Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Castle Rock Companion - X-Files' episode "Chinga"


Angie:

My memory of The X-Files is a little hazy these days.  I remember jumping into the show somewhere toward the end of the first season, loving it passionately at least until the movie came out, and then falling out with it, probably around the time David Duchovny left.  But I haven't revisited the show since, and due to the mostly episodic nature of the series it gets hard to remember most of the details.  I'd like to revisit it eventually, but have so many other shows out there I'm trying to get to in the meantime.  So it was nice to at least briefly get back in touch with paranormal investigating FBI agents Mulder and Scully for this one episode, originally written by Stephen King with some rewrites by series creator Chris Carter.

Chinga is an ultra creepy antique doll owned by young Polly Turner who lives alone with her mother Melissa in a small Maine town.  After Polly's father's death via freak accident, the town has started calling Melissa a witch.  Agent Scully is technically on vacation, but can't seem to avoid getting tangled up in the strange incidents that keep occurring whenever Polly gets upset.  Agent Mulder meanwhile is sitting back at home in D.C. and apparently taking his own downtime.  The episode creates a fun role reversal for the two agents, as since usually skeptic Scully is out and viewing these unexplainable events alone, she's forced to consider the paranormal, while believer Mulder is able to try to find natural, scientific explanations at home (though he's clearly teasing her as he comes up with them).

King's stamp is pretty evident on the episode, even beyond the Maine small town setting.  Local sheriff Jack Bonsaint answers every question with "ayuh" and seems a bit embarrassed as he slowly reveals the town's dirt to Scully.  Jane Froelich who ran the daycare center and once saw evidence of Polly's odd behavior is King's classic town busybody and religious freak.  And the doll's menacing message of "I want to play" reminds me so much of young Gage in Pet Sematary menacing his father after he's returned from the grave.

Director Kim Manners does a great job bringing out the horror of the episode, filling the whole thing with dread.  The doll they created for the episode is also fantastic, with just the slightest bit of a smirk on her face that makes you think she really is evil.  Toward the end, it can get a little maddening that Melissa decides to take as drastic a measure as killing herself and her child rather than just taking out the doll that is obviously the problem, but the pacing of the episode is quick enough that it never feels too drawn out.  In the end, seeing Scully burn the doll up in the microwave is so satisfying.

There's apparently some doubt as to just how much of this episode is King, and how much is Carter coming in and cleaning it up.  Did he just modify Mulder and Scully's characterizations to make them fit better, or did he actually change the core story itself?  In the end, I think there's enough here of King to still shine through. Besides, given what we've seen so far of King's scripts, if Carter also changed the pacing and tone a little bit to fit the screen a little better, I don't think he harmed it in any way.  Overall, it's just a great episode.  Probably not a good one to start your X-Files viewing with thanks to the role reversal, but definitely a classic episode to revisit for those who know the series.

Noel:

I never followed The X-Files to any significant degree. It was a fun show, but I'd only catch the occasional episode here and there, kinda liked the first movie even though I didn't understand a lick of it, and would absorb bits of the show through the cultural osmosis of having some die-hard fans among my high school friends. I've probably seen a season's worth of episodes, maybe a hair more. Most were okay, a few really stuck with me, some were crap, and "Home" freaked me the shit out and gave me nightmares for a month. Like Angie, it's a show I definitely intend to thoroughly revisit at some point, it's just not top priority on my list at the moment.

"Chinga" was one of the episodes I saw back in the day, and this fresh viewing does largely live up to memory. It's a very typical King story, with everyday small town affairs and suspicions and people just trying to get by pleasantly enough, all coming to a head as a supernatural item swoops in. The doll is very spookily done for the most part, with some nicely constructed King sequences of people being driven to self harm and suicide. The attack on the teacher is especially straight out of King with the use of "Hokey Pokey" on the record player, and I like that their use of an actor dressed as the doll is never over-played or shown full on.

I actually do like the moment of Melissa being driven to the point of trying to end the life of herself and her daughter, in that every other avenue has been taken from her, and no less than three loved ones have met brutal ends, one right before her eyes. I think the psychic visions of the deaths is an extra detail we didn't need, and also something typically King, but it does further explain her mindset.

We could get a little more exploration of Polly, though, as writing her behavior off with the basic stamp of "autistic" feels a little cheap, and I feel more could be done to play up the mystery of whether it's her or the doll. Had this been a stand-alone short story, I could see King going one of two ways: 1) increase the conflict between Polly and the doll at the end until the girl rises above the evil force, or 2) Melissa actually does just torch them all. Scully actually feels very peripheral to the story, mainly just pulling out some exposition on who people are and where the doll comes from, but the central conflict doesn't feel like her's to resolve, so her saving the day feels a little unearned. I do like the staging, with Melissa going at herself with the hammer until the doll fries in the microwave, but more could have been done to either better integrate Scully into the story, or not have her be the one who solves things in the end, just observes it.

As for King's script, I have a copy of his draft, but it's boxed away following my move from earlier this year, so I can't directly comment on it in this post. I have read that the majority of Carter's rewrite was due to Mulder having originally joined her in the small town, but Carter wanted to make it a Scully solo story, so he had to come up with other ways to keep Mulder occupied. And come up he did, as Mulder is making a lovable ass of himself with basketballs, pencils in the ceilings, and a porno tape he brushes off as a nature documentary. Both he and Scully are played with a surprisingly light smirk throughout (Scully and the lobster), which also actually adds to the King feel, where things are often terrifying and tragic, but he also loves to have a good laugh now and then. And this has me even more curious to get deeper into this project, as this episode reminds me a lot of the few episodes of Haven I've seen, to the point where I wonder if this was looked at as their initial template.

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