Horror is having a spectacular year. In film, release like Hereditary, A Quiet Place and Halloween have racked up critical acclaim and box office records, while horror television has flourished with titles like The Terror and Castle Rock. Now, in the midst of peak horror season, with The Haunting of Hill House and Chilling Adventures of Sabrina dominating the conversation, Syfy’s criminally under-sung horror anthology Channel Zero returns for its fourth season, The Dream Door.
Created by showrunner Nick Antosca (who previously wrote for Hannibal and is currently collaborating with Don Mancini on the new Chucky series), Channel Zero draws from the wellspring of internet-age horror myths known as Creepypasta. This season takes inspiration from the creepy tale titled I Found a Hidden Door in My Cellar and I Think I’ve Made a Big Mistake, written by Charlotte Bywater, and stars Maria Sten and Brandon Scott as Jillian and Tom Hodgson, a newlywed couple who moves into their new home and discovers a mysteries door that appears out of nowhere and holds deadly secrets inside.
One of those secrets is season highlight Pretzel Jack; a murderous contortionist clown who comes slashing out of the dream door with a pasty white face, red sweater, and horrifying unearthly gait. Pretzel Jack is chilling and he’s Jillian’s invention; a childhood guardian she drew herself after she saw contortionists at her first carnival. When Jillian discovers her old journal, she thumbs through the flipbook animation and Pretzel Jack lilts and tilts with jagged, inhuman movements — and that’s exactly how he moves in his physical form. If you watch Channel Zero this season, you’re going to be talking about Pretzel Jack.
He is horrifying and psychotic, and yet, as her childhood guardian, somehow still adorable. It’s a really spectacular creature design and it’s especially impressive that on the heels of IT and AHS: Cult, Channel Zero has created a new poster boy for clown terror. The lion’s share of the credit goes to performer Troy James, aka Twisty Troy, who endows Pretzel Jack with a singular, truly shuddersome physicality, and to the character’s design, which is somehow inherently revolting and equally endearing when it needs to be.
Pretzel Jack isn’t the only piece of Jillian’s past that springs to life in her new home, either. The couple discovers a sweet little dog running around the basement and Jillian swears it looks just like the stuffed animal she loved so much as a kid. Clearly, the dream door shares some kind of connection with her, and with her past, but Antosca takes his time uncovering the truth, with a number of twists and turns along the way — mostly fun and surprising, though a particularly big late-season swing doesn’t quite land.
As the Hodgson’s helpful if overly familiar neighbor Ian (Steven Robertson) reminds us in the first episode, doors hold some pretty significant meanings in Jungian psychology, promising the worlds and secrets we hold within (for Freud, of course, doors were all about sex), and it’s clear that Antosca is keen on using the symbolism to explore the hidden traumas and ill-advised secrets that hobble human relationships. In the midst of the killer clowns and psychic doors, The Dream Door explores a passionate but frayed romance on the brink. Jillian and Tom are both tortured by their pasts, each in a specific and unique way, but both keeping their truest selves from each other. As Jillian’s therapist says, “When we’re in love, we’re basically trusting amateurs to do heart surgery on us.” The Dream Door is certainly a love story, but it’s the open heart surgery version, with all the blood and viscera on display.
And boys, there is a lot of blood and viscera this season. There is a psycho murder clown on the loose, after all. Channel Zero brings in a new director every season to put their creative stamp on the series, and this season recruits filmmaker Evan Katz, who proved a knack for the stomach-churning with his feature debut Cheap Thrills. Katz brings a vivid and welcome use of color to the Channel Zero aesthetic, veering towards a visual style that feels pitched somewhere between De Palma and Fulci — especially when it comes to the kills. There’s a lot of love for practical effects on display, including some cover-your-eyes moments that are sure to please the gorehounds, and Katz’s stylistic flourishes pay off best in the final episodes, where the series’ fantastical elements are unleashed full-tilt.
Channel Zero reliably keeps the narrative tight with a six-episode run and with The Dream Door, Antosca wisely maintains focused on Jillian and Tom’s relationship and the baggage they bring with them. There are some missteps when the focus veers toward unnecessary characters or developments, but the heart of the story pays off very well in the end. And once again, Antosca proves he’s up to some of the most interesting and unusual horror storytelling on TV right now — even in a year this good.
Channel Zero: The Dream Door premieres on Syfy October 26 and airs a new episode every night through Halloween.