[This is a review of the Channel Zero series premiere. There will be SPOILERS.]
Like comedy, horror is incredibly subjective. One person’s Friday the 13this another’s Tootsie. As such, bringing horror to TV presents a unique set of challenges and risks in making the genre work within a medium that has to elongate and sustain certain key elements like tension, atmosphere, and terror for much longer than your average 90-minute movie. That’s one of the reasons anthologies tend to work so well. While series today have moved beyond the one-and-done style of earlier efforts like The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, or even Tales From the Crypt, the idea of keeping the stories more or less self contained tends to help keep the tension taut and the stakes high. It’s been a formula for ratings success with FX’s American Horror Story for nearly six seasons now and that formula is about to be put to the test with Syfy’s new horror anthology Channel Zero.
Whereas, AHS came to life under the creative umbrella of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, the inspiration for Channel Zero comes from a far more frightening, nightmare-inducing source: the internet. Created by Nick Antosca (Hannibal), the series derives its storylines from creepypasta – or the horror stories and legends that have been passed around the internet to the point of taking on a life of their own. In its first go-round, Channel Zero has chosen Candle Cove as the first creepypasta worthy of adaptation, taking Kris Straub’s story of the same name about users in an online forum sharing memories of a children’s television show that never existed.
The challenge for Channel Zero, then, is essentially twofold: It has to successfully maintain its horror premise while at the same time convincingly adapt a story that is not only known throughout the internet, but was more or less born there. Thankfully, Syfy and Antosca seem to be aware the task at hand and have filled the new series with a strong cast, like Paul Schneider (The Newsroom) and Fiona Shaw (Harry Potter), and limited the first season’s storyline to just six episodes – a reasonable number that something like, say, American Horror Story might have done well to consider when it first aired.
The first hour, ‘You Have to Go Inside,’ admirably works to set up the circumstances of the Candle Cove story, fleshing out its Schneider as Dr. Mike Painter, a child psychologist whose twin brother was murdered along with several other children around the same time the titular children’s program was airing. Antosca works to expand the premise of the narrative by first introducing the audience to Mike via a risky dream sequence that also firmly establishes the series’ tone and creates an unsettling atmosphere that remains consistent throughout the premiere. The opening Charlie Rose-like television interview does away with a considerable amount of exposition, filling the audience in on the necessary beats of Mike’s story, but saving the more important details for a series of flashbacks cutting into several significant and disturbing moments of Mike and his brother’s childhood.
There’s an undercurrent of childhood trauma running through the first hour, giving Channel Zero a well-used horror through line that’s effective nonetheless. Mike and his brother are seen in flashback covered in bruises and suffering from other injuries sustained off screen, but almost certainly at the hands of their tormenter. Director Craig William Macneill creates a sense of hazy claustrophobia after Mike returns home to stay with his semi-estranged mother and reconnect with some now-grown childhood acquaintances – some, like Jessica (The Strain’s Natalie Brown) have children of their own who also claim to have seen Candle Cove. An early highlight is one of the more understated moments of the hour; as a dinner conversation turns inevitably awkward when talk shifts to the mysterious television show and, more implicitly, Mike’s lingering trauma. Macneill frames the sequence primarily on Schneider, so that everything said and unsaid begins to resonate through Mike’s reactions. Later, when the plot shifts to focus briefly on Jessica’s missing daughter and the accusations that Mike may have had something to do with her disappearance, the conventional nature of the plot is assuaged by the same sort of visual work that maintains a stripped down aesthetic, upping the creepy factor while also making it feel more in tune with the emotions of its protagonist who seems very isolated despite having returned home.
One of the more unsettling aspects of the original Candle Cove story is the idea that several people recall having watched a television show that didn’t exist. And while Channel Zero makes it clear that this is true within the confines of this adaptation, the first hour pins the significance of the show’s non-existence solely on Mike and his now dead twin brother. As effective as the moments are, wherein it is learned that Mike’s suffered a psychotic break and carved words into his arm, his isolation as far as the mystery of what happened in Iron Hill during the two months Candle Cove was (not) on the air dilutes some of the intensity of the original story. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, however, as ‘You Have to Go Inside’ delivers a few truly unsettling moments, like the skull-masked individual standing in Mike’s room, or the tooth creature seen near the episode’s end.
The insinuation, then, is that Channel Zero has more to offer that will presumably fill up its first six-episode run. The premise behind the Candle Cove story seemed too thin to stretch beyond perhaps a single movie or an hour-long episode. As such, seeing the series invest in a narrative that attempts to expand the original conceit while capitalizing on its creepy, unsetting nature is reason enough to continue watching.
Channel Zero continues next Tuesday with ‘I’ll Hold Your Hand’ @9pm on Syfy.