In a segment similar in structure to “Ice,” The X-Files episode “Darkness Falls” finds Mulder and Scully in an isolated location (this time an impenetrable forest a full day’s hike from civilization…) battling a microscopic life-form from prehistory with the capacity to destroy mankind if it spreads to the world at large.
The factor that meaningfully differentiates “Darkness Falls” from “Ice,” however, is the episode’s context or background. In “Ice” the F.B.I. agents had to contend with an infectious parasite inside a remote Arctic base. Trust was hard to come-by because nobody knew who was already infected by the tiny creatures. In other words, the alien life form had changed the nature of man in some insidious fashion
In “Darkness Falls,” by contrast, Mulder and Scully must deal with two factions already at “war” in Scully’s explicit terminology, and thus unable to show trust, empathy, or even decency towards one another…and for entirely human reasons or ideology.
The specific forces in conflict are an avaricious logging company (acting illegally) and so-called “eco-terrorists” or radical environmentalists, who also behave in an illegal fashion. And indeed, the early 1990s saw a new public awareness of environmental issues roiling in the Zeitgeist. Running (unsuccessfully) for re-election, President Bush had disparagingly termed Vice-Presidential candidate Al Gore “Ozone Man,” thus implicitly raising the issue that environmental awareness and protection actually impeded economic growth. And since America was experiencing a recession, this debate about the environment was newly relevant.
Accordingly, that is the very dynamic explored in “Darkness Falls,” the battle between commerce and environmental stewardship.
Impressively, “Darkness Falls” treats both sides and their arguments even-handedly, in much the same fashion the series diagrams the two sides of the belief/skepticism debate or “lens” of perspective we see via Mulder and Scully. Importantly, both the company representatives and the radical environments pay the price for their legal and moral trespasses, a fact which suggests a kind of “pox on both their houses” approach to the material. Any agenda -- corporate or environmental – when taken to murderous extremes, is undesirable.
Beyond the background debate about the environment and how best to care for it, “Darkness Falls” proves almost unbearably suspenseful as the prehistoric, photo-sensitive, luminescent bugs threaten to engulf a small cabin while the last bit of power inside dwindles irrevocably away. Use of close-ups and insert shots go a long way towards escalating the tension and augmenting the feelings of isolation.
Commendably, the episode doesn’t present Mulder and Scully with a clean escape from this menace, either. They survive their “nice trip in the forest” (to quote Mulder) but only with hundreds of red “bites” all over their bodies, not to mention a stay in a government ICU.
I’ve written in these retrospectives before about the use of the forest as a central location in the horror genre history (from the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne to David Lynch’s Twin Peaks), and “Darkness Falls” is very much a nature’s revenge brand of horror story, merely updated for the 1990s. Here, mankind has trespassed too far (as he does again in another stand-out X-Files episode, “Detour”) and he disturbs the balance of nature in the process.
Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) head to Olympic National Forest in the Pacific Northwest to investigate the disappearance of a team of loggers. Mulder suspects something out-of-the-ordinary is responsible for their vanishing, but a forest ranger, Larry Moore (Jason Beghe) reports on the persistent conflict between a logging company and eco-terrorists known as “monkey-wrenchers.”
Upon arrival, Scully and Mulder find members of the logging team cocooned in large webs, their bodies drained entirely of fluids. The leader of the monkey-wrenchers, Doug Spinney (Titus Welliver) warns that the loggers, by illegally cutting down old growth trees, have released an ancient variety of carnivorous wood-mite.
The insects strike only by night, and are fearful of light. But Mulder and Scully only have enough gasoline to run their cabin’s power generator for a few more hours. If the lights go out, the murderous swarm will descend…
One aspect of “Darkness Falls” which I admire is its “basis in fact” conception. In particular, the episode suggests that the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens disturbed or altered the life-cycles of local wildlife. This is all good in theory, but mimicking the horror approach of Jaws (1975), and its famous story about the Indianapolis in shark-infested water, this episode delves into a true life story that terrifies.
In particular, Mulder and Spinney discuss a “brain sucking amoeba” in Washington’s Silver Lake. That amoeba, Naegleria fowleri, enters the body through the human nose, tunnels through the skull, and then consumes brain tissue….until you die.
And this monstrosity is not, alas, a work of fiction. In fact, this amoeba is responsible for a handful of deaths in America every year, in mostly the South and West regions of the country. The story of Silver Lake and Naegleria fowleri, however, lends credence and legitimacy to the material presented in “Darkness Falls.” A story about carnivorous wood-mites eating burly loggers might sound ridiculous on first blush, but then so do brain-eating amoebae, at least until you know the unbelievably horrific details.
Intriguingly, “Darkness Falls” doesn’t appear to position the bugs as malevolent entities. They aren’t malicious or hostile, in a sense. The wood mites cocoon and eat human beings, draining their bodies of fluid, because to do so is part of their life-cycle.
Contrarily, it is the short-sighted humans in the episode who are, ultimately, responsible for all the deaths that occur. The logging company is the agent that brought the bugs out of their long hibernation, by illegally and wantonly cutting down “old growth” trees. They have, essentially, opened Pandora’s Box. And all because it is more convenient for the capitalists to move one “big” tree out of the woods than many small trees. Economic concerns, in this case, cause an environmental disaster.
Similarly, the eco-terrorists or radical environmentalists threaten everyone’s safety (and indeed, survival…) by spiking roads and committing other acts of sabotage. There is much talk in the episode of “irony” and “shooting oneself in the foot.” The latter is notion that -- through his own destructive behavior -- man actually assures only his own extinction.
Once you get to that reckoning in “Darkness Falls” -- of man engineering his own destruction – it isn’t difficult to interpret the episode as a commentary on the environment and our stewardship of it. It won’t be the environment that leads to our extinction, but our own misuse or exploitation of the environment that causes it to turn against us.
“Darkness Falls” is a great “horror” episode of The X-Files, and as such it creates a strong atmosphere of
terror and suspense. Director Joe Napolitano’s camera circles, in extreme close-up, the cabin’s power generator on at least two occasions. This device, this example of modern technology (and thus man’s ingenuity), is the only firewall that stands between survival and death for Mulder, Scully, and the others.
Similarly, the single light-bulb dangling from a ceiling string is prominent in several shots, flickering and winking out. In fact, the single-most anxiety-provoking shot in the entire episode doesn’t involve the bugs swarming and attacking their prey. Instead, it involves a panicked Scully -- fearing the bugs are on her body -- accidentally striking the swinging light-bulb. In that moment of hysteria, it looks like she will break the bulb and destroy her only chance of survival. The episode’s focused direction establishes beautifully how this bulb is the only life line inside that cabin…and once it is gone, it’s game over.
Also impactful and effective is “Darkness Falls”’ final sequence, which finds the cabin’s survivors racing down the mountainside in hopes of outrunning the sun as it sets. Television is a medium for the masses (or at least it was at the time of The X-Files in the 1990s), but “Darkness Falls” keeps going further and further here, quite unexpectedly, quite unconventionally. First Scully and Mulder escape the mountain in a jeep driven by Spinney. Then the jeep is damaged by the road spikes. And then the bugs swarm in to eat their final feast….our trapped protagonists. These moments possess a kind of relentless drive, and realization dawns on the viewer that -- shockingly -- our heroes are not going to emerge unscathed.
Overall, “Darkness Falls” is my favorite type of X-Files story. It features a frightening monster-of-the-week grounded in scientific reality, features a background story about (short-sighted) human nature, and most importantly, powerfully forges a horrific and unforgettable finale. Also, I would be remiss if I didn't mention the powerful location photography which renders the entire story tremendous validity from a visual standpoint. We see Scully and Mulder and the others walking through a vast area of cut down trees, and the image is both very real, and very disturbing. If the episode possesses any sort of drawback at all, it is only that the Scully and Mulder relationship doesn’t develop beyond its existing parameters here.
Next week, we cap off Season One of The X-Files with “The Erlenmeyer Flask.”