The Syfy Channel has been known to fast-lane fun low-budget schlock in order to pad out their weekly run time. Now that’s not inherently a bad thing, but they know their audience and have conditioned them to expect a certain product. What happens when they overdeliver? The answer is: Channel Zero. The year was 2016, elevated horror was on the rise, and FX was deep into American Horror Story having recently finished the flamboyantly delightful Hotel and the upcoming arrival of the genre-bending Roanoke.
So it only makes sense that Syfy (you know…the horror channel) would try and combat FX’s widely popular style over substance series. Instead of starting from the ground up, Syfy went the route of taking existing properties that already had clout within the genre and elaborating on them, plus the Slenderman phase was still going pretty strong. This is when genre-defining creator and showrunner Nick Antosca (The Act, Hannibal) took some of the scariest creepypasta from around the net and made a groundbreaking show out of them.
Before this statement, I want to make it clear that I think Channel Zero is one of the finest horror television series of the past decade. It was also, unfortunately, a failure of its own design. By setting out to create interesting and thought-provoking content, their complexity inevitably lost to thoughtless bubblegum pop hidden among the likes of Scream: The Series, Scream Queens, and the aforementioned American Horror Story. Nick Antosca created riveting and thoughtful characters with such an all-around interesting story that it was a turn-off for people who just wanted to sit on the couch at the end of the day with some mindless entertainment (not that that’s a bad thing).
But let’s get to the actual point of this. Channel Zero: Candle Cove, based on Kris Straub’s titular creepypasta, is a tense and thrilling ride into the trials of a small town, an unsolved child massacre, and a pediatric psychiatrist who needs to find answers to the questions that haunt his nightmares…welcome to Iron Hill.
The overture to Candle Cove is a haunting nightmare sequence where Mike Painter (Paul Schneider) is being interviewed for a book he recently released, before being subjected to take a call from a child, who turns out to be his deceased brother Eddie (Luca Villacis). This scene really kicks off the show with a bang, even though very little happens. Upon going back to Iron Hill, Ohio, where he hasn’t been in nearly 30 years, Mike goes immediately home to see his mother Marla Painter (Fiona Shaw), who is surprised and happy to see him.
Shortly after that, Mike visits some old friends and gets invited to dinner. At the dinner is the majority of our cast: Sheriff Gary Yolen (Shaun Benson), Jessica Yolen (Natalie Brown), Tim Hazel (David Brown), and Daphne Bell (Gwendolyn Collins). At this dinner Mike notices Gary and Jess’s daughter Katie (Katia Raquel Leon) watching Candle Cove and proceeds to ask the other dinner attendees if they remember the show, which played on the TV when they were children. They all have vaguely similar memories of the show.
At its core, the idea of a show that was aired on TV and that everyone remembers but no one actually remembers is intriguing and slightly terrifying, but the consequences of watching the show are more terrible than one can imagine.
As things in town start to happen again, missing children and the lot, Mike is immediately fingered as the cause. It doesn’t help his case that he keeps bringing up Candle Cove, that when Katie goes missing he just so happens to know where to look for her, and that after the dinner party Mike didn’t go home until five hours later. Sheriff Neckbeard from here on out keeps a close eye on Mike, even taking him into custody for a short period of time. Mike soon realizes that this is a bit too much for him, especially after being released from the psych ward three days ago because he etched “Mike come home” into his arm with a butcher knife.
Mike is a deceptively complex and tragic character. He’s thrust into a difficult situation from a young age, and when his brother Eddie goes missing he is sent away by his mother to live with other relatives. He carries years of trauma for a crime he committed but severely represses, which is amalgamated by nightmares and his [dead] brother’s supernatural powers. Mike’s reason for coming home is masqueraded by the guise of coming back home to write a book on the Iron Hill child massacre when in reality he’s being subconsciously, and occasionally not so subconsciously, influenced by Eddie.
Eddie is shown through many disjunctive flashbacks, giving us enough to piece the story together well before the exposition dump that every genre flick/show has. Once we are made to start feeling sorry for Mike, we are given many glimpses into the past where it starts to imply Mike as the person who killed Eddie and the other children. Soon we are shown that not all is as it seems. Besides the flashbacks, we are frightened by a terrifying tooth monster that is about the size of an eight-year-old child. Eddie is fed teeth by local teacher Frances Booth (Marina Stephenson Kerr), which allows him to manifest as, well, a tooth monster. Eddie’s overall goal is to lure Mike to town and take over his body.
Eddie is one of the most interesting antagonists in modern horror. What kid doesn’t want superpowers? Upon realizing that he does indeed have special powers Eddie slowly starts using them for evil; from creating Candle Cove to brainwashing adults, to murdering children for the Skin-Taker (a character he created), Eddie is a truly frightening child. We soon learn that Mike did murder Eddie, but he did so in the name of good. Mike understood the horrors that Eddie was committing and could tell it would only get worse, so he did the only thing that could be done. Mike takes a meat hook and sticks Eddie in the chest. Out of context, when we are first shown it, we feel anger and disgust towards Mike for brutally killing his twin brother. Later when we know the whole story we definitely don’t feel as bad.
Channel Zero is a tour de horror that truly takes its time and builds proper emotion. The characters are so well written and acted that every second truly feels like a treat, but don’t be tricked because the scares are there. Candle Cove, referring to the show within the show, is menacing and strange. The characters of Candle Cove serve as plot devices, pushing Mike in the right direction for what to do next. He is also the only adult who can see the show.
The production team behind Channel Zero is almost as impressive as the show itself. Among others, the most impressive of names attached to this project are Craig William Macneill (The Boy, Monsterland), and Don freaking Mancini (Child’s Play).
Channel Zero is an exercise in suspense, throwing twists and turns at you that were there the whole time. Over the next few weeks, we will be looking at the increasingly scary series, and trust me they get a lot scarier!