365 Days of Horror, Day 7: Channel Zero: No-End House [2×01]

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channel zero no-end house syfy

source: tvseriesfinale.com

I have waited for this. I was so excited. And the first episode of SyFy’s blindingly brilliant horror anthology series Channel Zero did not disappoint.

No-End House is the only Creepypasta I’ve ever read – I’ve not even read the famous ones like Slenderman or Jeff the Killer – but, much like Candle Cove before it, this expands on the source material in a faithful way, while reaching new heights of trippy, creepy production design.

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random review: Santa Clarita Diet [season 1]

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For me, Drew Barrymore‘s presence can always be relied upon to make a dull project bearable. It brings me great glee, then, to see her in something that is not only smile-inducing but is also a Netflix Original – properties that have continued to surprise in their diversity and willingness to take risks.

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31 Days of Hallowe’en, Day 22: Black Mirror; Season 3, Episode 2: Playtest

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With all the horror I’ve consumed lately, a concern has been festering in the back of my mind: what if nothing scares me anymore? A message board post I recently read admitted that the author felt sad that he can’t enjoy horror movies the way he used to, because of this very reason. Maybe, like my recent favourites Don’t Breathe and Train to Busan, I can appreciate the tension those two use that is usually reserved for action movies and thrillers, rather than the lingering dread that the monster might crawl out of the screen and follow you home. Or, with my 2016 favourite The Windmill Massacre, perhaps I can just appreciate the creature’s design, the well-paced story and the creative gore.

I just won’t be scared.

black mirror 2016 season 3 playtest

But now, on the trotting heels of its prophetic Prime-Minister pig-fucking nostalgia, along comes Netflix’s Season 3 of Black Mirror. Hoorah! The show that I’d been forcing everyone under the sun to see finally has a third season on the bingewatching mecca of the interwebz.

Given the length and utter mindfuckedness of past episodes, I’d actually recommend against binging. Each episode follows you around for at least a day or two, and your brain needs time to push it back out. This one, based on Reddit comments, is one that requires just such a moratorium. (For me, it was Episode 3).

“Playtest”, Episode 2, plays with the very idea of what fear is, and how far it can be pushed to commodify it. Wyatt Russell (a curiously watchable genetic mesh of Kurt and Goldie) plays Cooper, a young American backpacker. Low on funds, he  answers an ‘odd job’ ad to beta-test a well-known company’s augmented reality game – which concerns itself with pushing the limits of fear.

In my trademarked quest to avoid spoilers, I can only say that of course it gets more twisted from there. Prepare to be suitably unsettled.

black mirror 2016 season 3 playtest

It actually throws some good bits of tension at you before the inevitable ‘nothing could possi-blye go wrong’ trope’. But from there, it genuinely gets terrifying to the point of downright uncomfortable. I can’t remember the last time I gasped out loud at a screen. This is some fantastic storytelling. The fright in any episode of Black Mirror is the unease around seeing your contemporary surroundings on screen, with just one small element futurised, amplfied, and cloaked in gloom. It’s very possible that these things could happen. And, unlike a surprisingly creative serial killer or unbeatable ghoul, the ‘villains’ in Black Mirror aren’t a single entity – it’s a plausible concept spun out of control in its influence and potential to devastate. And isn’t that just some eye-watering, spine-tingling, stomach-sinking beautiful mindfuckery?

31 Days of Hallowe’en, Day 19: Channel Zero (Episodes 1 & 2)

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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.

candle cove channel zero syfy

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.

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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.

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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.

candle cove channel zero syfy

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.

4.5/5