The X-Files #19: Shapes

"It was like nature herself was terrified."
ACTUAL DOCUMENTED ACCOUNT: It's not a werewolf, it's a "manitou"!

REVIEW: I don't mind that the episode doesn't want its animalistic shape-changers to be "werewolves", with all the baggage that word brings with it, but I am a little mystified that no one would ever even say it. It's not like the "manitou" is that far off from the lycanthropic staple of Gothic horror. Call it what you will, wolf men are going to be difficult to portray on TV, and even using tricks to hide the creature in darkness or off-stage, X-Files' manitou isn't entirely successful. A large part of it is the show's inability to show extreme gore while still requiring us to believe its victims were "ripped to shreds". Cinematography and sound design do their best, but the attack on the elder Parker, to use one example, feels kind of tepid. There's an interesting bit of body horror when a transforming arm splits open to reveal a wolfen paw underneath, and the suspense works during the climax, at least, before the creature is out, but it's often a struggle. The episode relies a bit too much on jump scares to supplement its rarely seen monster, and that's the cheap way to exploit a horror genre.

The attention paid to Native American mysticism is more interesting, though one wonders just how well the episode represents the culture. The production did go out and get real Natives living in British Columbia and used them as actors and extras to give the reservation an authentic feel. But the fact the word "manitou" is repurposed this way - it normally refers to the Great Spirit of the Algonquin - makes me suspicious that everything SCRIPTED at least is some kind of Native-LIKE fantasy, at best an amalgam of various Nations' beliefs and traditions. I don't know either way, but it bugs me nonetheless. As does, I must admit, how dense Scully is in this episode. Is she not familiar with werewolf tropes? For that matter, Mulder isn't much smarter about it, ignoring the crucial clue that the younger Parker was infected and even has the same scar as the original manitou, Goodensnake. The episode tries in vain to throw us off the obvious trail by implicating Gwen Goodensnake, but it's pointless.

What certainly DOESN'T bug me is the direction and the atmosphere, which are actually quite good. Two of the attacks are set in a cabin with ferocious stuffed animals - Mother Nature out for revenge - and director David Nutter makes good use of B.C.'s rainy weather, by adding thunder and lightning to the first, and providing shapeshifting foot prints in the mud for our investigators to look at. Bars, whether real or evoked in the lighting become a leitmotif reminding us that wild animals cannot truly be caged in this dog-eat-hunter world. Nutter also provides some interesting transitions, etc. Shapes just needed the same kind of care from the other production departments.

How does Ish know a manitou will pop up in 8 years or so? There does seem to be a cycle at play, but it's never explained. Do the "evil spirits" that possess people and turn them into wolves gain access to our dimension every 8 years? Is there some planetary alignment at work? But if so, how does the howl from the hills fit into this theory? The episode implies there's already a manitou out there, or perhaps a wolf that could pass on the curse with its bite.

- It looks good, but isn't quite equal to its ambitions when it tries - and fails - to give us a monster that ISN'T a werewolf.


LiamKav said...

Although the changing footprint thing is cool, it doesn't really match the transformation sequence we see where the person thrashes about the places whilst changing. To be fair, I'm fairly certain that the X-Files is far from the only show that's done this.

I do rememember being really freaked out watching the transformation sequence when I was younger. I'd only really seen stuff like that in cartoons (I think the non-very-good Batman episode with the Werewolf was probably the one I'd most recently seen) so I was expecting something like that. The ripping skin made me feel pretty nausious.

Siskoid said...

Yeah, there should be a muddy mess and shreds of skin if we go by the later sequences.

Andrew said...

It's a better Native American not-really-a-werewolf than the one they did on Smallville.

As far as the gore levels go, this is still 1993. Even the realistically gritty cop shows hesitated at showing blood on network television. CSI was seven years away from their boundary-pushing effects.

Siskoid said...

Obviously I'm not saying it should be more gory, but rather that given the norms of the day, this script should not have been attempted as is.


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