The X Files Revisited: 9.08 Hellbound
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The X Files ran for nine seasons between 1993 and 2002, spanned two movies and then came back from the dead in 2016 for a revival series of 6 episodes. In many ways, the show is as much a cultural phenomenon as it ever was and The Digital Fix has been looking back at key episodes across the show’s run starting with the pilot episode, reviewing numerous classic stories and the first movie The X Files: Fight The Future. Now we're in the final stretch of our revisited as we cover the last season of the original run, the second movie and look back at 'season 10' a year on. Now we look at the very dark season nine tale Hellbound...
I almost didn't include Hellbound in my 'revisit' of The X Files season nine. It is a rather grisly affair and doesn't have a fantastic reputation. But I am very glad I did; this episode really felt like a return to classic The X Files episodes of old. It has a few problems that prevent it from becoming an all time classic, but this episode, more than any other so far in season nine showed that a Doggett and Reyes-led The X Files could still be just that - The X Files.
It has all the classic ingredients. Reyes, now in the believer role, with her controversial theories, that dreams foretelling the impending deaths of the victims are a psychic link to past lives. It has Scully doing what she does best, searching for clues by autopsying the victim. And a mystery spanning back decades. In a homage to classics like Squeeze, the agents discover similar murders took place in 1960 and 1909 and the clues go back further to 1868. It's dark, moody and shocking in places with a good mystery too. There are a few things that don't make a lot of sense and the issues plaguing season nine prevent it from reaching classic status, including the development of Reyes. But in my season nine rewatch to date Hellbound is, along with the preceding John Doe, a winner.
Hellbound begins with a member of church support group, Victor, having a vision of his friend skinned alive. It's a vision that becomes horrifyingly true as Victor is discovered with his skin cut clean off, leaving every artery and vessel intact. It's an incredibly nasty fate, made worse when Scully examines the body at Reyes' request and determines that he lived through most of it. Hellbound is indeed an apt title, the grizzly murders conjuring up the imagery of the worst horrors Hell could provide. The fact that an unseen force stalks these victims, ex cons seeking to atone for their crimes, does suggest that it could be something devilish skinning these people. Though interestingly, even with the religious imagery (several scenes are based in the local church) that doesn't really emerge as a theory.
It's both a great episode for Reyes and a troubling one. Her focus on the case keeps the momentum going and is is refreshing to finally have her and Doggett investigate an X Files rather than stumble upon something supernatural while on very un-X File cases (like 4-D and John Doe). Her spiritual connection is an interesting one too; she calls Doggett and Scully in in the early hours to examine the murder victim, sensing that she has to solve the case. However it is also a little forced, as if the writers are so desperate to round out the character of Reyes that they tack on a past-life regression and spiritual energy like a sledgehammer (just because she has mentioned sensing spiritual energies before doesn't mean that makes her fully developed character).
Annabeth Gish does deliver a good performance despite this and I continue to appreciate her presence on the show. This is the biggest lead role for her yet and the case she takes on is a strong one. The visions of people skinned alive provide plenty of grim shocks. The murder of second victim Terry Pruit (Don -brother of Patrick- Swayze) is truly terrifying as he is strung up along a long line of skinned pigs. The episodes holds back from showing the act; his screams as the cuts into him off screen and blood runs down his body is enough. But it is Doggett's close examination of body that provides the episode's biggest jump, as Pruit opens his eyes, still alive, despite every part of his body being skinned. It is a sickening, gut-wrenching moment and is perhaps part of why Hellbound has a bit of an unsavoury reputation. It is also the first time we see that Reyes really affected by what is happening, the sickened anguish perfectly captured by Gish as she rushes out of the crime scene.
The discovery of the third victim Ed Kelso (Cyril O'Reilly) later on, blood still dripping off his exposed fingers as his skinned body lies prostrated on the table is another brutally gruesome moment. But if the discovery of a skinned Pruit still alive holds the biggest jaw-dropping moment, then it is Reyes' discover of the skin suits, hanging up in the cave that is the most skin-crawling moment of all. If nothing else, the atmospheric darkness in Hellbound is masterfully delivered.
It takes a while for everything to come together, but it is a great twist. The three victims are reincarnated souls of four people who skinned a man alive back in 1868 in the same manner as the present. The victim has been reincarnated too, killing their reincarnated people in the same horrific fashion in 1909 and 1960. Reyes it seems is the reincarnated soul of someone who failed to prevent the atrocity back in 1989 and has been brought back on each occasion to try and save the victims from being skinned.
The final twist that the the obtuse Detective Van Allen (James McDonnell) is the reincarnation of the original victim, now murdering his killers adds another dimension, particularly his relationship to Reyes. Unlike anyone else, he knows what happened and has successfully enacted his revenge on two occasions. The death Dr. Lisa Holland (Katy Boyer) the good-natured woman helping the ex cons rehabilitate will complete his third. Her final attack in the church makes for a tense finale, before Reyes succeeds in stopping Van Allen by shooting him in the chest.
The faults with Hellbound are made apparent when you try and delve too deep into the reincarnation plot. Did Reyes's soul die and reincarnate after each event? And what about the killer? To have six people of similar age at the same time suggests, the killer / original victim and Reyes had to die close to the times the four reincarnated souls were slain. Also, why does Van Allen have self awareness? And is this the reason why Reyes is so spiritually attuned? Some of the logic does fall apart the more you try to make sense of it.
And talking of faults, Scully again pops in as a virtual guest player in her own show, though more than other episodes she is made use of by actually completing the first autopsy and launching her own investigation into the past murders. There is also a sense that she is playing more of a mentor role to Reyes here, even if it feels a little forced that she doesn't question the reincarnation theory like Doggett.
But I like Hellbound despite these issues. It does give Reyes something decent to do, it has a riveting mystery that is largely understandable and the grizzly imagery of people skinned alive shows that The X Files still knows how to deliver good horror and at least one jump-out-of-your-seat moment. And it has that final twist as Van Allen dies and is reincarnated into a new baby. It seems there are a few more brutal skinnings still to come. Hellbound is a good, creepy The X Files mystery and one I'm glad I didn't discard...