Okay, get this: it’s a Syfy original show based on an internet meme.
And it’s awesome.
If you’re at all familiar with internet horror, you’ve probably heard of Candle Cove; it’s considered by many to be the ur-Creepypasta, not the first ever made but the first to really codify the idea of the sort of meta-fictional narrative that can only be told on the internet.
Personally, I’ve never been a fan; it’s a prime example of an interesting premise that quickly goes overboard and gets over the top to the point of stupidity. So I had even less anticipation for Channel Zero than I otherwise would have due on its status as a Syfy property. Based on this first episode, I may have been completely wrong.
This first season (it’s an anthology show) takes the Candle Cove creepypasta as a jumping-off point for a mostly original story following child psychologist Mike Painter, survivor of a grisly serial killer who murdered his twin brother twenty-eight years prior. A disturbing nightmare prompts Mike to make a rare visit back to his sleepy hometown, where he reminisces with his friends about Candle Cove, a strange and frightening children’s show that aired for a brief two-month period right as the murders were taking place.
Before long it becomes apparent that Mike and the others are repressing some sort of terrible secret revolving around the show and the killer who took Mike’s brother, a secret that’s dragged into the light of day when Candle Cove starts popping up on television screens once more… accompanied by a terrifying entity that’s stalking the town’s children.
I first realized I was going to love Channel Zero when I saw this episode’s opening scene, which is quite possibly the most effective horror I’ve ever seen on TV. You really should see it for yourself, but it involves a television interview that starts out a little strange, then rapidly progresses to outright terrifying. The style of horror is subtle and understated, relying on a sense of eeriness rather than overt scares, and it ends with one of the most effective visual jump scares I’ve ever seen.
Over the course of he rest of the episode, Channel Zero borrows liberally in both style and tone from a selection of things that tickle my horror-bone (it’s behind your sternum), including Marble Hornets, The Ring and The Shining. The actual structure of the episode in particular feels a lot like The Ring, in that it involves a character trying to solve a mystery while occasionally being confronted by supernatural manifestations which, while horrifying, aren’t directly threatening.
The big question is whether this blend of mystery and all-consuming dread can be maintained for an entire season. And to be honest, right now Channel Zero is fairly light on the actual story front, mostly consisting of a lot of vague spooky imagery that doesn’t immediately seem to be connected in any way. This could well be a show that’s all style and very little substance, but if so it at least absolutely nails the style part.
On the other hand, maybe I’m selling the series short. The flashbacks to Mike’s past are extremely well-executed, presenting a cast of engagingly lifelike kids getting caught up in something they don’t understand, and Mike’s sense of loss over his brother’s mysterious death is poignantly observed. The best horror stories are the ones that have a core of beauty underneath all the ugliness, and there’s glimmers of that sort of potential in Candle Cove’s first episode.
Either way, I’m along for the ride. Let’s see where this thing goes.