by Sarah Stegall
copyright ©1995 by Sarah Stegall
Writer: Sara B. Charno
Director: Rob Bowman
The theme of the evil twin dates back at least to the story of Cain and Abel, echoing down through Western literature in such works as far apart as the Welsh epic “The Mabinogion” and Thomas Tryon’s novel “The Other”. The phenomenon of the identical twin, who shares not just a sibling’s face but sometimes a personality, threatens our notions about the uniqueness of the individual. The twin often becomes a metaphor for schizophrenia and dissociation.
But the oldest use of the twin in art is to epitomize the dualism (good/evil, dark/light, spirit/flesh) that weaves through Western culture from Pythagoras onward. It is a powerful and ancient theme: Sara B. Charno, in employing it as the structural basis for “The Calusari”, has taken on quite a task.
On the very thinnest of pretexts, Mulder and Scully look into what appears to be the accidental death of a toddler. Mulder suspects poltergeist activity and goes to visit the family, including surviving son Charlie (Joel Palmer). Flickering lights and erratic smoke detectors, coupled with the apparently hostile attitude of the family’s Romanian grandmother, convince him that some sort of paranormal activity is taking place. Scully, however, speculates that they are seeing a psychological syndrome known as “Munchausen by proxy”, wherein a caretaker induces illness or injury in a child in order to gain attention and status in the household.
The animosity of the grandmother (Lilyun Chauvin) reinforces Scully’s belief that they are seeing child abuse. The subsequent deaths of the father and grandmother in Charlie’s presence raise the body count without telling us much.
It is not until Charlie is interrogated by a social worker (coincidentally, the same social worker Scully herself consulted in “Irresistible“) that he blurts out the truth: it was not him, but “Michael” who was present at both grisly deaths. Who is Michael? It turns out Charlie is a twin; his brother was stillborn. Why are we finding out about a twin in Act Two? This should have been revealed, if only in passing, during the setup in Act One, perhaps when Scully reviews the children’s medical records with Mulder. Act Two is way too late in the story to be introducing the major theme. Nonetheless, in a spine-tingling scene in the hospital where Charlie has been taken for observation, Michael (Joel Palmer again) steps out of the shadows, having now taken on actual physical shape. This was a point of major confusion for me: was Michael supposed to be spirit or flesh? If he was flesh, how could he “possess” his brother’s body? If he was spirit, who was bashing the nurse around? There is a difference between the suspension of disbelief and the suspension of logical processes. Even in fairy tales, supernatural beings behave according to consistent principles.
Scully, tracking down the elusive Michael, walks in on a scene right out of “The Fury”, with mother Maggie (Helene Clarkson) levitating against the ceiling and furniture flying around the room. She herself is manhandled, levitated, and threatened by the malicious Michael. How is she going to explain this to herself? Once again she seems to completely ignore the impressive evidence of her own eyes; Dana Scully is either in deep denial or an utter fool. Meanwhile, Mulder is taking part in an exorcism (unnecessarily long) that draws heavily from “The Exorcist”, conducted by “The Calusari” of the title, a quartet of Romanian gentlemen who dress like Amish patriarchs and talk like Master Po. (“Grasshopper, be careful. It knows you.”)
Mulder and Scully’s reaction to these events is the cinematic equivalent of a yawn. Even experienced FBI agents lose their cool when searching for the body of Polly Klaas, or ferreting out the “kidnapper” of the Smith children. To have Mulder, particularly, treating the death of a toddler as an interesting intellectual exercise dehumanizes him. It would not have taken much: a line or two, a clenched jaw, a frown, to show us the boiling anger Mulder would feel at the death of the innocent. Dana Scully, who usually shows even more sympathy for a victim, was as remote and cold as her partner.
I find it deeply offensive when writers use the deaths of children as a “hook” merely to draw us in. Even when it is the central theme of a story, it is so powerful and emotional a subject, not just for me but for any civilized person, that it must be handled very carefully. “The Calusari” reaches its emotional peak in the first five minutes, with the death of Teddy on the railroad tracks. Sara Charno has given away all the psychic impact of the story in the teaser.
“The Calusari” suffers from the same moral ignorance as “The Exorcist”, “The Omen”, and “The Fury”, from which it draws so heavily. Mulder’s’ final statement, that “neither innocence nor vigilance may be protection against the howling heart of evil”, is inadequate. He himself has just participated in a ritual of faith, proof that there is an armor against evil. Mulder’s commitment to a value outside of himself (the truth, or justice, or whatever) gives him perspective and balance. He is a man of faith, and his soul is secure against “the devil”.
The premise of “The Calusari” was that evil exists as an independent force, and can attack the innocent willy-nilly. It doesn’t work. To blame some abstract concept for the very real actions of a human being is to trivialize real responsibility and real guilt. To dismiss Hitler, Jeffrey Dahmer, and other cultural icons of monstrosity as “evil” or “crazy” is to deny the very real psychological truth that they are what they have become for the same reason we all are: they have made choices.
Having said all of that, it was a hell of a ride. The camera work in the climactic scene in the grandmother’s bedroom, with Maggie held up against the wall by invisible forces, windows bursting, wind whipping so coldly I could feel it myself, was exquisitely done. Joel Palmer gave us the same sort of wooden demon-child performance we saw in “Eve” and “The Omen”, but Lilyun Chauvin’s Death Crone grandmother was bone-chilling. Once again, the excellent visuals push right past my intellectual disbelief to plant nightmares in my subconscious. Wonderful touches, such as the pink balloon descending silently behind Charlie/Michael’s head as he looks on his brother’s body, sent a chill down my spine. The camera angles and lighting made even the grandmother’s death-by-chicken terrifying. Images scattered throughout the episode brought in references from half a dozen horror movies. It was like watching TV with Fox Mulder at three o’clock in the morning.
With fewer coincidences and a little more sympathy from our protagonists, this could have been a really outstanding episode. The toddler’s death in the opening sequence was meant to set us up for an edge-of-the-seat plot, but the impact of that death was so much overkill it overshadowed the rest of the story.
This one gets three sunflower seeds out of five.