Sympathy for the Devil
by Sarah Stegall
copyright © 1999 by Sarah Stegall
Written by David Amman
Directed by Rob Bowman
For a series rooted in the paranormal, The X-Files has done remarkably few stories about demons. Perhaps this is wise, given that earlier efforts in the genre such as “Die Hand Die Verletzt“, “Sanguinarium“, and even “All Souls” were muddled messes that never quite got a grip on their subject matter. Unfortunately, writer David Amann, in his first X-Files effort, doesn’t do much better with “Terms of Endearment”, a gothic horror comedy about demon babies and a devil who longs for domesticity.
The story invites comparison to the horror classic, “Rosemary’s Baby”, but fails to deliver the same shudder. In both stories, a young wife is impregnated by a demon hiding under the guise of a human, and is fed special “supplements” by her loving husband. In “Terms of Endearment”, however, the devil-father is disappointed to learn that his offspring bids fair to become a chip off the old block: the fetus is developing horns and a tail. He drugs his wife and aborts the child, tearfully resolved to try again to father a normal child. Fox Mulder discovers not only who this weepy would-be papa really is, but that he has more than one lady in waiting: another wife, across the county, is about to deliver a demon child. The stories converge, as the second mother not only accepts but, like Rosemary, cherishes her imp.
“Terms” tries to tap into the same vein of female paranoia exploited by Ira Levin, and later by director Roman Polansky, by holding up the model nuclear family in a distorted mirror, inverting women’s most cherished relationships with their husbands and children. The “Trust No One” concept is now brought into the family circle more intimately than in any other X-File except “Small Potatoes“. It’s hard to imagine a more emotional and personal matter than childbearing, yet the tone of “Terms” is so distant, so detached and impersonal, that what should be a horrifying and heart-wrenching ordeal takes on a cartoon-like banality. Or perhaps it is just too familiar a theme by now–how many alien/human hybrid babies (“Emily”), angel/human hybrids (“All Souls”), or even animal/human hybrids (“Post-Modern Prometheus”) have tumbled across the X-Files landscape by now? We’ve already seen human mutant babies in “Small Potatoes” and hideously deformed babies in “Home“. By this time, a kid with horns is positively humdrum. Against such a background, paranoia is a hard fire to light in us. The producers are left with only the most primitive tools to bludgeon us with: blood and fire.
It’s a pity that Rob Bowman didn’t take more of Polansky’s work in “Rosemary’s Baby” to heart in the production of this story. Whereas Polansky told us Rosemary’s story through key-holes and half-heard conversations, Bowman gives us a poorly focused tale told in brightly-lit daytime scenes, run-of-the-mill Gothic atmosphere, and loud rock music. Levin and Polansky’s unyielding focus on Rosemary gave the book and the movie an uneasy claustrophobia that heightened both the tension and the effect of the shocker ending. There were so many point-of-view changes in “Terms of Endearment” I lost track of whose story this was supposed to be.
I think it was supposed to be Wayne’s story. Bruce Campbell, late of “The Adventures of Briscoe County, Jr.”, turns in a good performance with mediocre material, as the Beelzebub who would be Ozzie Nelson. He makes the most of his lachrymose character, managing to convey sincere love and affection for his wives even as he sucks the soul out of one who has discovered his secret. His goggle-eyed double-take when Wife Number Two turns out to be not quite the meek victim he had thought is a great moment, and his sad-eyed yearning as he looks at a portrait of three young sons in a woman’s home nails home his character’s deep seated longing for the bliss of the Brady Bunch. It’s easy to make us appreciate a devil who’s a rogue, a rebel, or a romantic Prince of Darkness, but it takes skill to make us commiserate with a guy who hankers for the commonplaces of suburbia. Amann gives him a spurious kind of redemption, when Wayne gives up his soul, literally, to restore the woman he tried to kill, but it’s not quite enough to outweigh the horror of a man who kills his offspring with his own paws.
Which reveals the real missing piece of this story–any semblance of religious awe or terror. There’s no point in tacking on a redemption theme when there’s no God to be reconciled with. There’s no point in giving us the relentlessly literal iconology of the Christian devil (complete with horns, tail, fire, and brimstone) if there’s no corresponding Redeemer–it’s the shadow without the Being who casts it. “Terms of Endearment”, like “Rosemary’s Baby”, is essentially a Christian morality play without the Christian religion. We are presented the standard post-modern universe consisting of the devil and man, with God absent or irrelevant. But the devil is merely a reflection of God in the distorted mirror of man’s soul, and without the Sun, even the Moon is dark. When The X-Files wants to, it can give us a subliminal shiver of recognition when we confront the numinous, as it did in “Miracle Man”. It can give us honest religious feeling without pietism, as in “Revelations“. “Terms of Endearment” confronts us only with our own conceit, and thus fails to generate any real terrors.
I give this episode two sunflower seeds out of five.