Thursday, January 24, 2013

X-Files 20th Anniversary Blogging: "Squeeze" (September 24, 1993)



“Squeeze” is The X-Files (1993 – 2002) first “monster-of-the-week” installment. As such, it represents a template for future entries such as “2Shy,” “Teliko,” “Hungry,” and “Alone.” 

Most of these monster-of-the-week-styled outings deal with a murderous genetic mutation of one type or another, but one who -- out of some biological deficiency -- kills human beings in order to survive.  This mutant pinpoints in the human physiology, then, the key to controlling its own existence and satisfying that aforementioned deficiency. 

Watching the “genetic mutants” of The X-Files, it’s easy to imagine that we are gazing at the blind alleys or dead ends of human evolution.  With just a little variation, we could become them, and that factor lends a certain degree of empathy to some of these tales, and to some of these monsters.

But not to Eugene Victor Tooms, importantly, who remains an opaque and monstrous presence, and one that the episode contextualizes in grand, even historic terms.




Written by James Wong and Glen Morgan, “Squeeze” apparently suffered some pretty serious behind-the-scenes tumult when it was shot, meaning that though director Harry Longstreet is credited on-screen, director Michael Katleman also conducted re-shoots of some critical sequences. 

Despite the apparently-troubled production history, this early episode works splendidly, and is abundantly creepy and disturbing.  In fact, “Squeeze” is likely one of the best remembered first season entries.  “Squeeze’s” success as a drama and as horror piece might be measured by the fact that a sequel was produced and broadcast later in the first season (titled “Tooms,”) and that the episode essentially became the benchmark by which later monster-of-the-week episodes would be judged.

Doug Hutchison’s unsettling, focused (and largely internal) performance as the anti-social, monstrous Tooms brings genuine menace to the hour, and the final sequence set in Scully’s bathroom features some subtle but effective visual effects which ably depict the serial killer’s unique, mutant capacities.

But ultimately “Squeeze” is an important tale for The X-Files not merely because of its early placement and impact in terms of later storytelling, but because of several unique thematic conceits. 

The first of these involves a kind of thesis about the nature of evil, and how a certain brand of “evil” sees the world.  This thesis is forwarded mainly through the eyewitness testimony of a retired police detective, Briggs.

The second conceit involves the way that everyday bureaucracy and record-keeping rituals can actually cloud the truth, rather than excavate it.  We see this idea most clearly in the details of Mulder’s investigation into Tooms’ long history.  Over and over again, a man named Tooms seems to live at the same address at Exeter Street but never, before Mulder, have these records been exhumed, weighed, and connected.

The third conceit is perhaps the most crucial in terms of Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson), and their rapidly blossoming relationship.  On this front, one might view “Squeeze” as the story of “Scully’s Choice,” wherein she must choose between the Bureau (and old friends), and a crusade at Mulder’s side. 

One selection could bring her promotion, success, and notoriety, while the other promises only epistemological honesty.  She chooses the latter, and I think that says a lot about Scully as a partner and as a human being.



In “Squeeze,” Scully’s old friend and fellow agent Tom Colton (Donal Logue) asks her to consult on a difficult murder case in Baltimore.  An unknown assailant has managed to break into a locked office and kill a businessman…removing his liver in the process.  Scully agrees to consult on the investigation, but “spooky” Mulder’s involvement worries Colton, who is bucking for a fast promotion.

Mulder begins to suspect that the murderer is a most unusual killer: the sullen, Eugene Victor Tooms (Doug Hutchison)…a man who has resided in Baltimore, apparently, since before 1930, but who doesn’t look a day over thirty. 

Mulder consults with Detective Frank Briggs (Henry Beckman), a detective who worked on an identical case decades earlier and also considered Tooms the primary suspect.  Briggs likens Tooms’ brand of “evil” to that of the Holocaust, or the Bosnian ethnic cleansing.

Although it is almost impossible for Scully to accept Mulder’s theory of a nearly immortal mutant killer who kills five victims and consumes their livers every thirty years to stay alive (and young), she casts her lot with her partner, rather than with Colton, who is more interested in racking up successful collars than solving the case and honoring the victims. 

Finally, Tooms -- whose strange physicality allows him to “stretches” into impossible positions -- decides to make Scully his latest victim…

A very human brand of evil...
Across two decades, “Squeeze” has drawn heavy criticism from those who cast the episode’s comparison of the Tooms’ murders to the Holocaust and the Bosnian conflict as either pretentious or somehow inappropriate in what is essentially a mainstream entertainment. 

However, the comparison succeeds in The X-Files for a few significant reasons.

First, the comparison is explicitly made as one of Det. Briggs’ personal observations.  If, as a character in the play, he makes that connection himself, based on his particular experience, who are we to judge whether he is right or wrong?  The comparison is a representation of his viewpoint, based on his experience.

In their official capacity, Scully and Mulder never explicitly compare the Tooms killings to real life atrocities, though they do note that the killer’s environs create a kind of aura of death and decay
Instead, the comparison is simply the opinion of a retired -- and very shaken -- old man…one who has lost faith in the human capacity for goodness, at least until the coda, which serves explicitly as his catharsis.

Secondly, if one chooses to compare Tooms, the Holocaust, and the horror of ethnic cleansing, there is clearly a data point in common.  All the murderers -- all the perpetrators in such events -- share a common point of view: they don’t see their victims as fully human.

Instead, the victims are deemed not entitled to human dignities and freedoms because they are somehow inferior, and thus can be used/misused/abused as the “monster” in question sees fit. 

It’s always much easier to hurt someone if you decide they aren’t fully human or equal.  In our history this viewpoint has accounted for genocide, ethnic cleansing, slavery, prejudice, and other horrors.  So I submit that this is the specific horror at the core of the Holocaust, Bosnia, and, yes, Baltimore. 

What’s so intriguing about the comparison of Tooms’ bloody handiwork to these real-life atrocities is that the two historical events are very closely linked with the worst human behavior imaginable.  The idea here is that Tooms may be physically different from us but he shares in common with us this human capacity for evil.  Tooms is not the “monster outside” then.  Instead, he is the monster with a very human nature.

One of the qualities of “Squeeze” that I very much admire is its critical look at record-keeping and bureaucracy.  When I managed a metropolitan hospital’s laboratory billing department way back in the mid-1990s, I spearheaded an initiative in accurate record-keeping that insisted “registration is as important as results.” 

The goal was to significantly improve record-keeping so that John Kenneth Muir wouldn’t get confused with a patient named Kenneth Muir, and that a six year old wouldn’t be mistaken for a 90-year old with the same name.   The point I was attempting to make back then, in 1995, was very similar to what we see in “Squeeze.”

Tooms has left a considerable paper trail across the decades, but  the elements of this trail don’t connect, and therefore can’t clarify anyone’s thinking about the investigation, save for Mulder’s.  The investigation of Tooms is held hostage to the fact that paper-work is filled out, dutifully recorded on micro-film, but then never looked at again by human eyes. 

Only Mulder can connect the dots (while humorously going blind at micro-film machine…), filling in the invisible connections between official documents.  The global point seems to be that humans want to record and categorize everything, but that once the initial categorization is done, there is no looking back, no more thinking to be done.  We see the same issue in Mulder’s manipulation of Toom’s fingerprints.  The fingerprints are already on file…if only someone had the wherewithal to look…and speculate.

Is the maintenance and furtherance of databases, micro-films, and paper documents just busy-work to keep the gears of bureaucracy spinning and grinding endlessly?   Does important, life-saving information disappear into archives, never again to be looked at, measured, or considered?

The information age is one of value only if data-points connect, and someone looks at the information with an engaged intellect.  We see in “Squeeze” that this is one of Mulder’s gifts.  The show is called the X-Files, accent on files, after all.

Last week I wrote about the epistolary quality of The X-Files; how the story is told in terms of Scully and Mulder's case reports on their PCs.  Continuing this epistolary quality, "Squeeze" is able to convey its story both through newspaper headlines (see above photo) and county census records and the like (see photo below).

Is anyone checking the records?
In terms of the characters themselves, “Squeeze” puts Scully in the position of having to choose where she ultimately wishes to cast her lot. 

Should she cast it with Colton, who is slick, successful, snarky, and wholly unimaginative? 

Or should Scully cast her lot with Mulder, who is unconcerned about his reputation, but unfailingly honest from an intellectual standpoint? 

Scully has a choice to make.

This guy.

Or this one.
If you gaze at the images above, you can see the outlines of Scully’s choice in starkly visual terms.  Colton is a man of lunch dates, meetings, and buttoned-down suits and ties.  He’s a man of surfaces and superficial qualities.

By contrast, Mulder is the kind of guy who takes off that suit jacket, rolls up his sleeves, and does the hard work himself because he knows that in the vetting of hard work, answers come to the surface.  Mulder may possess ideas and theories that some people consider ludicrous or insane, but he pursues his answers through rigorous investigation.  He doesn’t close off any possibility (usually) and thus is intellectually honest and open-minded.  Colton by contrast, does no investigating whatsoever.  Instead, he just brings in Scully to write the behavioral profile he isn’t imaginative or skilled enough to craft himself.

In “Squeeze,” Scully realizes she would rather work with a guy who cares about digging for the truth, even if the truth is unpalatable, rather than a fellow who just wants check a career box and move up the F.B.I ladder.

It was important that Scully make this decision early on.  The decision does two things, primarily.  First, Scully’s decision isolates her.  Like Spooky Mulder, she soon must live with the jokes about little green men and the like.  She must also contend with the disrespect of her peers.

But her decision to commit to Mulder and his quest also locks Scully into an on-going intellectual or cerebral debate.  Scully will now be present alongside Mulder to make certain that every crazy theory, every strange hypothesis, boasts a solid basis in fact, and empirical science.

All of this character development starts to cohere in “Squeeze”...and it’s only The X-Files third episode.

The hunter sees his prey.

In terms of horror visuals, “Squeeze” is unimpeachable.  We see the impossible made convincingly manifest in Tooms physicality.  We see his jaundiced, predator eyes gazing out from the darkness, and we get a great point-of-view from his (twisted) perspective.  The world appears black-and-white, and his victims move in slow motion, unaware of his sinister presence. 

The black-and-white photography reminds us that Tooms doesn’t see us as fully human, but as prey.  And the slow-motion photography indicates that this hunter is one step ahead of his quarry, a fact we can attribute to his unique physical abilities.  We move slowly, unaware we are hunted.  But he moves with lightning-fast rapidity, and that’s very, very scary.

next week, The X-Files offers a brilliant genre pastiche in “Ice.”

4 comments:

  1. I recall the jury still being out on 'TXF' until I saw this episode. After this episode, I was absolutely sold on this series until it's end. Imo...This episode remained the best stand-alone episode of the entire series until 'Home' in Season 4. Outstanding review.

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  2. Squeeze and Tooms are quintessential X-Files, excellent review John. You've inspired me to watch the series again from the beginning so that each episode will be fresh in my mind as I read your commentaries. A few things have struck me almost immediately - I hope you don't mind me taking up space in your comments by talking about them!

    Firstly, I can't think of another series that starts off stronger than The X-Files. The first four episodes are, to me anyway, all absolutely fantastic, with Squeeze being the stand-out. Though the quality dips slightly in the immediate aftermath (I don't particularly rate Ghost In The Machine, and despite some brilliant individual scenes/concepts I don't think Shadows is that great either) it quickly picks up again with Ice and what is perhaps my favourite MOTW episode from S1 - Eve. Truly X-Files hit the ground running, which in a genre so difficult to pull off is quite an achievement.

    Secondly, I realised that I enjoy the 'Mytharc' episodes far more in the early seasons than even in the brilliant seasons 3 and 4. I know that the story gets fleshed out properly by S4, and that individually the episodes have far stronger acting and writing than the first few Mytharcs in S1, but something is missing. I think that episodes like Fallen Angel and E.B.E are incredibly successful because as the viewer you feel just as helpless as Mulder and Scully - you know next to nothing of the grand conspiracy that overshadows the series, and subsequently the events that transpire seem all the more mysterious and disturbing. I think that in later seasons when many of your initial questions have been answered, some of the magic is lost.

    Lastly, you mentioned in a comment on your 'Pilot' review that the horror genre suffered through the 90s as The X-Files did every sub-genre fantastically and was available for free. As I've said I don't view Shadows as one of the strongest episodes of S1, but there are a few scenes in that episode (and one in particular - I wonder if you know the one I mean...!) that are as strong if not stronger from a horror perspective than anything ghost-related on cinema screens in the 90s. The X-Files truly raised the bar, within weeks of its debut!

    Again, thanks for excellent review.

    Jez

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  3. You put some interesting perspective on this episode. It was a blast revisiting it after many years. And even after all this time, some of the images really lasted. In fact my wife said about three minutes in, "Oh, wait a minute, is this the one where they find that nest made of paper and bile?" The sequence had really made an impression on her. :)

    I did notice in this viewing that this episode really throws Scully into Mulder's corner for good. While she was always going to question him and delve deeper to satisfy her scientific perspective, with this episode she becomes his partner. The dynamic duo was forged!

    I do wonder if this series was made now, if they would have spent a whole season really forging that relationship, making the whole thing a bit more antagonistic between the two leads. An interesting idea, but one that may not work as well. The strength that these two characters pull from each other is what allows them to continue the search and face some of the real darkness ahead.

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  4. Just realized I declared Eve as my favourite non-Mytharc S1 episode. Completely forgot Beyond The Sea! I do hope you see fit to touch on that episode, one of the finest of the whole series.

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