension between them.
But overall the two actors are really very good and their working chemistry is believable and compelling. I never felt like one was more capable in a crisis than the other, they both have each other’s backs and they both delivered lines that made me laugh out loud. Scully when she quotes ‘Babe’ when trying to get some animals to move and Mulder when he holds up an old newspaper stored in the Peacock house declaring ‘Elvis dead at 42’ and makes a sad face while saying: ‘oh no!’ Both moments are during pretty tense scenes which just gives me all the more idea how they cope under pressure. It is great.
One thing that confused me is Scully seemed reluctant to admit there might be something supernatural going on. This is SEASON 4 right? Surely she is not still cynical about the existence of aliens and the like? I get that he is supposed to say potato and her potahto (which is just wrong) but seriously…How long can you drag out that character trait in a show where a guy can slip through door cracks and vents? This is not Scooby Doo. There is no angry Museum Owner behind each case is there?
Although in fairness this story is not really about paranormal stuff, although they shoehorn in something about the baby having DNA from all the brothers like a creepy version of ‘3 Men and a Baby’ Well, creepier. I like that we know who is responsible for the dead infant and we don’t have to tolerate too many scenes of our protagonists working things out. Even the occasional moments where the pair are swapping dialogue that may as well consist of ‘science science science made up word science’ or pointing out painfully obvious themes, the actors deliver it in a way that makes it bearable. Mulder in particular has a disinterested tone of voice when he is monologuing like he is saying: ‘I know this is lame guys, but bear with me, I will get through it and then we will get back to taking on bad guys and racking up the ‘Moonlighting’ will they/wont they bullshit’
When Mulder and Scully first seek out the Peacocks and hunt around their horrible home I felt a little tense. I was sure a jump scare was coming…any second…nope. They look around. Nobody is home. They find enough evidence to confirm that the baby was born here and then buried alive. They leave. Then the camera pushes through the dark to a pair of huge eyes. Someone was there the whole time. It is a brilliant scene as even though it is M & S who have done the ol’ breaking and entering trick I felt violated on their behalf by the creepy shadowy figure in the darkness, taking in the intruders. As I learned very quickly, The X Files is brilliant at playing with my expectations.
I am not sure if it was the copy I was watching but any scenes in the episode, and there were a lot of them, that took place in the dark seemed a lot more convincingly light free than most shows. I often really struggled to see what was happening and this made the tension and vulnerability of the characters all the more compelling.
So we see Mulder and Scully back at the hotel. Scully visits Mulder’s room. They banter. There is a documentary on in the background about how animals bring down their prey in packs and then the alpha male gets in there to let the others know it is safe. I suspect this will be significant…
At the same time we see the Sheriff reacting to their news that the Peacocks are for sure responsible for the death of the baby and need to be arrested. He looks sad, looks at his possibly never used gun and looks sad some more. Then his wife tells him to come to bed as he wistfully stares out at the town he loves. He tells her he wants one last look at it all…Perhaps he has read the script? She responds gently that it will all still be here in the morning. Oh love…
At this I was actually waving at the screen. ‘Bye nice couple! I am going to miss you!’ They even emphasise the theme of city cynicism = safety by having Mulder create a makeshift lock for his hotel room door while the trusting Sheriff does not bother to lock his. Oh dear! That is what you get for…knowingly ignoring criminal activity for years, I suppose.
So even while I was rolling my eyes at these rather unsubtle moments I never quite knew when disaster was going to strike. When Scully went to leave Mulder’s room, I somehow thought the door would be locked or something bad was coming. It wasn’t. She left safety. When the Sheriff went to bed, I expected the Peacock boys to attack silently as they nice couple slept. All tense and built up…But it was much better than that. They don’t go for the scare. They go for well earned horror and the first of two brilliantly realised and thoroughly sickening moments.
This scene is phenomenally well done. The Peacock boys, having been told by The Eyes from before that the Sheriff is coming for them and they should get him first, rock up in their Cadillac with a golden oldie blaring, immediately disturbing the Sheriff. He looks out of the window and realises at once what is happening. He tells his wife to hide under the bed and tries to get to his gun. There is no time because the brothers don’t have to fuss about the lock. As a Johnny Mathis soundalike waxes lyrical about how wonderful love is, they let themselves in. Sheriff backs into the bedroom clutching a baseball bat and waits. Just waits.
It is perfect. He knows they are coming to kill him. They know they are coming to kill him. We know they are coming to kill him. But nothing can be done. They outnumber him and, in classic film/tv style, being genetically unsound makes you very strong. They easily disarm him and beat him to death as his wife tries to stifle her cries. But they find her too. And then they beat her to death as the ironically cheerful song keeps going. Normally I find that trope a bit annoying (Thanks to a horrible rape scene in a film I can no longer listen to the Dean Martin song ‘Sweet Memories’ without picturing brutal sexual assault) as they seem to be telling us adding a happy soundtrack immediately makes the scene more powerful. Only in this case…it really works. I am not sure if it is because the song is sort of ridiculously over the top in the way it describes romance or if it is the slightly creepy whistling on the track that gives the hyperbole an edge but as they set upon the wife and the lyrics went ‘I feel the glow of your love…’ I could have sworn it said ‘I feel the blow of your love’
The scene is top notch horror in that it is brutal, well filmed, well paced and kind of unexpected in how straightforward it is. After all, are you really afraid of monsters? Or are you afraid of men who might kill you just because they can? It happens all the time. People act without explanation. The nice couple were nice but they couldn’t fight their intruders and they certainly couldn’t reason with them. And there is no sneaking, no planning. The brothers arrive nosily and leave in the same way. No shame. No remorse. No fear of the consequences. Just primal murder because they have been told these people are a threat to their way of life. And all the while the soundtrack informs us this is oh so wonderful…
The third act kind of descended into Incest Home Alone. The Mother gives not one but two speeches about family and the boys set up booby traps which take out the Deputy with ease but luckily leaves our main characters to outsmart them and get in the home. The next great moment and one of the best jump scares I have ever seen is the reveal of the Mother. Ok sure WE knew she was there and I am still disappointed that this was actually suppose to be in anyway a shock, Mulder and Scully are still convinced she is some poor woman being held by the brothers against her will, but when we finally see her face in the torch light it is a superb moment. She screams from the pit of her stomach, strapped to some wood under the bed totally limbless, sobbing with rage and fear at these intruders in her home. It is both stomach churning and very sad.
In classic TV wrap up style it all went a bit anti-climatic at this point. Mother lectures Scully on the significance of Motherhood, two of the three brothers get taken out by their own trip wires and pointy sticks (Kevin McAllister would never have been that stupid) and Mother and one of the brothers escapes in the Cadillac while M & S go back to their lives having failed to stop 3 murders, caused two deaths and let the only two witnesses to the whole mess go. So a job well done I guess? No wonder the Government deny half the shit these two get up to.
So some awesome shots, one incredible scene…ah but we are not done yet! What happened to the surviving Peacock family members? There is a great call back right at the end as we hear that damn song again while Mother Peacock tries to comfort her devastated child, cooing assurances as they curl up together in the boot thattheir seed will live on…and off they go into the night…
Overall, how much of a 45 minute episode has to be brilliant for me to be convinced that it is worth going back and watching the whole show? I am struggling to decide. It is by no means a perfect snapshot for the series or the kind of show I would normally be interested in but I largely approve of the dynamic between the two leads and there are examples of very strong directing in ‘Home’. The director was a dude called Kim Manners who mainly did a lot of TV and who sadly died at only 58. Hopefully not at the hands of some inbred mutant people though. RIP mate. Thanks for the horror.
Yes this works. And yes it deserves the reputation it has gained as one of the creepiest, darkly funny and compelling episodes of TV produced before TV started really getting serious about pushing the boundaries. I am still not sure I want to watch all of The X Files but if enough people recommend it I may well end up convinced. But perhaps I should have started with a more middle of the road episode. Because as monsters of the week go, I don’t know how you can top the Peacock family and ‘Wonderful Wonderful…’ What a moment.
Now to turn on the light…