The Red Museum
by Sarah Stegall
Copyright ©1994 by Sarah Stegall
Writer: Chris Carter
Director: Win Phelps
Watching “The X-Files” is sometimes like watching a horror movie through your hands–you get a shocking, teasing glimpse now and then of something both fascinating and repulsive lurking just below the surface. The story is sometimes in the images, in brief glimpses of a reality beyond the mundane, a peek into terror. Friday’s episode, “The Red Museum” is classic Chris Carter–no one is who he seems to be. The robot-like cultists of the “Red Museum” are not Branch Davidian wannabes, but mild mannered, even charitable people. The “normal” mid-westerners of the town are in fact prone to violence, rape, and child molestation. The trusted country doctor is a cold-hearted Dr. Mengele conducting secret experiments on children for money. And of course, we have the topical, up-to-the-moment link to this morning’s headlines: in this case it is the controversy over bovine somatotrophic hormone, the artificial steroid which has led to labelling fights among farmers, consumers and the FDA.
Scully and Mulder travel to a small Wisconsin town to investigate a series of bizarre kidnapings, which Mulder believes are linked to UFO abductions. Children and teenagers are being abducted and terrorized so badly they have to be sedated. The only unusual thing about the town is the presence in their midst of a sect of militant vegetarians, whose leader (Mark Rolston) purports to “channel” messages about the end of the world. Mulder recognizes the pattern of possession: a spirit from another world enters a human being and takes him over. Perhaps that is what happened to the kids in the woods?
Unfortunately as it turns out, there is less here than meets the eye. What role is played by the red-turban brigade? None. Are the kidnapings linked to the doctor’s plane crash? No. Why are the men inoculating cattle being systematically murdered? We never find out. There are an unusual number of red herrings here: the hallucinogenic sequences in the woods, the peeping tom, the cultists themselves. One gets the feeling this was several stories stirred into one pot, or half of a truncated story (the crossover to “Picket Fences”, no doubt).
Having said all that, there are many rewards to “Red Museum”. Its tone is one of quiet, building menace. Elliptical sequences such as the young girl’s hallucinogenic episode in the woods add to the paranoia and tension. The visuals are powerful: red turbans and white robes are a visually exciting yet disturbing combination. Frightening, mythic symbols confront us, simple yet distressing: blood, meat, ravens, trees, darkness, lost dogs, crying children, cockroaches. This is the sort of subliminal storytelling television can do best. It is an intimate medium which reaches right into our homes and invades our dreams with unshakable images.
Carter loves to give us stark contrasts: the best visual sequence is when the camera pans from the parade of serene cultists crossing a mist-filled meadow to the men conducting bizzare atrocities on cattle with all the detached matter-of- factness of a prison guard at Auschwitz. The meal in the restaurant is brief but charming, bibs and all–Mulder wipes sauce off his partner’s cheek with a tenderness we seldom get to see in him, then seconds later is coming valiantly to the defense of a young cultist taunted by the town bullies.
The interview by the pasture with my Uncle Bill (I swear he looked just like him) was exceptional. We get so much in this scene–background on the town, insight into the changes in it, a connection between BSH and steroid toxicity (see Alzado, Lyle, death of). The end of the scene is purest Carter: Scully protests that the hormone was “proven safe by the government”. Even she cannot believe this, and Mulder’s smug I-told-you-so look says volumes wordlessly. Priceless.
It’s nice to see Scully exercising her investigative powers again. She is the one who recognizes Crew-Cut Man as Deep Throat’s assassin, and makes the link to Purity Control. She recognizes the corticosteroids found in Dr. Berube’s lab from the toxicology report on the doctor’s broken vial. Although still skeptical about the ‘alien baby’ she saw, she has seen (and been through) enough by now that her cynicism is wearing through. She is becoming even more a part of the team. And that teamwork, as always under Carter’s hand, is excellent. Whole dialogues between Mulder and Scully can be dispensed with, as when Mulder, hearing Scully’s recitation of the cult leader’s background, simply says, “I’ll drive”.
As far as the acting goes, I must single out Steve Eastin. The part of a small town sheriff is easy to overplay, easier still to caricature. Instead, we got a fine performance showing us a more tolerant lawman than one might have expected, a quietly competent man unexpectedly drawn into the mystery he is investigating. It is fitting that he, a man whose son has been murdered, should kill the Crew Cut Man.
How refreshing it is to see Carter pass up the opportunity to exploit the cliche of the sinister cult. They are an easy target and a cheap one, but turning them into a sanctuary, even vindicating them (they are the only members of the town who don’t come down with a mysterious ‘flu’ after the doctor’s ‘vitamin shots’ cease) is an original approach. Other moments of note: Scully reacts to the presence of the “peeping tom”, even though she cannot see him. Mulder, for the first time, I believe, arrests someone onscreen. And although I am awfully tired of Mulder losing his gun (can’t the man hang onto anything?), his explosion-in-a-marble- factory tie made up for it. The peeping tom (Paul Sand) was so creepy he made Frohike look good.
I could have wished for a little less ambiguity in this one, a few more loose ends tied up, a little more closure. I realize we may be seeing part of a larger story arc, and perhaps some story pieces will fall into place later. However, this makes the story weaker than it could have been, despite strong visuals and compelling pacing. A strong ending could have redeemed much for us. As it is, I give it three sunflower seeds out of five, about average.