It’s OK. I didn’t need sleep.
With their TV shows, miniseries and original films, SyFy had always let me down in a very formulaic way. There would be an intriguing premise, and a seasoned actor or two with past-proven chops. But it would inevitably fall apart into plodding storylines, cringeacting and barf-inducing attempts at VFX, all with a prominently shite, signature SyFy sheen on it. And then, owing to a lack of self-awareness, they would just churn it out again and again.
So understandably, I was put off by SyFy, a channel that chose to start spelling its name incorrectly, slapping its stink over its latest offering, Channel Zero. And I was tempted to write off a show that some commenters insisted ‘wasn’t as good as Stranger Things‘ – a show whose hollow, ’80s trope-scrapbooking I was unable to worship (aside from its spine-tingling theme tune).
From its opening sequence, it’s clear this show is a game-changer for the channel. Child psychologist Mike Painter (the reliably grounded Paul Schneider) is being interviewed in a TV studio. He’s asked about his book, his work, the disappearance of his identical twin brother when they were both 12. Everything about the scene, from its lighting to to its editing and photography, instantly draws you into a sense of dread that something is not quite right. And, in spite of SyFy, it’s remarkably subtle.
Mike visits his mother (played with perfect American-accentedness by a wonderful Fiona Shaw who came out of nowhere), who is happy-but-not-happy to see him. His childhood home has no photos of Mike or his twin brother, whose body was never found after a series of murders. Their conversations are warm but muted. Backstories unfold through one to two-second bursts of chilling, silent flashbacks over people talking in the present. It’s both otherworldly eerie and real-world bleak.
And we haven’t even gotten to the show within the show yet. At a dinner with old schoolfriends who stayed on in the town, Candle Cove – a children’s puppet show from their youth – is brought up in conversation. They reminisce about how creepy the show was in retrospect, and how odd that nobody could ever find copies of it or information on who made it. On his way back from the bathroom, Mike notices his dinner host’s daughter transfixed by an episode of Candle Cove, which has mysteriously resurfaced.
So far, two episodes have aired. There’s enough contemporary mystery and both vintage and recent backstories to keep things interesting, and so far the show is building its dread with economical pacing. Absolutely no element of this show is boring; its layers of inferred backstories are a lot to absorb, and the restrained performances and lingering shots give you welcome room to do so.
They’ve not held back on the scares, either. There are jumpscares, but they’re not cheap. On paper, they’d seem laughable, but that’s why they work – taking something innocuous and deforming it into an surreal, bizarre, effective ghoul is no mean feat. I also feel stupid for being scared by a a bargain-bin-skull costume in a forest. But it IS creepy, goddamnit, and if you were alone and you saw it then you, too, would run screaming through a trail of your own piss.
The fact that it’s adapted from a Creepypasta (and with proper credit) is refreshing. Even if you haven’t browsed the insanely popular horror microfiction site, you’re likely to have heard of one of its first legends, the tall, faceless, suited Slenderman. And while the related attempted murder has since rendered that character outmoded, why not mine such a well-trafficked site for a decently-budgeted horror show?
Just try to sleep after watching a snarling, crackling, eyeless, voiceless monster made out of teeth.