Posts Tagged ‘The X Files’

Every time someone on TV changes their socks these days, it’s billed as a life-changing event, but unless you’re a struggling sock merchant who happens to be endorsed by someone hugely influential it’s almost certainly a lie. Not many people honestly and truly had their existences transformed by the revival of The X Files at the beginning of the year: like many people, I suspect, the main feeling it left me with was of something which was rather better in concept than in execution.

Still, a (very) mixed bag though the new episodes were, it got me back into the habit of watching the show, and when the revival shuffled off I got my hands on a complete boxed set of the original series (well, everything except the second movie) and settled down to relive a particular slice of my youth. As usual, I rather underestimated how long this would take: about eight and a half months, more or less, albeit with a bit of a detour near the end to watch The Lone Gunmen spin-off again.

A big show, then: nine seasons, two-hundred-plus episodes, a couple of spin-offs (does Millennium really count? Hmmm) and movies. I’m pretty sure that even the most dedicated fan of the series would happily admit that it outstayed its welcome, the question is by how much.

Having seen it all again fairly recently, for me The X Files falls reasonably neatly into four or five different phases, some of which are of considerably higher quality than others. The first year of the show, for instance, is quite a different animal from anything that follows: in the absence of a significant on-going metaplot, every episode buzzes with a genuine feeling of untapped possibilities – I remember watching this in 1994 and 95 and finding the sense that almost anything could happen almost addictive. At the time, I recall interviews with Chris Carter where he admitted that he didn’t expect the show to be renewed, and certainly not a big hit, hence the downbeat conclusion to the first season with Mulder and Scully separated and the X Files shut down (the first of many times).

The X Files

Then we roll into what I suppose we must call The X Files’ imperial phase, where it dominated the media landscape and pop culture generally (I have to say I still prefer the first season). I would say this covers seasons two to five (although this a bit of a drop-off in quality towards the end), and is probably the version of The X Files most people remember – the mixture of ongoing meta-plot episodes with the Syndicate and the Smoking Man, with monster-of-the-week stories, including the startling innovation of comedy episodes (the best ones from the pen of Darin Morgan). At this point you can watch the episodes about the Syndicate and still convince yourself that the writers have a clue as to where it’s all going, while the standalones haven’t yet started to repeat themselves too obviously.

One of the interesting factoids I came across in the course of this re-watch was the revelation that the original plan was to conclude the TV show at the end of season five (the name of five’s final episode, The End, is a bit of a clue to this) and switch over to doing a movie every few years. Part of me wonders if this wouldn’t perhaps have been a better idea than what we got, because while there are some good episodes in seasons six and seven – I’m particularly fond of the weirder stories like Rain King, X-Cops, and Hollywood AD – there is a general sense of the show starting to flail about and consume itself. The original Syndicate storyline wraps up in the middle of six, and what follows it is frankly somewhat baffling and lacking in focus or a sense of anyone knowing what it’s leading up to (if anything).

Still, it is at least still recognisably The X Files, which is not necessarily true of seasons eight and nine. It’s hard to see the decision to continue in the absence of David Duchovny as being motivated by anything other than reluctance to conclude a profitable series. You can’t help feeling a bit sorry for Robert Patrick, a very able actor landed with the hospital pass to end all hospital passes as Mulder’s replacement, the dogged Doggett. Doggett’s habitual aura of bafflement and frustration could well be coming from Patrick himself, as any chance of him being able to establish himself in the show is perpetually undercut by episodes and characters banging on about Mulder all the time. Classic elements of the older episodes, such as the Bounty Hunters and the Oil, still crop up, but what’s actually going on is anybody’s guess.


It gets even more baffling with season nine, with the introduction of the bemusing plotline about the Super-Soldiers and Scully’s wonder-baby, not to mention Annabeth Gish as Monica Reyes. Looking at some of the episodes with Doggett and Reyes, you can almost see how the show could have worked and been as vital and interesting as ever with this new duo – although it would obviously have lacked the role-reversal element (intuitive man, rational woman) which was arguably one of the things that made the early seasons so compelling. The thing is, though, that the show is never about this new duo, for Scully and the memory of Mulder are always wafting about the place, and it all feels slightly out-of-whack, looking back over its shoulder.

That said, the decision to axe the show seems to have had the effect of concentrating the minds of everyone involved: the news apparently came during the production of the not-bad standalone episode Scary Monsters, and everything that follows – the series’ equivalent of putting the chairs on the tables and turning off the lights – at least seems to have a point to it. While I would be the first to say that the series does not wrap itself up in the most elegant of manners, there are some genuinely moving moments in these final episodes – the deaths of the Lone Gunmen, Scully giving her child up for adoption. The final standalone, Sunlight Days, is arguably a much more satisfying episode than the actual finale, in the way it plays with the audience’s knowledge that it will very soon be over. ‘The X Files could go on forever,’ smiles Scully, marking the point at which you know the episode will not have the unambiguously happy ending it seems to be heading for, while Doggett’s happy comment that he ‘finally seem[s] to be getting the hang of this job’ also feels knowing and poignant. The fact that the episode is informed by people’s love for classic TV series of years gone by is also surely an acknowledgement that The X Files itself will soon just be a memory.

The finale itself is, I fear to say, hopelessly clunky and contrived, with Mulder on trial in what’s basically a kangaroo court, accused of the impossible murder of a man who was actually an alien (a premise seemingly pinched from an episode of The Invaders), and having to prove the existence of the alien conspiracy within the government in order to save his own skin. It attempts to recap the entirety of the meta-plot from the preceding nine seasons in a matter of minutes, and does so in a manner unlikely to satisfy anyone. One can only assume they were mainly intent on setting up future movies, for nothing is resolved, nothing really concluded: it ends with the X Files shut down (yet again), Mulder and Scully on the run, and Doggett and Reyes zooming off to an undisclosed location with looks of bafflement and frustration on their faces.

Which just leaves one to wonder why the subsequent iterations of the series – the 2008 movie and the revived series this year – haven’t really picked up on the new ideas seeded into the finale. In the final episode, Mulder learns that an alien invasion is scheduled for December 2012, but this never gets mentioned again: unless you count the incipient pandemic from the final episode of the revival.

One consequence of watching the main series again is that it has made me like the revival much less, in the way that it cheerfully attempts to ape the style of the show’s imperial phase while disregarding later developments for both the story and characters (all right, so there was the odd mention of young William, but even so) – I might even get slightly cross about the way they reveal Monica Reyes has been a sell-out for the Cancer Man all these years. Will there be future instalments? The jury is still out, but if they do go for another movie or TV series (and it would wonderful to see a show as smart and subversive as peak-period X Files cast its eye over Trump’s America), they must surely think about giving us some kind of resolution of the main plotline. On the other hand, if the series teaches us anything, it’s that the search for the truth is often a lot more fun than actually finding the truth. That, and that workplace romances aren’t necessarily a bad thing.

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Is 1994 really so long ago? I remember it so well (bits of it anyway), and yet now I am reliably informed it was 22 years ago, and that this figure will most likely rise in future. How different the world seemed then. There were only four widely-available TV channels in the UK, for one thing, which meant that the major broadcasters were still in the habit of routinely buying and showing imported American series, even genre ones. BBC1 bought Lois and Clark, which became a fairly mainstream hit. Channel 4 bought Babylon 5, which never quite escaped the ghetto of being a cult rave, for all that it’s arguably one of the most influential SF shows of all time. And perhaps most significantly of all, BBC2 bought The X Files, which didn’t just build an audience, it eventually ended up on the more mainstream channel (for a bit anyway).

The X Files

I got into the habit of watching the X Files revival when it aired over here a few weeks ago, and while I feel the idea of revisiting the series was mostly better than its actual execution, it did get me back into the habit of watching it regularly, and helped me remember that this is one of my absolute favourite TV series of all time – top five, without a shadow of a doubt, maybe even top three. So when the new series concluded, I laid my hands on a complete box set of the original nine seasons, cleared my social schedule for the rest of the year, and prepared to get very nostalgic.

There’s always that odd disconnect when a programme you remember as being very cutting edge suddenly looks a bit dated, but on the whole the very beginnings of The X Files stand up really well. Of the initial six episodes, there’s one which is admittedly a little bit duff (Jersey Devil), a couple which are on the whole serviceable-to-good (the pilot and Conduit), one which is strong (Squeeze) and two which are outstanding (Deep Throat and Shadows). This is an impressive strike rate, especially when you consider that the received wisdom is that US TV shows only really it their stride in their second year.

This is still not quite the X-Files of popular legend – the series which the revival did such an accurate job of capturing the style of, with its mixture of heavy-going and impenetrable ‘mythology’ episodes, off-the-wall horror, baffling science-philosophy lectures, sparkling comedy instalments, and sheer tonal goofiness. This is much more of a straightforward procedural show, with the contents page of a typical issue of Fortean Times stirred into the mix. All the great battles and discoveries still lie in Mulder and Scully’s future at this point, the mythology is still all beneath the surface.

One of the reasons why I like the first season of The X Files so much is partly because it is so ready to deal with the ‘classic’ topics of parapsychology, cryptozoology, and ufology, rather than inventing new threats and stories out of whole cloth. In these first six there are three UFO-themed stories, one about ghosts, one about a cryptid, and one which is… hmm, well, we’ll come back to that.

I was originally thinking I’d just write about one of these early episodes, expecting it to be Deep Throat. I still vividly remember the first time I saw this one – had just moved house, was feeling a little uncertain about my place in the world, and it was such a pleasure to see something so intelligent and atmospheric and well-made. Not yet encumbered by all that business with the oil and the colonists and what-have-you, this story’s atmosphere is otherworldly enough to be captivating, but close enough to reality to give it real weight. The last couple of lines have stayed with me since that first viewing. If I had to pick one episode that encapsulated everything The X Files was about and showed off the series at its best, it would probably be this one.

Squeeze grabbed my attention in another way entirely. First of all, it’s the episode which answers the ‘is it going to be about UFOs every week?’ question. Secondly, and more personally, it’s the episode which laid the roots of The X Files as an updating of Kolchak: The Night Stalker bare. This story of an ageless, inhuman serial killer who commits five murders every thirty years bears such a resemblence to the second Kolchak movie (about an ageless, inhuman serial killer who commits five murders every thirty years) that it virtually qualifies as a remake. In retrospect I think the series did this kind of monster-of-the-week episode better later on, but as the first of its kind this is still notable.

On reflection, Jersey Devil also feels like a Kolchak episode, just not necessarily in a good way: this rather implausible tale of the authorities attempting to cover up the activities of a man-eating hominid definitely recalls the 70s show at its most formulaic. I don’t recall The X Files attempting another ‘bigfoot’ episode throughout its run, which seems like an odd omission – even odder when you consider the ‘real’ Jersey Devil folktale concerns a winged creature, not a hominid. Also notable for a somewhat pedestrian subplot about Scully’s lovelife (I can imagine a friend of mine, a dedicated M/S ‘shipper and a much more serious X Files fan than I, screaming at her TV) – you can see why they dropped this sort of thing almost at once as the series went on.

And then there’s Shadows, a genuinely creepy ghost story inserted with great skill into another FBI procedural episode. The writers don’t seem to rate this one very highly, but then that’s writers for you. Another one to show people who are vaguely aware of the series but don’t quite get what all the fuss is about.

I haven’t sat down and watched The X Files seriously since, well, it finished running on TV (does watching the boxed set of The Lone Gunmen ten years ago count? Probably not). The revived version of the show was, I would say, a qualified success at best, but even if nothing else comes of it, I’m very glad it impelled me to revisit the series properly. The next few months are looking very promising.


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It has been a fairly joyless few weeks, what with the demise of Top Gear (genuinely one of the very few current TV shows to make me laugh out loud), the passings of Leonard and Sir Terry, and the still-looming spectre of a possible Tory-UKIP government in a few weeks time, with the incalculable damage that might inflict on this green and pleasant land. So it was nice to get some good news on Tuesday with the promised return, even if only for a few weeks, of The X Files.

The X Files

I’d been expecting this for ages but I was still surprised – not by the news, but by the strength of my own response when it was confirmed, and also by the fact that a lot of other people were equally delighted. Some of these were folk who I would never have pegged as being the type to spend time in the cult ghetto, and I suppose it all goes to show the extne to which The X Files broke out to become a mainstream phenomenon.

For a while, in fact, I was almost transported back to those heady days of twenty years ago, when the series was receiving its first terrestrial broadcast on BBC2 and rapidly acquiring a buzz. I seem to recall being rather dubious about the first episode, probably because I was under the mistaken impression that this was intended to be some kind of drama-documentary in which the characters would investigate real-life paranormal cases every week. But the second episode, which is still a favourite, won me over completely, while the third…

Well, the thing about the third is that – if you have been living in the cult ghetto since the age of about 7, as I have – it doesn’t try very hard to hide its roots. Squeeze is the story of a very strange killer with superhuman longevity, compelled to kill five victims every thirty years or so. The resemblance to the second Kolchak TV movie, The Night Strangler – which concerns a very strange killer with superhuman longevity, compelled to kill five victims every thirty years or so – is, to say the least, striking. Of course, chief X-honcho Chris Carter soon went on the record admitting that Kolchak was the inspiration for The X Files, and all this had the added bonus of allowing those of us who were already into Kolchak to feel rather smug and ahead of the game (I say ‘us’, but it’s probably just ‘me’, let’s face it).

Needless to say I bought the T-shirt and a number of posters, eventually winding up with all nine series on VHS (mostly second-hand). I also ended up with a copy of the magazine containing Gillian Anderson’s legendary first photo-shoot, which at one point was changing hands for insanely high prices – I think I’ve probably missed the peak of the market when it comes to selling my own, but fingers crossed the new series will see a bit of a resurgence in interest.

My favourite extended run of X Files episodes is still probably the first series, which is less constrained by its own mythology and more interested in tackling classic horror and SF archetypes – it does the ghost story, the werewolf story, the killer AI story, and so on – but it would be foolish to deny that for most of its run this was a show which managed to sustain a very high level of quality, the production values looking good even when some of the actual scripts were either dodgy or impenetrable. And when the episodes were good there was no cleverer programme on TV.

Nevertheless, I think it would be foolish to deny that the series did outstay its welcome just a bit: the final two largely Duchovny-less seasons often felt like they were reducing the show to a feeble shadow of its former self, and the ongoing meta-plot with the alien oil and the Syndicate and the alien super-soldiers just seemed to be getting more and more involved, rather than actually progressing at all. And it was quite sad to see the series, having achieved a rare move to BBC1 prime time, slowly being relegated back to the small hours on BBC2 as audiences fell off.

This should not detract from the cultural impact of the show, of course. Mulder and Scully went on The Simpsons. Catatonia sang a song about them. You only have to look at the sheer volume of knock-off series which came out in the mid-to-late nineties – you can perhaps even detect a dash of the influence in the 1996 Doctor Who movie, which teams up a rational, intelligent female medic with a flamboyantly eccentric man – or the fact the series was held to be strong enough to support a slew of spin-offs.

I went to see the second X Files movie when it came out in 2008, despite the tepid reviews it received, and my memories are mainly of head transplants, Billy Connolly acting badly, and a dubious subplot about a sick child. And yet I still distinctly recall my strong emotional response to seeing Mulder and Scully again. It was like bumping into two old friends after a long break – obviously they had changed a bit, but it was nice to see them looking well and getting on with their lives, after a fashion.

I’m expecting the same kind of feeling when the new X Files eventually appears. Inevitably one has to wonder what the new episodes have in store, other than the return of Mulder, Scully, and Skinner: virtually every other recurring character had been killed off by the final episode of the TV series, if I recall correctly, so the new episodes may not be able to take the easy route of being a simple nostalgia festival. I’d be wary of an attempt to pretend the last 15 years haven’t happened and just do standalone monster of the week episodes, too, for all that these were some of my favourites. I really hope they don’t attempt to do any kind of ‘passing of the torch’ shenanigans by introducing young, hip, replacements for the two leads – if the final series showed anything, it’s that the magic of the show is in the chemistry between those two characters and performers.

It’s probably too much to hope for, but I’d really like to see an attempt at resolving the ongoing mythology and actually finishing the story off. According to X Files mythology, we were due an alien invasion in 2012, and there’s surely a story to be told about that? I can only imagine how hellishly difficult it would be to recap the existing mythos, in all its insane complexity, while still telling an accessible story for new viewers, but even a failed attempt would be interesting. I suppose we shall see. I am happy to wait; it will give me a chance to consider another great unexplained phenomenon, namely why I don’t have any episodes of this, one of my very favourite TV shows, on DVD. That one at least will be easy to resolve.

(I wonder if it isn’t somehow significant that on this, the tenth anniversary of the revival of Doctor Who, I should find myself writing about the return of another series entirely. What price a proper Doctor Who revival now? Beyond diamonds, I suspect…)

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Anyway, so: the middle five episodes of Crusade. There are a couple more here I remember from when the series actually ran in the UK, but they are not the best examples of the series. Then again, none of the episodes I’ve seen so far have honestly been what I could call great, just memorably weird (and not intentionally either).

In Visitors from Down the Street JMS delights us by taking up his Sledgehammer of Comedy (TM) as the Excalibur encounters a drifting Flying Saucer and takes it on board. From it emerge two aliens wearing 90s-style suits with some sort of leguminous tuber growing out of their heads. From the design of the suits and the fact that the female alien’s tubers are a strawberry blonde colour, it is instantly clear that a not-terribly-subtle parody of another well-known fantasy series will soon be underway. And so it proves, with very obvious jokes about Roswell, an appearance by an evil Cigarette Smoking Alien, and characters starting lines of dialogue with ‘The truth is…’ before doors are slammed in their faces.

Stop it, Joe, please. Oh, my sides.

It is, for one thing, not nearly as clever or funny as any of The X Files’ own comedy episodes, and 1999 is at least two years too late for an X Files parody to be genuinely topical or strictly relevant. The general air of the thing is not helped by the heady aroma of raw sewage apparently drifting through the ship (there is, believe it or not, a B-plot about the ship’s plumbing being on the blink).

In the end, loveable Captain Gideon opts to reveal the truth about alien life to Mulder-alien and Scully-alien’s home planet. Lt. Earnest Telepath, the first officer, makes the reasonable point that some might say that they are meddling in a foreign society. Gideon shares his response to this in detail: ‘Screw ’em.’ I still find no reason to like this character whatsoever.

Oh well, on to The Well of Forever, which at least has Galen in it. There’s not much more to be said in its favour, as the plot concerns a trip off to a special place in Hyperspace and Galen effectively hijacking the ship to pursue an agenda of his own. Normally you would expect Captain Grumpy to have him shot for this sort of behaviour, but the format demands everyone be friends at the end.

There is an inconsequential B-plot about Lt. Earnest Telepath having an assessment to make sure he hasn’t done anything interesting with his psychic powers, but the most interesting scene is one of the weird ones: the Excalibur encounters giant space jellyfish and one of them starts dry-humping the ship. Wacka wacka.

Each Night I Dream Of Home is a real everything-but-the-kitchen-sink episode, featuring, in no particular order, a battle with the nasty Drakh, revelations as to the nature of the Five Year Flu, a slightly creepy storyline about deliberately infecting someone for medical research purposes, a guest appearance by Richard Biggs, and a non-guest appearance by Tracey Scoggins which nevertheless feels like one as she’s in the series so infrequently. Plenty going on, obviously; probably a bit too much, to be honest.

We’re back in the Land of the Knocked Off Trek (or so it certainly feels) for Patterns of the Soul, in which a mission to forcibly relocate some colonists takes an unexpected turn, as always tends to happen. Every time a gruff senior officer packs the protagonists off to do something to some colonists which looks ethically dubious, you just know the colonists are going to turn out to be in the right and the plot will revolve around the captain coming up with some sort of clever wheeze to con the evil old brass. There’s a B-plot about Ship’s Thief, whose main talent seems to be climbing up things in tight leather trousers, finding a colony of her own people on the same planet, but zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

The Path of Sorrows features an ancient vault which can only be opened using tears of sorrow, and which contains an ancient being which feeds on forgiveness. Clearly this is one of those episodes into which the series’ scientific advisers at JPL had a great deal of input. All that basically follows is the ancient forgivenessovore offering Captain Grumpy, Lt. Earnest Telepath and Galen a chance to articulate their various backstories in some detail. Now, this is by no means unwelcome, but it’s not exactly subtly handled. The alien suit is rather good, and parts of it approach creepiness, but on the whole it feels lumpy and primitive. Not only is it not very good, this series isn’t even consistently weird.

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Well, it promises to be a gribbly few days here at NCJG as a new version of The Thing arrives in UK cinemas imminently. As I’ve said before, I’m a big fan of the 1951 version of this story, and I do appreciate that the 1982 iteration has qualities of its own. This seems like a good opportunity to take a look at John Carpenter’s version, which I haven’t seen in over a decade, but before that I thought it would be interesting to look back at the heritage of this story.

Three adaptations (we can quibble about whether to talk in terms of prequels, remakes, and suchlike) mark The Thing out as a bit of a banker as far as stories go – but we also have to take into account the legion of homages and other variations the different films have received. One way or another, there are a lot of Things out there of different kinds, some rather more obscure than others.

So, deep-frozen aliens under the polar ice. Back we go – where did this story originally come from? Which was the first Thing? Passing over the new version and moving back through time, in 2004 we encounter the possibly unexpected form of Alien Vs Predator, written and directed by Paul W.S. Anderson. An intruder from a different set of franchises entirely, you might say – but this film qualifies. The main difference from the Thing movies is the inclusion of a lost alien city at the pole, containing terrible secrets from ancient times – but even this, as we shall see, only confirms that this film is part of the same lineage, albeit something of a distant cousin.

Proceeding back to 1993, we meet our first small-screen Thing-offspring, acknowledged as such by its creators: the first-season X Files episode Ice, in which defrosted parasitic organisms infect a human research station in Alaska, resulting in much paranoia and carnage. The Carpenter version seems to have been the main inspiration here, with infectious sled-dogs and icky body-horror much in evidence. The parasites are discreet and unassuming little Things, but none of the others in the family could really fault them for their attitude.

Innocent Looking Things (ice parasites from The X Files).

Passing over other marginal candidates such as the 1988 War of the Worlds episode The Raising of Lazarus, we arrive in 1982 to find John Carpenter’s famous version of the story waiting for us. This is probably the highest-profile member of the clan , probably on the strength of the eye-popping visual effects.

80s-style Blobby Thing (an iteration of Carpenter’s take on the monster).

This is one of those once-seen, never-forgotten films, which may explain why it has always had such a polarising effect on viewers. It has such a strong identity of its own that it’s arguably less available as a source of story ideas and images than some of the other versions.

We encounter a botanical addition to the Thing lineage in 1976, in the form of the Doctor Who story The Seeds of Doom. Typically, this story wears its sources openly on its sleeve – scientists in Antarctica uncover an alien pod, which infects one of them and initiates a shocking transformation from human to alien.

Green Thing (a Krynoid).

This story – amongst the very best of the series – is interesting in that it seems to be both looking back to the 1951 version of the story, with its hostile, humanoid plant, and forward to the 1982 one with its grim tone and emphasis on body horror. I suspect that to focus too much on this would be a mistake, as the metamorphosis in the story seems largely derived from that in the original Quatermass Experiment – although John Carpenter himself is on record as a fan of Quatermass writer Nigel Kneale.

(It may be worth mentioning in passing a number of other references to The Thing in the history of Doctor Who – most obviously in the 1967 story The Ice Warriors, which is based around the concept of deep-frozen and hostile aliens being defrosted with inevitable results.)

In 1972 we meet one of the more obscure and distant members of the family, in the Spanish horror movie Panico en el Transiberiano. No-one, to my knowledge, has made the connection between this film and The Thing before, but to me the similarities are too significant to be ignored.

Really Obscure Thing (wearing its ape-man body).

The Thing in this movie initially appears to be nothing but an ape-man, frozen in ice for thousands of years, but as the narrative progresses the startling truth is revealed – the ape is merely the latest host of a body-hopping, brain-draining alien, stranded on Earth for millions of years. The mutability of the Thing is psychological rather than physical here, but it otherwise behaves in a very similar way to its cousins elsewhere. The narrative waters are muddied somewhat by the ill-judged addition of supernatural elements to the story, but otherwise this is a fun movie which deserves to be better known.

Moving on back to 1951 we meet the first of the true Things, in Christian Nyby and Howard Hawks’ superb The Thing from Another World. This is really the source of the Thing archetype and nearly all the elements are here: the remote polar location, the frozen alien defrosted by mistake, the desperate battle to survive.

Black and White Thing (James Arness from the 1951 movie).

All that’s really missing is the paranoia and threat to identity which are present in most of the other versions. James Arness’ malevolent plant is rather more of a lumbering, snarling monster than most of its descendants, but the film remains a classic for all sorts of reasons.

Surely, then, we are getting close to the source of the Thing? The 1951 movie is credited as an adaptation of John W Campbell’s 1938 novella Who Goes There?, the most significant change being the nature of the alien itself. Campbell’s Thing is no vegetable but the amorphous, assimilating horror familiar from Carpenter’s adaptation and beyond. So the origins of the Thing as we know it really lie here in Campbell’s story.

Dog thing (Campbell’s monster in mid-transformation).

Or do they? Published two years before Campbell, and written five years before that, was a story in which an expedition to Antarctica discovers frozen aliens, which are not as dead as they first appear. Later in the story the protagonists barely escape from an amorphous, protoplasmic horror.

Original Blobby Thing (a Shoggoth).

The story in question is, of course, HP Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness – which, incidentally, also features a lost alien city at the pole, containing terrible secrets from ancient times. The question of whether Campbell was deliberately drawing on Lovecraft or not is an open one, and one could of course go further back and look at Lovecraft’s own sources for this tale (Edgar Rice Burroughs and Edgar Allen Poe amongst them), but in terms of the recognisable story we’ve been tracking, this seems to be the beginning.

And the final, poetic touch? Lovecraft’s aliens – the ones that are uncovered in the ice, wreak havoc amongst the humans, and thus set the template for everything to follow – are presciently named as Elder Things. You can’t argue with something like that.

Elder Thing.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published March 7th 2002:

Are you a fan of The X Files, the infuriating, wilfully cryptic weekly joyride to the murky fringes of the zeitgeist? A lot of people still are [With typically brilliant timing, the show managed to get itself cancelled between my writing this review and it being published – A]. I myself must confess to a certain fondness for the series even now, although I grew weary long ago of all the episodes about the main character’s family (proof, perhaps, that Mulder’s kin tires). Richard Hatem and Mark Pellington also seem to be fans – at least, so it seems from the new movie The Mothman Prophecies (which they respectively wrote and directed).

The film is supposedly ‘based on true events’ but (without boring you with the details) the words ‘really’, ‘really’ and ‘loosely’ appear to have been omitted from this claim. It’s the tale of Washington DC reporter John Klein (Richard Gere, manfully trying to fend off the ravages of middle-age) whose blissful life with his implausibly young and bouffant wife Mary (Debra Messing) is shattered when she crashes their car one night after sighting a terrifying winged apparition (the titular Mothman). Medical tests reveal she has a serious illness. Two years later a still-haunted Klein finds himself drawn to the West Virginian town of Point Pleasant. He befriends local cop Connie (Laura Linney) and learns that this is a place where strange phenomena of all kinds are reported every day. Klein sets out to solve the mystery, to which he has a personal connection – but is the truth really out there? And, more importantly, will he get to do the dirty with his new ladyfriend?

Okay, so the plot is pure X Files but the movie’s taken to another level by Pellington’s brooding, dreamlike, almost expressionist direction. At times this is the cinematic equivalent of having a bad trip while listening to a trance-dance compilation. There’s only one real bona fide shock moment in the film but throughout the middle section, as Gere tries to uncover the truth regarding the Mothman, it’s incredibly creepy and unsettling. This remarkably eerie atmosphere is the film’s great triumph and the main reason for going to see it.

But having created a compelling mystery the movie unfortunately tries to explain and resolve it and here’s where things start to go wrong. Alan Bates pops up briefly to do the requisite info-dump but unfortunately this is such a mixture of the banal and the pretentiously metaphysical that I half wish he hadn’t bothered. It’s fairly coherent but it’s not as bold or as gripping an explanation as one would have hoped for.

Someone I wish had bothered a bit more is Richard Gere. He’s not quite phoning his performance in but he’s distinctly restrained and rather passive compared to the rest of the cast – most of whom are good in a low key way, particularly Linney and Will Patton (who plays a yokel who gets picked on by the Mothman). The best part of the film is the middle, investigative section, and here his passiveness isn’t a problem as he’s mostly reacting to what other characters are telling him. But near its end the film changes pace and becomes much more the story of Gere’s emotional journey and his response to the events he’s caught up in, and his – let’s be kind – rather static acting technique isn’t helpful in making you care about or believe in him. That’s one big problem. Another is that the climax proper, for all that it’s centred on a technically superb set piece, is fairly predictable. It also dispenses entirely with the earlier creeping weirdness in favour of sentimentality and at times seems to belong to entirely different film.

It’s obvious that The Mothman Prophecies is an attempt to emulate the style and success of M Night Shyamalan, writer-director of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable (indeed, the inexplicably alarming trailer for his next film, Signs, ran before this one). Pellington’s movie isn’t in the same league as Shyamalan’s work, but even M Night Shyamalan-lite is a step up from your typical Hollywood thriller or horror film (the very fact that this film’s so difficult to categorise is telling). I enjoyed it a lot, even if the ultimate destination didn’t live up to the promise of the journey.

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