Monday, 8 February 2016

Cinema & TV: The X Files, Season 1, Ep. 19: Shapes (1994)


Greetings everyone and welcome!

It’s been a while, but I am back! As I recently tweeted, I’ve been working on a number of different articles at the same time, which in practice meant that I wasn’t able to finish any in a reasonable amount of time. That’s in addition to other real-life commitments, of course, so I’ve been pretty busy since the last time I posted. But let’s remedy that today and break the dry spell.

This time I would like to present to you an episode of a TV series we all know and love (well, at least many of us do, myself included) – The X Files. During its original run that spanned from 1993 to 2002, David Duchovny’s and Gillian Anderson’s characters of agents Mulder and Scully became an indispensable part of the 1990s’ pop culture and remain that, if a little forgotten due to the passing of time. However, now that the duo has made a long-awaited comeback with a brand-new season currently airing on TV (although not for as long as originally, since it will only be six episodes) it felt like a good opportunity to talk about at least one of its two episodes (possibly three now, since the most recent episode, which aired on February 1st 2016, smells like a werewolf episode, too, but I can’t say for sure, since I’ve not seen it yet) which take on the subject of werewolves (or, at the very least, werewolf-like creatures). Since I basically grew up with this series and love it to bits, I knew I would write about it sooner or later – but this simply gave me a good opportunity to do it instead of doing something else (*cough* The Wolfman review *cough*). So here we go, first up is episode 19 of Season 1: Shapes.

Click here to shop for
the first season of The X Files.
Finally, since I am now part of Amazon’s Affiliate program, you can support me by purchasing a copy of your own of The X Files: The Complete Season 1, which includes this episode. Alternatively, if you only want to watch Shapes, you can do so over at Amazon Video by clicking here. Thank you and enjoy!

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This episode follows the “monster of the week” format and takes on the subject of lycanthropy with a Native American twist. Let’s get this show on the road – here’s the synopsis (and a bit of analysis, as always) of the plot.

In the introductory scenes, we become acquainted with the two characters who end up being the main witnesses when agents Mulder and Scully are called to the scene to investigate. Investigate what, you ask? A murder, but not a straightforward one, or else the FBI wouldn’t call in their inexplicable case specialists. Two cattle ranchers, father and son, from Montana decide to put an end to whatever’s been killing their livestock – and they mean to do it once and for all, the guns in hand kind of way. While searching the barn at night once the ‘beast’ arrives (which is announced by wolf-like howls pervading the midnight air), they split up to track it down, but the monster saves them the trouble by finding them first. The son is attacked and wounded by it before his father manages to come to the rescue. If you had any doubts still that this was a werewolf episode in disguise of a Native American legend, here’s a screenshot of the monster’s face.

My, what a big nose you have, Grandma.
Looks like a pretty standard movie werewolf face to me, wouldn’t you agree? But anyway – shortly after the father gets to where the sounds of a struggle are coming from, the monster is shot and falls to the ground, dead. Having made sure his son is still alive, the father directs his gaze to the monster, but – to his horror – finds a naked Native American man where the hairy beast was just a moment ago. The way this scene is shot and the fact that it’s out in the open reminds me a bit of the scene where David is clawed by the werewolf in An American Werewolf in London.

Obviously, the whole incident draws the attention of the authorities and because the two suspects claim they didn’t kill a man, but a beast, the case becomes classified as an X File. During the investigation, Mulder and Scully learn that the Parkers (the owners of the ranch) have had a lasting territorial feud with the local Indian reserve, which doesn’t really help their case. Off-record, the son describes to the agents the feeling of unease he would feel over the previous few months whenever he would go out of the house at night. He says that not only did he feel watched, but that it seemed strange to him that the usual predators, for which cows were always are a tasty meal, suddenly disappeared from the vicinity. This would make sense, since werewolves – possessing both lupine strength and agility and human intelligence – usually become the alpha predators of their hunting grounds. In other words, they intimidate any other predators and scavengers in the area (similarly to how the werewolves scared away boars in Wolf Children).

In the eyes of Scully the Sceptic, the homicide is nothing more than a result of the farmer’s conflict with the local Indians, but Mulder becomes even more intrigued after he finds human footprints that abruptly change into animal-like tracks in the mud covering the ranch’s corral.

That’s quite a fast transformation, if you ask me.
As if that wasn’t enough, Mulder additionally finds quite a large patch of what looks like moulted skin, which probably came from when the werewolf transformed. But shouldn’t there be more of it lying around if what we see on screen suggests that the man arrived at the ranch only partially transformed?

In order to get the other side of the story, Mulder and Scully then visit the Indian reserve that used to be the victim’s home.  Just like in An American Werewolf in London, they try to learn a thing or two at the local bar, which is filled with locals who know more than they let on, and are given an equally warm welcome (and, of course, I mean this ironically). The only person that’s semi-cooperative is the local sheriff, who leads them to where the deceased’s body is so that Scully can examine it. At first glance, all three of them notice a large scar around the man’s collar bone in the shape of a claw wound. This leads Scully and Sheriff Tskany to speculate if the animal which also attacked Goodensnake (for that is his name) in the past could indeed have been the culprit, but we all know that the scars are the reason the Native American became a werewolf in the first place. Their theory, however, becomes not so probable anymore when Mulder examines the dead man’s teeth and finds that not all of the werewolf has vanished upon his death, for he still has unnaturally long canines. Unless he had cosmetic dental surgery to have these (big reveal: he didn’t), it’s a pretty darn big sign that something’s amiss.

When will moviemakers stop insisting
 that canines grow like this? They don’t!
Unfortunately for Mulder, who would love Scully to perform an autopsy on the victim to see if she can find any other abnormalities (is he looking for fur on the inside?), Indian customs forbid even qualified criminal pathologists from ‘desecrating’ the bodies of their dead in such a way. And so, the only thing the agents can do is look on as Goodensnake’s body is burned on a funeral pyre the following evening. The shaman leading the ceremony having a wolf skin over his head is a nice touch there, by the way.

What follows is a stereotypical discussion between the two protagonists where Mulder tries to persuade Scully that the case is supernatural and Scully rebukes his claims with scientific explanations.

We do, however, learn something interesting – namely, according to Mulder, the first-ever X Files case was created in relation to murders with suspiciously similar characteristics as the one they are looking into now, which occurred  for the first time in the North West as far back as 1946. Apparently, said murders have kept occurring every five years in the same region, many of them in the vicinity of the most recent incident, ever since. I can only assume that the reason why no-one ever decided to thoroughly investigate what’s been happening is that the culprits were always different, unrelated to each other persons, even if their M.O. was similar (killing livestock probably, maybe people as well, before being shot dead in the end) – and, well, the North West is a quite large area in itself.

For us, this begs a few questions. If we assume that what we’re dealing with are cases of werewolfism, why does the situation get heated only every five years? Most of the time in similar settings as in Shapes, when a werewolf appears somewhere, it goes on a rampage until it’s eventually killed by someone. Of course, the amount of time it takes for this to happen differs, depending on the werewolf and the people hunting it. Usually, killings occur once a month, during the full-moon and/or days close to it, in the case of werewolves that transform only periodically; whereas in the case of werewolves whose transformation is independent of the phases of the moon the frequency of attacks on people and/or animals varies. Attacks that take place every five years, then, are an intriguing conundrum. The time gap between them would suggest that they are separate, unrelated cases – however, if they keep happening in the same area, like Mulder states here, it is statistically improbable for there to be no relation between them. This begs another question, this time about the source of the curse that makes the local Indians turn into werewolves in regular intervals of five years. The reason for this is that the chain usually goes like this:

Original source of werewolfism à Infected person no. 1 (is killed when establishing the premise of the episode/movie) à Infected person no. 2 (is infected by the previous werewolf, either while being attacked by them or while trying to kill them) à Infected person no. 2 is killed à The chain is broken, no more werewolves

UNLESS, of course, the original source still exists and begins the chain anew. Now, in the case at hand, we would assume that Joe Goodensnake was the original source – but now we know that his case was one of many separated from each other by the span of five years, which negates this assumption. I will allow myself a little foreshadowing here for the purpose of completing my train of thought. The Native American tribe in Shapes claim that what is causing people to turn into beasts is an evil spirit called a wendigo, which belongs to a bigger group of spirits (usually benevolent ones, though) in Indian folklore called manitou. While wendigos traditionally aren’t exactly what we know as werewolves, they are said to be able to enter a human’s body and possess it, causing the human to transform into a half-man, half-beast creature that preys on humans. If this possession theory is what this episode of The X Files decides to adhere to, then we must assume that the original source of werewolfism is magical. If we go along this line of thought, then our diagram should theoretically look like this:

There exists an evil spirit à The evil spirit possesses a person à The possessed person transforms and goes on a killing spree à The possessed person is killed à The spirit leaves the person’s body upon the person’s death à The spirit recuperates and reforms until it is strong enough to possess another person

This reasoning would explain the five year intervals between each case. However, there is a big but to this theory. And it is this: if the transformations are caused by people being possessed by a wendigo spirit, then why is it possible for one person to pass this state to another by mauling them? We know that this is how Goodensnake was infected and we all know that Parker, Jr. has also been infected this way, because he bears the same scars now after the confrontation with the beast. If we source of the curse is supposed to be magical, then it should not be possible for it to be transferred physically from one person to another, at least in theory.

There is a possibility, I guess, (even though this idea seems a little far-fetched even to me) that the wendigo managed to switch hosts when the Indian man was shot dead during the attack on the Parkers’ ranch. In this event, the wound could serve as a connection between its previous and new host. Being injured, the new host would be sufficiently weakened for an equally weakened spirit to be able to switch bodies without having to return to nature and gather strength before it can strike again. Had Parker, Jr. come out of the fight unscathed, perhaps the spirit would be forced to leave and lay dormant for another five years. But like I said, this is just me trying to understand what the creators of the episode wanted to convey to the audience and I am really bending the laws of the werewolf world here (if we assume that there are some universal laws and that not everything can be made relative according to whim). In reality, it looks like the writers didn’t exactly know what they wanted to achieve themselves.

Oh look, it’s the same engraving
we have over in the right sidebar!
Let’s go back to our episode, then. We all know how strong Native Americans’ ties to nature are, with all the guardian spirits, totems, and spirit animals. Unsurprisingly, Mulder tells Scully about reports from the 19th century about Indians reportedly being able to transform into wolves. Stereotypically for werewolf stories, Scully rebukes this claim by telling Mulder about lycanthropy as a medical condition, because she obviously doesn’t believe in the possibility of humans to transform into wolves by any means, shamanistic or not.

Our protagonists then attend the funeral. Although as far as Scully is concerned there is no more mystery about the case at hand, Mulder doesn’t let go and tries to learn the locals’ thoughts on what happened, but to no avail. During the ceremony, Goodensnake’s sister, Gwen, gives Scully what looks like some kind of a charm, which belonged to her late brother. The charm looks like it’s made from the claws of a big animal, perhaps a wolf – could this have been the source of Goodensnake’s curse? But if so, then why doesn’t it affect Scully or anyone else who has it in their possession? For now at least, it seems that the charm in question is a dead end. Meanwhile, a commotion starts when the young Parker arrives at the funeral to pay his respects, but is angrily shooed away from the site by Gwen.

After the funeral is over and done with, it’s time for the trouble to start brewing again. At night, the old man Parker is cornered and killed by an identical creature as the one he shot a few days earlier. We are supposed to consider two options here: one – since he’s nowhere to be found, either the man’s son hasn’t come back from the funeral yet, or two – his son is the new werewolf (which is the option we already have chosen because of the wound he suffered during the recent attack). Why would he attack his father first? Apart from all the talk of how werewolves tend to hurt their loved ones first, I’d say it’s because his home was the most familiar place he knew, so even after transforming, that’s where he headed in the first place. The fact that he came across his father sitting on the porch unarmed was, well, unfortunate. During the struggle, we are able to catch a few more glimpses of the creature, including the side of its face and its silhouette, but since Chris Carter and his team were bent on showing as little as possible of the werewolf (or, how they insist, the Manitou), which in practice probably saved them a lot of budget, too, even this is hard without watching the scenes in slow-motion.

It doesn’t take long for Parker’s mauled body to be discovered by the police. We learn that both Lyle Parker (his son) and Gwen have gone missing since the funeral, which, I guess, is supposed to keep us guessing whether the creature that killed the ranch owner was his son, who could have contracted the curse from the Indian, or the Indian’s sister who held a grudge against the Parkers after her brother’s death, hinting that she could also possess the ability to shapeshift, just like her sibling.

Our doubts are soon dispelled, however, when Scully finds a naked Lyle Parker asleep in the bushes in the vicinity of the ranch. Meanwhile, Mulder investigates the area surrounding the house and finds more shed skin and a patch of brown animal fur. And since this is apparently a moment when everyone finds something, the Sheriff, who takes a peek at last night’s victim’s body, finds a large claw lodged in the man’s remains, which visibly worries him (no wonder). While Scully takes Lyle to the hospital, Mulder finally has an opportunity to have a man-to-man talk with Sheriff Tskany about what exactly is happening.

At the hospital, Lyle confesses to Scully that he got drunk the night of the funeral and didn’t go back home because he thought his father would be angry with him that he went to the funeral. He tells her he doesn’t remember anything after he started drinking, but can recall the image of his father sitting on the front porch of their house. This can mean two things – either that even after he’s transformed, Lyle kept a little of himself within the beast and therefore remembers bits and pieces of what he saw through its eyes, or that the memories of the beast are locked away in his consciousness, but he can only remember fragments of them.

While Scully is at the hospital with Lyle, Mulder proceeds with the investigation in his own, more ‘open-minded’ way. As he pays a visit to the one of the reservation’s elders, we are served a big chunk of exposition. What we learn is basically this. The elder was (conveniently) around at the time of the 1946 incident (the first X File, which Mulder mentioned earlier) and witnessed a man’s transformation into the beast in question, so he knows what is happening (but, of course, he decided not to do anything about it). He describes how the killer from that case was bitten by “something” in the woods – which apparently turned him into a werewolf. Or should I say, a Manitou, as the elder refers to it. Was it a wolf? Another werewolf? A wolf possessed by an evil spirit? Unfortunately, we will never know, because no more explanation is given. Although from what I’ve looked up the group of spiritual beings referred to as ‘Manitou’ were neutral or benevolent creatures, here the elder calls them ‘evil spirits’, which are able to possess a human’s body and make him change into a beast. ‘Evil’ would in this case be a better description of a specific kind of Manitou, the wendigo, even though it has as little connection to werewolves as Manitou themselves.

According to Ish, whoever is attacked by a Manitou then becomes one himself – pretty consistent with our werewolf lore. Unlike traditional werewolves, the Manitou makes a human undergo a transformation at night when its bloodlust reaches a high enough level – which, as we hear, repeats every night until the Manitou is killed. So… why the break after the first one was killed? Fortunately for us, Mulder asks the right questions. Ish, the elder, answers that the curse of the Manitou can be passed down genetically from parents to offspring (since it was passed from the first victim to his son) – which would indicate that, after all, what we’re dealing with here is pure, physical lycanthropy. However, there’s one problem – what we don’t get an answer to is whether or not the first Manitou conceived his son after he’d been attacked in the woods or before. Because if it was before, then our classification of pure, physical lycanthropy goes right out the window. Given how short the lifespan of a Manitou tends to be after he’s been infected before he gets killed, I guess it’s possible for the guy to have had a son during that short period of time, but very unlikely, if you ask me.

Ignoring the fact that Goodensnake had a big scar on his chest, Sheriff Tskany suddenly jumps to the conclusion that the siblings could have inherited the curse of the Manitou and before any further exposition is provided, the three are startled by a noise outside the house. Coincidentally (or not), Gwen has been listening in on the conversation and the three men corner her shortly after, trying to steal a car. Panicked, she tells them she was trying to get out of town after she’d seen old man Parker get killed by the werewolf. Manitou. Oh, come on. If the creators insist on the creature featured in this episode of the series being a Manitou (even though traditionally Manitou are generally benevolent spirits) and not a werewolf, then let it be, but… I’m just going to make use of a famous quote and say that ‘a rose by any other name would smell as sweet’ to sum up what I think about it. Anyway, in case we needed even more confirmation that Lyle’s the Manitou, Mulder calls the hospital to get in touch with Scully and warn her that she’s pretty much in danger, as night is falling, and is informed that the blood tests revealed traces of Lyle’s father’s blood type in the young man’s blood, which the doctor claims could only have gotten there via ingestion. Unluckily, Scully and Lyle left the hospital and are on their way back to the ranch, where the episode’s climax awaits us.
At least this time the canines are
where they should be, eh?
Even though the elder claimed the full-moon had nothing to do with the Manitou transformations, we still get a complimentary shot of the moon in full as Scully and Lyle arrive at the Parkers’ farm. Once inside, the time comes for Lyle’s next change. Feeling sick, he goes to the bathroom, where his transformation occurs – with an unaware Scully just outside the door. Noticing that something’s wrong, Scully decides to take Lyle back to the hospital, thinking that he’s having some kind of attack or seizure (well, he kind of is…). During the next few seconds we catch a glimpse of the transformation described earlier by the elder. In spite of some changes visible on his face, the main chunk of Lyle’s change boils down to the werewolf literally coming out of his body, tearing apart his skin to reveal the fur. It’s one of the more popular depictions of werewolf transformation. Whether or not it makes more sense for a fully-developed werewolf form to ‘pop out’ every time a werewolf transforms akin to a butterfly bursting out of a cocoon instead of the body itself changing shape is a topic in itself.
The Manitou, who from this angle looks more like an 
ape-man than a werewolf. He’s got a lupine face, though, 
if you take a closer look.

Once transformed, Lyle breaks through the bathroom door and attacks Scully, who maybe now, after seeing a furry, clawed hand reach for her, will finally believe in what her partner’s been telling her from the beginning of the case (no, she won’t). Sometime later, Mulder and Sheriff Tskany arrive at Two Medicine Ranch and find the house seemingly empty. It doesn’t take long, however, for Mulder to find the werewolf, who doesn’t manage to ambush him and is instead scared off by the agent who shoots at it in defence. This provides us with the most we’ll see of the werewolf in the entire episode – which is still very little, considering that you have to watch it in slow motion to catch these few frames. It’s nothing to write home about and no wonder, since the creators’ idea was to show as little of the Manitou as possible. As a bonus, here’s a blooper I’ve caught while watching the scenes in slow-motion! When the light of Mulder’s flashlight hits the Manitou for the second time, just as it’s making a turn around the corner, the actor’s feet are visible… and his shoes are visible where the costume ends. Yeah, apparently there wasn’t enough budget to get matching feet for the costume – but then again, what was the point if the werewolf was to be on screen for less than a minute? (not sure if even that much, probably more like half a minute) On the other hand, had they invested in paws, crazies like me wouldn’t be posting pictures such as the following while trying to squeeze out as much as possible from the episode.
This is what I was talking about.
You can see the shoes in the zoom box on the right.

Coming back to what’s happening, Mulder follows the werewolf upstairs and finds Scully, unharmed. Because, conveniently, there is a power outage at the ranch, the two agents are left to navigate the house and search for Lyle at the same time without getting mauled. In the end, they follow the beast into one of the rooms where it suddenly jumps at them out from the shadows, but the Sheriff’s timely arrival prevents it from injuring anyone. Lyle is shot and tumbles down to the floor with a half-human, half-beast wail. In the light of the flashlight, the three find Lyle’s body, no signs of the transformation left anymore. Always the sceptic, should the supernatural stare her right in the face (yes, yes, it changes a little in the later seasons, but this is still the first one), Scully explains how she was attacked by a mountain lion. The two men look at her as though she’s the crazy one and not them (I would too) as they tell her the mountain lion is still locked up in its cage out back.

The next day (or a few days later, it’s unclear), with the investigation closed, Mulder and Scully prepare to head back to D.C. They are seen off by Ish, the reservation elder, who with a smirk bids them farewell until another five to eight years have passed, which indicates that the force behind the curse of the Manitou has an ability to re-emerge even if the chain of the infected is broken. This makes me lean towards my theory that the werewolfism here is caused by an evil spirit possessing individuals once it is strong enough to do so, however, how that happens remains a mystery. The last scene of the episode then shows a misty mountain and the howl of a wolf can be heard in the distance, leaving us with an open ending that suggests that the Manitou might still be out there and its return is just a matter of time.

And there you have it – chronologically the first werewolf episode of The X Files. It’s a standard monster of the week instalment, but that’s something that’s always been a characteristic trait of the show. It gives us a werewolf story pretending not to be a werewolf story (hence the word ‘werewolf’ isn’t uttered even once throughout the episode) that borrows from Native American beliefs to build its premise. It’s nothing new when it comes to werewolf stories on the silver screen, it pretty much follows the stereotypical plotline of a basic werewolf movie, but is nevertheless watchable. The next, a little less stereotypical episode that features a werewolf (or at least a kind of thereof, there is a little controversy here) is Alpha, found in the sixth season of the series, which we’ll tackle some other time.

That would be it for tonight, dear visitors. Like, comment, subscribe, or don’t if you don’t feel like it, that’s fine too of course – and I will see you next time! Oh, and lest I forget, I finally got the old Werewolf Theory Twitter account up and running, so I’ll probably be posting some short updates on what I’m currently up to over there. Until next time!

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