ATTENTION: The following review contains spoilers in the manner that I tell you everything that happens. Anyone who hasn't seen last night's episode yet and doesn't want to know all the good stuff, please stop reading! :)
When Kripke conceived Supernatural and they first started working on the show, they intended it to be "a horror movie every week." In the last couple of seasons, there's been a bit of a departure from that.
Until last night. "Family Remains" returned to the horror movie format, in all ways.
Creep Factor Dialed to 11
First we have the old guy watching TV. Lights go out, door creeps open, standard freaky-looking female with messy hair and tattered clothes approaches. Camera pans to a cross-stitch on the wall, the "home sweet home"-style message splattering with blood.
Then we have the Impala. Moment of joy, right? Except it's sitting in the middle of nowhere, in front of a gate (blocking what?), surrounded by bramble and fog and dark. Dead silence. Dean sits in the front seat, perusing a newspaper. It feels like a million other tense moments, the kind just before something attacks and makes us jump. This sets the tone for the entire episode, which is full of such moments:
*The ball rolling out of the closet (reminiscent of the ball coming down the stairs in the 1980 George C. Scott film The Changeling--scariest movie I've ever seen in my life).
*The dog disappearing.
*The girl stepping over the salt.
*Dean and Ted sneaking through the walls.
While I don't consider this episode the best of the season overall, it gets the "Creepiest" label without a fight.
Bringing the Funny
We all love Supernatural's one-liners, right? Again, this episode isn't full of them, but it gives us a few gems:
Dean, going down a hole into a dark sub-basement, after the murderous chick: "Please no one grab my leg. Please no one grab my leg."
Dean to Sam, who just said old houses all had dumbwaiters: "Know-it-all."
Sam: "You just said--" *shakes his head, walks away*
Dean, shouting, upon finding the Impala's tires flat: "What kind of a ghost messes with a guy's WHEELS?"
Horror Movie 101
"Family Remains" had a lot of the tropes of old-school horror movies. A nice family looking for a change moves into a big old house surrounded by open land, not knowing there was a murder there. And, it turns out, not just a murder. A suicide, as well, by the daughter of the guy who was murdered in scene one. The ghost connects with the young son, the most vulnerable family member. Mysterious words appear on the walls. The family dog disappears when no one is looking (and we get some gore with that, too, though the limitations of prime-time TV keep that minimal). Dean turns and jumps, we jump with him, as he comes face to face with...something gross, but not threatening. Which primes us for a short time later when the expendable guy turns and comes face to face with...the creepy killer, and we learn why the sarcastic uncle is helping his sister's family move. Did I say he was expendable?
Twisting it Up, and Leaving it Open
While this episode can be labeled "Classic" as it goes into the Supernatural archives, it's not as neatly wrapped as such things usually are. I say that's okay.
First, we have the twists. We've had lots of ghost episodes. We've explored the complexity of "evil" versus "supernatural," and we've even done the "Dude. They're just people!" thing. (Ref. "The Benders," episode 1.15) But they trick us here. They give us the ghost things:
*flickering lights (but they actually go out)
*inexplicably locked doors
*a female ghost that mimics (or mocks?) the recent trend of dark-haired, sloppy, sunken-eyed horror movie monsters
*things happening so fast a human couldn't possibly do them (emptying the trunk of the Impala, slicing the tires, killing the dog)
But then the ghost doesn't flicker in that horrible way. It doesn't skip across the floor as it approaches Dean and the family safe in the salt circle. It approaches slowly. And it crosses the salt. The iron poker doesn't dissipate her. Dean fights her off, and declares her human.
If you were like me, you were skeptical. I mean, in "Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things" (episode 2.4), we had a solid, strong, fast-moving zombie. Why couldn't she be that? But no, they held on to the human thing, and that always changes our heroes' position. Stopping supernatural evil is easy. Stopping evil humans is a whole 'nother mess. But they have to save the family, right?
The other twist comes to light when Dean rescues the young boy, Danny, who's been dragged down to the girl's hidey-hole. Danny yells that the BROTHER is coming back! Oooh, that explains a lot! When they killed the lights (and then the man who appears to be their father/grandfather EW!), the door wasn't inexplicably locked--the brother was holding it closed. The chick wasn't flitting around with the boys' weapons. She was distracting them inside while brother dear stole the stuff and slashed the tires. It's all explained now.
Well, not everything. We don't always get neat answers. Sam found a diary in the attic that tells us the man impregnated his daughter and told her he was going to lock up the baby away from her. So she killed herself. Obviously, anything they think they know from that point until now is speculation. If Sam and Dean can't possibly know it, we can't possibly know it. So it feels like holes. Fortunately, I am annoyingly able to fill them in with hypotheses. :)
How did they learn to speak and write, if they were locked up in the walls? Why did the father even keep them around? Why did they wait so long to kill him?
We kind of assume they've been locked up in the walls for close to two decades, but we don't know that's the case. They have clothes, and have been fed more than rats, for sure. I think the father/grandfather kept them in the house the way he'd have kept the daughter. Probably in secret, because of the (ick) incest thing, of course, so no one else would have known about them. Why did he keep them? He was a sicko who needed power, as evidenced by what he did to his daughter. Her suicide removed her from his influence, so of course he kept the kids so he could keep his power. With TV around, they would have learned a little reading and writing and the ability to communicate. He probably locked them in the walls as they got bigger, maybe harder to control. I think he boarded up the dumbwaiter recently, and that caused them to break out and kill him (hence the delay).
For a show that's usually written quite neatly with few gaps, open questions such as these feel like a flaw. But I don't mind having a reason to keep thinking about and talking about the show, and I find the lack of spoon-fed detail refreshing. Also, being as in the dark as Sam and Dean about those things makes me feel closer to them.
Speaking of Sam and Dean...
At the end of the last episode before the break, Dean revealed what happened in hell. That he'd resisted for 30 years, but in the last 10, he gave in, climbed off the torture rack, and started dishing the torture himself.
At the beginning of this one, Sam wakes from a deep sleep (scrunched into the back of the Impala) to find Dean looking for a job. But they just finished one bare hours ago, and Sam knows what's going on. Dean's running, either from what he told Sam, or the fact that he told it. We get Sam's knowing look and Dean's silent acknowledgment of it, with a few beautifully framed, beautifully lit shots. (Okay, maybe it's just the boys who are beautiful.)
Late in the episode, we see some of what's driving Dean. He blames himself for Ted being killed, and is absolutely determined to save the young boy. You can see the fervor in his eyes, feel it when the father asks, "Why do you care so much?" He's clearly trying to make up for what he did to the souls in hell.
But can he? That's the other big brotherly moment. He's tried. Over the last month, he's attempted to distance himself from his admission and atone for it. But he knows, and finally admits, that he can't. It's not just what he did. He liked it. It makes him sick now, but the torture eased the pain of his humanity, turned around what he'd endured for three decades, and he was glad to do it. When I watched him say that, I cracked inside. He's broken, so broken, perhaps unhealable.
But that's a topic for another post.