SYFY’s Channel Zero: The Dream Door marks the horror anthology’s fourth season, which creator and showrunner Nick Antosca uses to deliver the series’ most viscerally frightening season to date. Whereas prior seasons, like No-End House and Candle Cove delivered on a pervasive, gradually intensifying sense of dread, and Butcher’s Block delved into a darkly comic and surreal story, The Dream Door is really the first time Channel Zero goes for jump scares and mixes the tension of its central mystery with a creepy killer who dishes out some brutal and terrifying scenes that help set this season apart from the rest.
This time around, the series has enlisted E.L. Katz as the season’s director, who puts a noticeable ‘80s slasher film spin on things. Katz is perhaps best known for directing the unsettling dark comedy Cheap Thrills, with Pat Healy, David Koechner, and Ethan Embry, and he applies a similarly graphic aesthetic to the story of newlyweds Jillian (Maria Sten) and Tom (Brandon Scott), who discover their house (which happens to be Tom’s childhood home) has a mysterious blue door in the basement that was never there before. The couple, along with Tom’s friend Jason (Nicholas Tucci) struggle for hours to open the door only to find it leads down a large staircase to a second door they cannot seem to open. After a period of time, Jillian finally succeeds in opening the door, unwittingly unleashing a clown-faced being known as Pretzel Jack.
That may sound like the latest diluted effort from The Conjuring franchise, but Katz manages to make Jack’s introduction a jump scare to remember. He then follows that up with a series of increasingly unsettling images that ratchet up the tension, as Jillian comes to terms with her role in Jack’s creation and why her trust issues may or may not be the driving force behind the entity’s violence.
At the center of it all is Pretzel Jack, a malevolent contortionist clown who is an amalgamation of silent un-killable slashers, like Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers, and a certain fast food mascot (think Ronald McDonald on bath salts). The result is one of the more memorable characters from Channel Zero, if for no other reason than his tendency to silently invade people’s homes and put a scare into them before hacking them to bits. A particularly graphic death at Jack’s hands caps off the premiere episode, but things get even more unsettling in the second hour, when the bendy slasher makes his way into an unsuspecting woman’s house. Their encounter is pure nightmare fuel, as anyone who’s ever been alone and thought they saw something move out of the corner of their eye can attest.
Like all seasons of Channel Zero, The Dream Door takes its inspiration from a creepypasta. This time, its ‘Hidden Door’ by Charlotte Bywater, (which is also titled ‘I Found a Hidden Door In My Cellar, And I Think I’ve Made a Big Mistake’), a story whose brevity would constitute flash fiction, but also serves as a solid foundation on which Antosca can build a scary season of television. Antosca is no slouch when it comes to expanding on the creepypastas, and here he demonstrates a particularly deft touch, bringing Pretzel Jack to murderous life, while also investigating the interior lives of Jillian and Tom, revealing trouble in paradise for the newlyweds.
The season spends a great deal of time evaluating and understanding Jillian’s trust issues, which stem from her father — a well-known developer from the area she and Tom just moved back to — and the effect that has on her and Tom’s relationship. Tom, meanwhile, quickly proves he’s not as trustworthy as he claims to be. Questions regarding a relationship with another woman quickly come to the surface and, unsurprisingly, result in Pretzel Jack choosing his next victims. The suspicion around Tom forces Jillian to begin a friendship with their neighbor, a bookish cat fan named Ian (Steven Robertson), and to seek counsel from her therapist Dr. Abel Carnacki (Steven Webber).
Both Robertson and Weber help lighten the mood a bit, as hours and hours of watching a murderous clown claim victim after victim might work for a 90-minute movie, but not for Channel Zero. Even though the series only clocks in at six episodes per season (which is one of its primary selling points) asking the audience to hang with Pretzel Jack for more than a few minutes each hour is too much. Mercifully, Antosca and Katz know what they’re doing, and the result is six hours of visceral horror that isn’t afraid to lighten things up from time to time — even if it’s just a wildly incongruent musical cue at every episode’s end.
This time around, the entire season of The Dream Door will be made available on-demand after the season premiere airs on Friday night. Turning Channel Zero into a binge-watch might actually be the right thing for the series to do, especially now that it’s established a name for itself and acquired a fan base. And for those who prefer to watch the season as it airs, SYFY is taking an accelerated approach to this time around, too, with the finale airing on (naturally) Wednesday, October 31.
All of that adds up to a different sort of Channel Zero, one that’s intent on conjuring up an altered tone and new kinds of scares. For fans of slasher films with a psychological edge, The Dream Door will likely do the trick. If you are also just looking for some quality jump scares, this season has those too.
Channel Zero: The Dream Door premieres Friday, October 26 @11pm on SYFY.