Whether you loved the ’80s-reverent Netflix series or loathed it, upgrade your horror binge-watching.
If you’ve watched Stranger Things, chances are you enjoyed it: It’s got Winona Ryder, some cute kids, and enough reference to classic ’80s movies to at least thaw the coldest heart. If you haven’t watched Stranger Things, you’re probably sick of people telling you watch it (especially since it’s almost Halloween). Which is also fair: It’s fun enough, but there are many ways in which the show is lacking. (And it’s hard to imagine wanting to ever rewatch it in place of any of the original movies that form the skeleton of the show.) So what should you watch as a horror series instead—or next? Enter Channel Zero, SyFy’s new anthology show based on creepypastas: scary stories (generally with no single discernible origin) that make their way around the internet, warped and changed until they become the online equivalent of urban legends.
Channel Zero’s first six-episode installment adapts “Candle Cove,” a story about a community access children’s show with hidden, murderous depths. Though the original “Candle Cove” does, in fact, have a single author (Kris Straub), its simplicity and thematic singularity feels like a product of a universal subconscious, particularly in a world where any adult who was once an enterprising, entertainment-driven child could have accidentally consumed something like Wonder Showzen. (I have too many memories of accidentally staying up late enough to watch Cartoon Network become Adult Swim, and in a phone call with journalists earlier this week, series star Paul Schneider—Mark Brendanawicz from Parks and Recreation—recounted a version of this childhood experience accidentally wandering into a screening of The Elephant Man at age five.)
The SyFy series stars Schneider as Mike Painter, an adult who watched Candle Cove as a child in Iron Hill, Ohio, and is still shaken by the experience, which claimed several children from the town, including Mike’s twin brother. He returns to Iron Hill, divorced, perpetually anxious, and plagued by nightmares, and resolves to find out what really happened. The other characters register intermittently in moments of intense fear or emotion, but it doesn’t matter, because “Candle Cove” is always Mike’s fever dream.
And what a fever dream it is. The production design for the actual Candle Cove series is spectacular, creating puppet pirates that exist somewhere at the intersection of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood of Make-Believe and VeggieTales. They’re used sparingly enough, along with the attendant tropes of TV-based horror (static, blank-faced children, quick cuts) that each and every appearance of the Candle Cove show ensures that—unlike most of Stranger Things—Channel Zero is actually scary.
This is no small feat for SyFy, a channel that’s been struggling with its attempts to find a more prestige-friendly, sleek identity—certainly, it’s working with a lower budget and therefore less sophisticated scares than Stranger Things. But that works in Channel Zero’s favor, since analog puppets make for far scarier villains than Matthew Modine in a suit or a CGI mouth. Series creator Nick Antosca and director Craig William Macneill (who handles every episode of the half-season) ensure that the show’s version of Iron Hill occupies a haze where even if things aren’t as they seem, the perception is just as important.
Playing a silly, childish appearance against a terrifying reality is appropriate for a show that features frequent flashbacks to the ’80s, but Channel Zero never indulges the temptation to make its subtext obvious—it’s firmly grounded in the present, where people have to actually deal with the consequences of their actions from past decades. Rather than simply churning up the shiny cultural artifacts of the ’80s and turning them into a sleek, easily GIF-able product, Channel Zero forces us to spend several hours with the grown-up version of a kid from an ’80s horror movie, and the result isn’t pretty: Schneider’s occasionally blank performance is reminiscent of an open-mouthed child encountering the supernatural for the first time. (But the flashback scenes have more than enough great haircuts and period jackets to tide you over, if that’s your thing.)
Channel Zero is a very good show that’s perfectly content to be just that. No one is forcing Paul Schneider to dab at the Emmys. It’s hard to see why anyone would want him to—there’s nothing sexy in Channel Zero, no miscast Winona Ryder or easy Halloween costumes. And it’s occasionally tough to watch (without spoiling anything, Mike is slightly less of a pure victim than he originally appears to be), where there is little challenging about Stranger Things, a pure pop-culture phenomenon if ever there was one.