I mentioned in the last episode the fact that The X-Files had nary a success with stories that relied on an ethnic/cultural myth. There will be others that fail similarly, “Teliko” (4×4) and “Alpha” (6×16) come to mind, but none is a better example than “Hell Money”. The reason is that “Hell Money” takes what would actually be a frightening premise for your typical police procedural and attempts to turn in into an X-File by clouding it in Chinese ghost stories only to present the whole thing to an audience who isn’t actually frightened by Chinese ghost stories.
There’s a cultural disconnect when it comes to the cursed remains of ancestors in “Teso Dos Bichos” (3×18) and fake money paid to ward off spirits here in “Hell Money”. Most often, someone who isn’t raised on these myths and legends has a hard time taking them seriously. So not only does the episode first have to educate and explain the significance of the myth, something that already takes away from it’s ability to frighten, but then it has to convince us why we should be scared. That’s a rather discouraging combination.
That’s all too bad because it takes away from an episode that could have worked wonderfully, just probably on a different show. This is one of the few X-Files episodes where absolutely nothing paranormal happens outside of a few anesthesia induced hallucinations. Like “Grotesque” (3×14) earlier in the season, the story is about human evil, except that in “Grotesque” evil possesses a man almost against his will while in “Hell Money” evil takes the form of men consciously preying on the desperate. I don’t have to tell you which picture of evil is more disturbing.
Which is why on a lot of levels this episode does work. Despite the overabundance of exposition there are moments that are frightening, just not in the paranormal sense. Certainly this idea of a lottery where kidneys and eyeballs are at stake is fabulous. (I can’t quite believe I just typed up that sentence.) And the corruption of authority, in this case, police corruption, is never too old a tale. Not to mention if the cruelty and callousness of the game doesn’t grab you there’s the whole burning men alive in the incinerator bit.
This episode feels like a script from Law & Order was cut and pasted into an X-File with random lines about ghosts thrown in. With the possible exception of a frog crawling out of a corpse, there’s no moment where I say to myself, “This must be an X-File.” Why were Mulder and Scully called in to begin with? There was nothing supernatural/abnormal about the initial murders other than that they were gruesome serial killings so I don’t see why they would have peaked even Mulder’s interest. The ghost symbol wasn’t even known about till Mulder and Scully arrived on the scene.
It’s a good story and a scary story, it just suffers from being presented on the wrong platform and with an unnecessary excess of cultural baggage. I can’t say I don’t enjoy it more than a few other episodes this season.
I also have to give this episode credit for having one of the most horrific endings ever on The X-Files. It’s truly terrifying, more than enough to bump it up a grade.
This was writer Jeffrey Vlaming’s second and last episode on the show. His first was “2Shy” (3×6).
That a man being burned alive would be able to write anything at all, let alone anything legible, let alone that his last message would be some vague reference to Chinese lore…
Hsin’s motivations never completely make sense to me. Just from the nature of the game, it’s only a matter of time until you lose something more valuable than a spare kidney. Risk of death aside, if he loses both eyes, for instance, he could end up spending as much on his own care and rehabilitation as he needs for his daughter’s surgery. The same goes for everyone else in the game. But I don’t suppose we’re meant to ruin this whole schtick by imposing logic on it.
You can win a lot more than 2 million dollars in the Powerball and you don’t have to risk life and limb. I’m just sayin’.
I can’t let this episode pass without mentioning the appearances of a young Lucy Liu and a young B.D. Wong. Consider them mentioned.
Does Mulder purposefully skip days between shaves?
Detective Chao bled out all over the place when the “ghosts” kill Johnny Lo in the teaser, that’s why they had to replace the carpet. So why is it that he failed to replace the carpet padding? If you’re going to do it, do it right.
The Best Quotes:
Scully: His name was Johnny Lo. He moved here about six months ago from Canton, still in the INS application process. He was a dishwasher in Chinatown.
Mulder: How many dishes do you have to break before your boss tosses you in an oven?
Scully: So now we’re chasing ghosts?
Mulder: “Who you gonna call?” Ghosts or ancestral spirits have been central to Chinese spiritual life for centuries.
Scully: So you’re saying the ancestral spirits pushed Johnny Lo into the oven and turned on the gas?
Mulder: Well, it sure would teach him to respect his elders wouldn’t it?
Scully: Do you know how much the human body is worth, Mulder?
Mulder: Depends on the body.