SYFY’s Channel Zero: Butcher’s Block is stylistic departure for the anthology series, one with real scares and surprisingly dark humor.
Late last year, No-End House, the second installment of SYFY’s horror anthology Channel Zero, demonstrated how the series could elevated itself thematically and stylistically from one season to the next, and how adaptations of internet horror stories known as creepypasta could be transformed into six-hours of a series that was really like nothing else on television. No-End House was a larger, more complex story than Candle Cove, one that, when translated to television, was a bit more ambitious in scope. The result was a well-received second effort, and, as such, it’s no surprise that the third season, Butcher’s Block, finds a way to out do its immediate predecessor in terms of tone, style, and themes. But perhaps what’s most surprising about the third installment is just how darkly funny it can be.
Butcher’s Block also hails from the world of creepypasta; this time taking its cue from Kerry Hammond’s ‘Search and Rescue Woods.’ Hammond’s story is the account of a search and rescue worker detailing the unsettling and often unexplainable things encountered deep in the woods. Given its focus on search and rescue, the creepypasta is most interested in the lingering dread that surrounds most missing persons cases; it is particularly fascinating with the notion of how an individual can vanish without a trace, leaving everyone else to linger for months and sometimes years hoping for answers. Add to that a more generalized fear of the unknown lurking in the farthest reaches of the wilderness, along with random staircases materializing out of nowhere, and you have the makings of a solid, unsettlingly viral story for the internet age.
What Butcher’s Block aims to do, then, is pick and choose which elements from Hammond’s story it wants to use, and insert them into a larger narrative about heredity, legacy, mental illness, and urban decay. It’s something of a tall order, but one that series showrunner Nick Antosca and season director Arkasha Stevenson seem to have well under control from the first episode on. Butcher’s Block is not only competent when it comes to generating real scares and maintaining an unsettling atmosphere, but it’s also confident enough to have a lot of fun at the same time.
Sustained apprehension is at the top of Stevenson’s list, as she introduces her protagonists to the season’s setting at the same time as the audience. It’s an economical way to settle into the world of Butcher’s Block and get to know sisters Alice and Zoe Woods (Olivia Luccardi and Holland Roden, respectively), and their new landlord Louise (Krisha Fairchild). The effect is one of disorientation, one that Channel Zero is eager to sustain throughout the first four episodes that were made available to critics. The narrative unfolds across a number of different timelines and from a number of different perspectives, with each character becoming more and more unhinged the more they discover or are unwittingly exposed to the bloody goings-on in Butcher’s Block.
Much of that revolves around child-like murderers running around the waist-hight grassy overgrowth of an economically depressed area, as well as the presence of a staircase leading nowhere that’s discovered in the middle of a neglected urban park. The supernaturality of is understated in the object’s outward prosaicness; there’s nothing inherently frightening about a set of stairs. Instead, the stairs become the basis for some unsettlingly unanswerable questions, and, to the credit of Channel Zero, some uncomfortable giggles.
If the show were to insist that an awkwardly detached staircase was somehow sinister and those watching were to somehow be frightened by it, the audience might be justified in first scoffing at the TV and then changing the channel. Instead, Butcher’s Block knowingly presents the staircase, along with a great many other elements that will be introduced later, with a knowing wink and a nod. The series wants to unsettle the viewer and it uses the incongruity of that specific image to elicit a response, one that isn’t too far removed from the sight of child-like murderers in red hoods straight out of Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now. The series allows the nonsensicalness to linger and build, long after people start disappearing, neighborhood cats are consumed by evil, malformed children, and Rutger Hauer shows up for a sinister midnight stroll in a park you’d be right to assume someone had recently been murdered in.
As much as Stevenson succeeds in presenting Butcher’s Block as a borderline hellscape, her real achievement is the overwhelming sense of dread she cooks up with the help of a perturbing backstory for her protagonists, Alice and Zoe. The threat of Zoe’s fragile mental state and Alice’s fears of slipping into the same condition as her sister is made worse by the through the flashbacks of their mother’s battle with mental illness. The dark details come in bits and pieces, but the their flight from home and efforts to start over, paint a complete picture long before the truth is known. That includes barking up the wrong surrogate mother tree with regard to their landlord played by Krisha Fairchild, who made a splash in Trey Edward Shults’ 2015 film Krisha.
The result is the best season of Channel Zero yet, and one that demonstrates just how far Antosca and his crew can take the series if future seasons choose to depart similarly from their creepypasta origins. Disturbing and visually compelling, Butcher’s Block makes for a welcome return of the best horror series on television.
Channel Zero: Butcher’s Block continues next Wednesday with ‘Father Time’ @10pm on SYFY.
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