Warning: There’s no mystery here; this recap of Channel Zero: Candle Cove’s premiere episode is full of spoilers.
A bizarre new series revolving around kids in the 1980s dealing with mysterious and supernatural events? Any other year and that would be enough to get a show noticed, but with Netflix’s Stranger Things claiming the superlative of breakout hit of the year, it is going to be inevitable that the new anthology horror series from the Syfy network, Channel Zero, will end up being compared to it.
But that’s not really fair to this inaugural six-episode season, subtitled Candle Cove, which was made in a world before Stranger Things existed. These things don’t get released or watched in a vacuum, but the show was made under vastly different circumstances, and its probably more productive to judge it on its own merit, since you can just enjoy both. The good news is comparing them is not a problem for me, because I’m one of the last five people in America that hasn’t seen Stranger Things yet.
Besides, this show has enough in common/takes plenty of inspiration/borrows from other classic horror stories anyway—none more than Stephen King’s It, with plenty of Poltergeist and The Ring added to the mix—so it’s hard not to compare it to all sorts of old scary movies.
Though Channel Zero: Candle Cove is set in the present, it is tied to the unexplained deaths of children in 1988, which we experience as flashbacks/nightmares/visions/sleepwalking spells (one of many horror tropes used effectively) from the main character, renowned child psychologist and author Dr. Mike Painted, played by Paul Schneider.
I’ve always been a fan of Schneider’s, ever since seeing him in The Assassination of Jesse James, and his soft spoken, understated performance seemed almost too subtle at the beginning. His above spells made more sense when we found out later in the episode that he had just been released from a psych ward, to which he was admitted after carving (or was he forced to do it?) “Come Home Mike” into his arm. Mike isn’t softspoken so much as he’s desperate to stay in control and be listened to. It never helps to be a raging lunatic when the rest of the world doesn’t know that your crazy theory about a haunted, demon killer kid’s show is actually right. It’s hard to tell people that under the best of circumstances.
Speaking of “telling,” it just so happens it was the biggest problem in this first episode. The show was at its creepy best when it let the visuals and silence take over. From the opening, unsettling scene that turned out to be a nightmare, the long silences and off kilter framing of the camera naturally filled the scenes with dread, but far too often the dialogue was clunky, with back story and characters’ feelings being crammed down our throats. I groaned when Mike said, “Minus their teeth,” about the kid’s bodies being pulled down from the tree. No one that lived through that horror would have to say that, and that’s why it felt so forced. And the scene where we learned about his psychotic breakdown should have just had the word “exposition” flashing below it.
Not all of the dialogue was bad; it was simply really bad at its most heavy-handed, which was clearly the weak point in an otherwise promising opening episode (titled “You Have to Go Inside”). So many horror movie staples were crammed in—person returns home where horrible things happened after a long time away, creepy possessed children running around, an evil TV show, a blurring of reality and nightmares—but they all generally worked. Those things are scary for a reason, and combined with the creepy puppets and that tooth monster, the hour maintained an uneasy tension, where it felt like something terrible could happen at any moment. Add in a mystery and kids with supernatural powers you have something to build on and keep us coming back for more.
With only six episodes in this first season (they are already filming season two), it might have been inevitable that some exposition would be forced, but it did appear that in an effort to make sure things didn’t move too slowly that we almost learned too much about what happened in 1988. Mike’s brother, whose body was never found, looks more like the perpetrator than a victim. And Mike’s lack of absolute terror at seeing childhood monsters again indicates he might know more than he’s letting on about why he did come back after all these years.
(In fact, you can too, because Channel Zero is based on what’s known as a creepypasta of the same name. A creepypasta is a type of horror short story created on the internet, like the Slender Man. If you read through the thread you’ll see lots of aspects from this first episode. Though if you want to avoid potential spoilers don’t read too far.)
The previews for the rest of the season seem to promise even creepier visuals and monsters, which is exciting since the show was a lot of fun when that was the focus. Hopefully they can get away from forcing backstory on us and just letting the mystery and terror take over, because it was way scarier to watch what happened than to hear about it.
Could Candle Cove really be the second successful horror series of 2016 involving kids in the 80s? Stranger things have happened.
But that shouldn’t matter.
What did you think of this first episode? What did it remind you of? What are you most excited about going forward? Tell us in the comments below.