The X-Files: “Agua Mala”

Revenge of the Flukeman

Copyright ©1999 by Sarah Stegall

Writer: David Amman

Director: Rob Bowman

Pauline Kael, who dismissed “Alien” as a “haunted house in space”, missed the point: the real horror of that movie was not the skull-crunching monster stalking the ship’s crew (including Veronica Cartwright, most recently seen as Cassandra Spender in last week’s “One Son”). The real horror was the nasty invasion of John Hurt’s body by the tentacled creature intent on turning him into a host for its young. To this day, it’s the “chest-burster” that most viewers recall most vividly and graphically. Being hunted by a large, fearsomely armed creature is one thing; having it invade your bodily orifices and plant its seed has overtones of rape that alarm both men and women. So when a water-borne parasite slithers into the orifices of two men while they sit helpless on their toilets, the X-Files gets our instant attention.

As with virtually every other X-Files episode this season, there is a strong resemblance between the story and a famous movie. In this case, we get “Key Largo meets Alien”. Trapped like Bogie and Bacall in a dilapidated condo threatened by a violent hurricane, Mulder and Scully race against time to flush out a parasitic water-borne menace, while facing moronic deputies, a gun nut, a looter, and most menacing of all, a pregnant woman with an Attitude. While a number of important confrontations have happened in bathrooms in The X-Files (“Little Green Men”, “2Shy“), none have had quite the impact of seeing the half-liquefied landlord dissolving into the toilet with his pants around his ankles.

Despite the opportunities for cliché that this storyline afforded writer David Amman (“Terms of Endearment”&emdash;the X-Files episode, not the movie), he packs a lot of eerie punches into a relatively straightforward script. I was genuinely on edge when Mulder walked into the bathroom where the dissolved deputy lay in the bath. The worm-like creature coiling threateningly in the ceiling globes sent a shiver down my back. Scully pulling a worm out of the deputy’s neck took me right back to that paranoid masterpiece, “Ice”, and the juxtaposition of the impending birth and the impending attack of the worm creature ratcheted the tension even higher. Scully and Mulder’s conversation in the car evoked memories of warmer seasons in The X-Files; they were acting like old partners again. I loved her “Maybe you are a member of the Manson Family” remark.

But I was sorry to see Darren McGavin used so ineffectually in this story. I don’t think The X-Files has ever seriously exploited his potential contribution to this series. Both here and in “Travelers”, his retired Special Agent Arthur Dales functions essentially as a storytelling machine, a talking head who advances the plot with information but whose character is defined only in idiosyncratic asides. As the godfather of the X-Files, I would expect him to have a lot more to say to Mulder and Scully than to merely chase them into a storm to hunt monsters.

Likewise, I didn’t need the gun nut (can we say Edward G. Robinson?), the pregnant couple (ten pounds ten ounces? No wonder she had an attitude!), or the dimwitted county sheriff’s deputy. Mulder and Scully are at their best when they outwit their bureaucratic opponents: getting past this one was like shooting fish in a barrel. Cookie-cutter stereotypes like these tell me the writer got lazy or rushed, and reached into television’s standard “Two Dimensional Characters” bag. Compared to the exquisitely detailed fringe characters we’ve seen in the past on this series, it was a disappointment to see such shopworn characters thrown into the mix.

Too much of dramatic import happened offscreen: Mulder’s attack by the worm, the looter’s fate, and the fate of the gun nut caught up in the tentacles of the water creature at the end. At every pivotal story point, we got a deluge of rain or a blackout. The blackout is a story device that should be used sparingly; when used several times in an episode, it leaves us feeling cheated rather than tantalized. I’m not sure whether this was a deliberate experiment on the part of director Rob Bowman or editors Heather MacDougall and Lynne Willingham. Whatever it was, it didn’t work. I recognize how difficult it is to craft a story that reveals as it conceals, but it is, after all, “The X-Files” that set this standard.

The power of “The X-Files” has always been the way it sneaks, or thunders, past our defenses, invading our psyche despite our most civilized veneer. With a shrewd understanding of Freudian psychology, the writers know that the “lowest” bodily functions still hold a guilty fascination for us, so that we are both repelled and enthralled by a monster from the sewer drain. “Eewwwwww”, we cry. “Show us more!” Director of Photography Bill Roe fortunately ignores that temptation, and shows us mostly shadows, half-lit glimpses of a tentacle or a writhing, boneless limb, so that the monster comes to inhabit not just the screen but the shadows in our heads. This was what put The X-Files on the map and made it the darling of the critics: the commitment to visual insinuation, the wicked tease that showed us just enough to scare us but not enough to reveal the wires and pulleys. A schlockmeister would have shown us lovingly detailed closeups of the worm injecting its spawn into Mulder’s neck, or pulped remains of the Shipleys. Rather, the half-dissolved bodies are seen fleetingly, the worm pulled out of the deputy’s neck being the worst that we see. The rest is subtle enough to leave us squirming: it is surely no coincidence that there are two gestations going on in “Agua Mala”, human and parasitic.

How ironic that after five seasons shooting in rainy Vancouver, the wettest X-Files episode ever, “Agua Mala”, is shot in sunny Southern California. Dana Scully has not looked so drenched since the famous graveyard scene in the pilot episode of The X-Files, and even Mulder comes off looking like a drowned rat. The entire episode hearkens back to the paranoia and, yes, formula of that earlier era. All the elements (no pun intended) of an early X-File are present: rain, darkness, big flashlights, and a half-seen alien creature that attacks people at their most vulnerable moment, on the toilet.

While not a stunningly original story, we still got some chills, some laughs, and a couple of genuine shudders. I give “Agua Mala” three sunflower seeds out of five.