REVIEW: Channel Zero: No-End House EP 1 – “This Isn’t Real”

SyFy’s groundbreaking anthology series Channel Zero returned on September 20th with its second story-arc, No-End House. The brainchild of creator Nick Antosca and producer Max Landis, Channel Zero previously took Kris Straub’s brief Creepypasta, Candle Cove, and turned it into a sprawling, strangling web of small town terror. For all its critical praise, Candle Cove naturally raised the question of whether Channel Zero could capture that same hallucinatory atmosphere of menace and dread a second time.

If the first installment of No-End House is any indication, then the answer is yes.

Following a bewildering cold-open in which a frightened woman is chased toward an ominous black house, the words “This Isn’t Real” literally carved into her arm, the action shifts abruptly to college student Margot Sleator (Amy Forsyth). Following the untimely death of her father (John Carroll Lynch), Margot has become increasingly withdrawn and isolated, dwelling in memories of happier times. When her lifelong friend Jules (Aisha Dee) seeks her out to lift her spirits, they only get to enjoy a few moments as normal young women before bizarre occurrences threaten their happiness.

The girls shake off the menacing video they’ve just been made to watch and try to enjoy a night out, but soon this too takes an unusual turn as they learn that the source of the bizarre videos is a travelling art installation called the No-End House: an attraction rumored to be so unsettling that no one travels all the way through its rooms before chickening out. Naturally, it’s too much temptation for curious teenagers to resist and the girls and their new friends soon find themselves queued to enter the house.

Which is, of course, the same scary black structure that featured prominently in the opening.

The No-End House itself unquestionably becomes the star of the second half of “This Isn’t Real.” Antosca and his crew have gone above and beyond the call of duty in making this eldritch locale truly bizarre, alien, and threatening. In Brian Russell’s original story the house feels like a Halloween haunted house gone terribly wrong. But No-End House of the show is wrong in a sense that is completely unrelatable; completely alien, yet it becomes all too familiar for Margot very, very quickly. Channel Zero is shamelessly flirting with the realm of the cosmic horror genre within the warped reality of the No-End House, but it skillfully takes all the frightening implications of the place and zeroes them in on Margot and the central pain of her young life.

Is the twist that closes the first episode of No-End House easy to predict early on? Perhaps. But by the time we reach it the show has so successfully invested us in the small cast of characters that we arrive there with all the dread and suspicion we are intended to have.

The message that Channel Zero is sending with this episode is very clear: the show might be taking us down some dark paths and blind alleys this season, but it as not lost its touch.