Usually American Horror Story is the first thing that comes to mind when you bring up ‘anthology horror series’ and I won’t get into my many issues with that mess of a show overall in this review but it amazes me more people aren’t aware of SyFy’s far superior Channel Zero, a flat out spectacular, mind blowing, thematically rich, devilishly scary, heart achingly beautiful and uniquely crafted quartet of seasons, each based (sometimes loosely, other times more directly) on popular internet ‘creepypasta’ stories. I debated doing four separate reviews for each of these seasons but I’d honestly end up spoiling too much so I’ll do four modest paragraphs here followed by a quick closing blurb:
Season one is called Candle Cove and it’s the weakest but still a wicked story, and if you know the creepypasta it’s based on you’ll know it’s about a mysterious kid’s TV show broadcast from a scrambled signal that plagued the minds of many youngsters in Iron Hill, Ohio and is always accompanied by gruesome child murders whenever it pops up on the air. One stoic child psychologist (Paul Schneider curiously underplays this role to the point of entropy yet still pulls it off somehow) returns home to this town and unravels the dark supernatural secret. This goes to some surreal places and is kind of like the warmup round for the next three seasons, which ditch the compass of convention and head straight off the map. Nods to Silent Hill permeate a super spooky environment and we get the unfortunate privilege of crossing paths with a monster made entirely of human teeth, a sight I won’t soon forget. A great dry run that isn’t perfect and stands as the least effective season yet still makes an impression.
Round two is my favourite, called ‘No End House’ and provides us exactly that, a notorious haunted house that attracts the hardcore crowd only to psychologically decimate them with horrors of the mind. One grieving daughter (Amy Forsyth) ventures in with a group of friends and because she is still mourning the loss of her father (the great John Carroll Lynch), the house takes full advantage of that and torments her no end. Reality shifts, time bends and the show runners really make it clear here they aren’t interested in telling generic stories here but rather going way outside the box. Forsyth and Lynch are utterly brilliant here as the father and daughter, bravely exploring themes of grief, suicide, sacrifice, the human soul and what it means to be a being on our plane versus one in the world the No End House has created.
Season 3 is called Butcher’s Block, it goes grand and baroque without losing sight of the intimate and personal, while also seems to have both the highest budget and conceptual ambitions of the four. The Block is one of many poor neighbourhoods in the US, struck by poverty and socioeconomic doldrums. Now it’s residents find themselves plagued by… something far worse, something with ties to former meat packing magnate Joseph Peach (Rutger Hauer is terrifyingly charismatic in one of his few gigs before he passed away) and his eerily aristocratic clan. Two troubled sisters (Olivia Luccardi and Holland Roden, both incredible) running from a past fraught with trauma and mental illness move into the area to recover and immediately find themselves pulled into this grim, diabolical and otherworldly story that starts with mystery staircases appearing in the woods on the outskirts of town and ends somewhere beyond time and space that I couldn’t possibly describe. Just a heads up this season will be tough for some viewers as it takes real world afflictions and turns them into surreal, trauma inspired monsters that literally chase our heroines around (keep an eye out for the schizophrenia entity that is now scarred into my mind forever). There’s also glorious Grand Guignol, grisly body horror, heartbreaking personal dilemmas played out against surreal backdrops and themes of class warfare and the invisibility and exploitation of poorer factions of society, prayed upon by those with wealth and extreme power. It’s certainly the most visually striking and ambitious season.
Season 4 is evocatively titled The Dream Door and is without a doubt the scariest of the four, as well as psychologically and thematically rewarding just like 2 and 3. The door in question is a mysterious portal found by newlyweds Jillian and Tom (Maria Sten and Brandon Scott) deep in their basement, with no known origin. When finally opened, out bounds a contortionist clown named Pretzel Jack who is one of the most fear inducing, eccentric, fascinating, hilarious and all round unique characters I’ve ever seen put to film. I won’t spoil his origins or why he was down there to begin with but this story has one hell of a cool premise, just as surreal as ever as it explores conjuring ones emotions into physical form, extensions of human subconscious into earthly beings, creatures from alternate dimensions and how our traumas leak into the real world, via metaphor or literal clashes with loved ones around us. Sten is phenomenal and I hope to see more of her around, she approaches the material with the kind emotional clarity often not actively put into horror protagonists.
So much for modest paragraphs. Anyways, bottom line and the reason I’m writing a mammoth review of this thing with a bunch of fanfare: this is the best horror television show I’ve ever seen, and that’s coming from someone who raved about Stranger Things, fell in love with Haunting Of Hill House, championed The Alienist, recommended The Terror and pined for more Hannibal. Channel Zero did more for me than any of those, as incredible as they are and I’m not even sure exactly why but the best I can do is a concoction of three elements: 1) the kind of unconventional, outside the box surreal storytelling that is like protein for my senses and few mainstream shows (outside of someone like David Lynch) are even allowed to attempt. 2) the fact that these are all based on urban myths and reflect that ethos in tone and mood which in turn elevated fear and 3) the horror comes not only from gore, creeping ghosts or the supernatural (of which there are plenty, not to worry) but is primarily born of character, psychology, human afflictions and characters relationships to each other. It’s an unbeatable mixture and makes for something so special I might even order a DVD set, which I almost never do with shows I know will be streaming on and off indefinitely. Masterpiece.