The first two seasons of SyFy’s Channel Zero have established it as the defining force of surreal horror on cable television. The simple concept: taking internet Creepypasta fiction and expanding them far beyond their modest word counts into truly troubling psychological vistas has proven surprisingly effective. But if the first episode of the anthology’s latest arc, Butcher’s Block, is any indicator, then Channel Zero’s fear engine is only just getting warmed up.
Based on Kerry Hammond’s Search and Rescue Woods, Butcher’s Block feels more in touch with its Creepypasta roots than previous installments. We are introduced to sinister urban legends about stairways to nowhere and maniacal dwarves, and conspiracy theories about vanished millionaires (Rutger Hauer). We see vaguely menacing taxidermists (Krisha Fairchild), and wandering lunatics whom we learn must not be allowed to own scissors, along with what happens when inevitably, they do. As always with Channel Zero, the creepy atmosphere of paranoia and madness is paramount. In this case, it is also especially pertinent to the main character, Alice (Olivia Luccardi.) Making a fresh start as a social worker, Alice’s idealism is under siege both from the oppressive conditions in the dangerous slum known as Butcher’s Block, and the debilitating mental illness that runs in her family. When a standard child welfare case takes a nightmarish turn, Alice and her troubled sister Zoe (Holland Roden) investigate off the clock and quickly find all of Butcher’s Block’s urban legends taking form and turning against them all at once.
Channel Zero consistently delivers some of the most memorable monsters in prime time, from the iconic Tooth Child of Candle Cove, to the deadly Masked Man dwelling in the second room of the No End House. But Butcher’s Block takes the impressive visuals to a new level. The creatures seen in this episode are truly impressive for the sense of wrongness they invoke. It’s not so much how they look (although they look menacing to say they least,) but how they are used and how the viewer perceives them through the context of the character doing the perceiving. Locations and set dressing are used incredibly well too, with everything from overgrown playgrounds to ominous graffiti making the world of this fictional inner city feel like a real place where people live… and die.
The two young female leads don’t quite inspire the same sense of a deep bond or viewer empathy as Amy Forsyth and Aisha Dee of No End House. Perhaps this makes the sense of bewilderment the story seems intent on inspiring more genuine. The first two seasons of Channel Zero have foraged heavily into the pit of familial suffering, and while that is certainly going to be important here too, Butcher’s Block seems more intent upon letting such heartache develop within the context brutal and horrific world, rather than the other way around.
The episode’s title, Insidious Onset, refers to the psychological degeneration suffered by Zoe and which Alice fears may claim her as well. Obviously, it states intent for how the episode will feel to the viewer as well. It is a mission which Channel Zero has successfully accomplished, as usual.