THE X-FILES, S4E6: “The Sanguinarium” (1996) dir. Kim Manners

Director: Kim Manners
Chris Carter
Writers: Valerie Mayhew, Vivien Mayhew (and Chris Carter)
Stars: Gillian Anderson, David Duchovny, Richard Beymer, O-Lan Jones


THE X-FILES, Season 4 (1996-1997). S4E6 aired on November 11, 1996.

Of all of the “monsters of the week” in THE X-FILES, humans may consistently be the most harrowing, vampires and arctic monsters be damned. (Recall Vernon Ephesian, the intimidating cult leader in “The Field Where I Died” [S4E5] or the Peacocks of the show’s most infamously grim episode, “Home” [S4E2] to name just a few examples from Season 4.) Of course, the surgeons in “Sanguinarium” (S4E6) are no humdrum folks—and not just because of their medical expertise. In the Aesthetic Surgery Unit of Greenwood Memorial Hospital in Winnetka, Illinois, foul play is afoot and the F.B.I. is called to investigate the grisly death of a patient at the hands of Dr. Harrison Lloyd, one of the plastic surgeons employed … and, of course, when the perplexing discovery is made that the murder mimics a string of deaths ten years prior at the very same hospital, our heroes Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) are called in to confront the confounding …

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Dr. Harrison Lloyd at work ( … unfortunately). Photo courtesy of Chris Carter, Kim Manners, Jon Joffin.

It should come as no surprise to seasoned viewers that as soon as the team hits the scene, Mulder cries “spirit possession” and Scully pragmatically asks to examine the prescriptions that Dr. Lloyd takes. As always, both theories carry enough weight to be considered viable; Dr. Lloyd has no memory of the murder he committed, suggesting possession, and furthermore, Scully discovers that he is taking a controversial central nervous system depressant that could severely alter his work performance. Things take a decided turn from the pharmaceutical when Mulder and Scully discover a pentagram, constructed from burns on the floor of Operating Room 3 (the symbolic power of the number doesn’t escape Mulder) … and then, as the two continue their investigation, they encounter another pentagram. And another … and another. Evidence of the occult proliferates and, before long, black magic doesn’t seem all that far-fetched. But is it time to burn Lloyd at stake?  Not quite … before the episode’s finish, Greenwood Memorial has plenty more in store …

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Mulder connects the dots … in spilt blood. Photo courtesy of Chris Carter, Kim Manners, Jon Joffin.

If there is little Mulder/Scully banter in this one, it’s only because the plot is intricate and spellbinding (pun intended) to the point where any side conversation would be an unwelcome distraction. Scully and Mulder are put right to work, both immediately stymied by the case, despite their varied hypotheses. The familiar rigmarole of the investigation grounds a complicated story, as if to comfort fans in the grips of a particularly grisly episode—there Scully and Mulder are chasing down personnel for interviews; there they are bursting dramatically into a suspect’s home; there’s Mulder, popping in a VCR to prove his point to an ever-skeptical Scully. Of course, a smile is also teased out of fans when Scully utters her famous dictum, interrupting a surgery when she senses foul play afoot: “I’m a doctor!” (No, she doesn’t specify “medical doctor” in this one.) The sense of playfulness in most episodes is also not entirely absent, though it would be laughable to deem “Sanguinarium” a comic episode. A corporate executive at Greenwood Memorial laments tellingly, “… they’ll burn us at stake,” and after interrupting a meeting (another characteristic move), Mulder slyly remarks that he and Scully seem to have disturbed a “gathering.”

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Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) spot something strange on the tape Mulder snagged from Greenwood Memorial. Photo courtesy of Chris Carter, Kim Manners, Jon Joffin.

From the first murder—revealed in choppy extreme close-ups of surgical tools, blood, and body parts that disturb viewers by allowing the brutality at hand slowly unfold—there is a palpable sense of urgency in this episode. Each plot point seems to propel the next with increasing force, a brilliant depiction of a case so bewildering that, like so many X Files, it is less and less resolved as the episode goes on and the implications continue to expand. The construction of the story is masterful in “Sanguinarium”—it twists and turns, each move a fascinating new possibility, but doesn’t leave viewers lamenting over plot holes in the end. Its lack of resolution, too, is a significant strength. In the end, some mysteries are solved, halting the dizzying multiplication of unanswered questions—but the scope of the implications that Scully and Mulder have uncovered still towers over them, cast beyond one specific case over broad concepts: vanity, corporate greed, and the true nature of witchcraft.

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Written in blood. (“Vanitas Vanitatum” translates to “vanity of the vanities.”) Photo courtesy of Chris Carter, Kim Manners, Jon Joffin.

Gore: ★★★★
Pretty freakin’ great, even considering the limitations of the censors. Think of the horrors of plastic surgery … okay, now imagine them X-Files style. You’re getting the picture.

Horror: ★★★★★
I have one word for you: Phenol.

Suspense: ★★★★
Who wouldn’t be on the edge of their seat waiting for black magic to do its wicked work? (Don’t worry … you don’t have to wait long.)

Terror: ★★★
This episode exploits a common fear (luckily, one that I do not share): the fear of “going to sleep” under anesthetic and not waking up. Let me ask you this: Have you ever considered the possibility of being brutally butchered under anesthesia? Now you will!

Quality: ★★★★★
Masterful episode. Sure, witchcraft is a pet interest of mine … so there’s always a possibility I’m biased. But there’s no denying that this story will give you chills, if not nausea.

I watched THE X-FILES, s4E6: “Sanguinarium,” on Netflix, free with a subscription. You can also watch THE X-FILES on iTunes ($1.99 for this episode, $24.99 to purchase all of Season 4). If you want to purchase your own copy of THE X-FILES: Season 4, you can buy the DVD on B&N Marketplace starting at $7.95 or the Blu-Ray at Barnes & Noble for $29.99 ($17.99 online).


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