It’s been said that fear of the unknown is an irrational response to the excesses of the imagination. But our fear of the everyday, of the lurking stranger and the sound of footfalls on the stairs, the fear of violent death and the primitive impulse to survive, are as frightening as any X-File; as real as the acceptance that it could happen to you.
In early interviews, Chris Carter stated that one of his goals for each episode of The X-Files is to scare people. And while alien invasions, creatures that lives in the sewers or guys that can stretch their body to get into and out of any locked room may be scary, none of them are quiet as unsettling or unnerving as Donnie Phaster.
“Irresistible” is one of the most unnerving, creepy and utterly riveting hours of the entire run of the show. And yet it doesn’t feature an alien or monster of the week in the traditional sense. Instead, Chris Carter gives us something a bit more unnerving — a monster who looks perfectly ordinary and can easily hide in plain sight because of his ordinariness.
Donnie Phaster is a unique creation. A death fetishist whose urges are growing. No longer content to dig up women to steal bits of their hair and fingernails, Donnie has moved on to wanting to take the lives of his victims before he takes his trophies. His need is escalating — and over the course of an hour, we see Donnie make several attempts to find new victims. Some of them like the blonde prostitute are successful while others like the student in his literature class don’t quite work out. Donnie gives off an odd vibe from the first moment we see him, working in a mortuary, cluing the audience in that something isn’t quite right with him. And while we know from the beginning who the culprit is and get to watch as he goes about his feeding his obsession, the story needs feels like it’s lagging or treading water until Mulder and Scully catch up to Phaster.
A lot of the credit for this goes to actor Nick Chinland, who brings a creepy and unnerving edge to Donnie. The way Donnie talks, the way he moves, the way he asks questions — it’s all so damn unnerving and creepy as all get out. And I do love the moment in the script when Donnie’s various victims seem him other epitomes of evil — from Charles Manson to an alien to some kind of monster. And yet as much as we, the audience, may wish there was some supernatural force behind Donnie’s evil, there isn’t any. Donnie is just a product of his upbringing, as we find out in the final few moments of the episode.
There are so many creepy moments to Donnie — whether it’s his job interview or his first delivery to the family or his first glimpse of Scully while in jail for another incident. Donnie seems to polite and yet there’s an air to him of something more lurking under the surface. And give credit to the Fox censors for making Carter work harder to make Donnie more palatable for prime-time. Carter initially wanted to make Donnie a lot darker but the censors wouldn’t let him. He then had to tone it down a bit and make Donnie a collector and death fetishist. And I think the restraint he’s forced to use actually makes the episode better.
You’ve also got to give huge credit to Carter’s script and to the performances by our two leads. While the series has hinted that Scully is putting up a brave front after the events of the first nine episodes, it’s this script that really digs into the impact those events have had on her. Scully is unnerved by the current case, but she refuses to confide in Mulder. As she tells the FBI social worker, she doesn’t want Mulder to feel like he has to protect her. And yet, she’s clearly unsettled by the case and it’s clearly bringing up some things from her kidnapping that she needs to deal with. The final scene with Mulder forcing Scully to look him in the eye as she denies that her experience in being taken by Phaster and then she finally breaks down is a profoundly moving moment and one that clearly shows the depth of Mulder and Scully’s relationship., Mulder has repeatedly said he only trusts Scully and she points out that she trusts him. But it’s clear that she doesn’t want to be vulnerable for fear of losing something in how Mulder perceives her.
So you’ve got first rate acting, writing and then you add in first-rate directing by David Nutter. The series has really found its style at this point and you can tell Nutter is having some fun behind the camera. The final shot of the teaser that ends with Phaster walking into the camera is nicely done as is the times he’s hidden his darkness and shadows. Everything that Nutter does underscores the creepy factor of this episode.
It’s from this installment that Carter began to explore the idea of another show that would examine the profiling of serial killers. We’d get that show a year and a half later with Millennium. And while the show had some good outings, I’m not quite sure any of them ever got quite as creepy as this hour.
On a lighter note, Carter pays homage to Vikings wide receiver Cris Carter in this episode. Mulder’s initial reason to pursue the case is that he’s scored Redskins/Vikings tickets for the weekend. It’s just one more pitch-perfect detail in the episode.