Horror is one of the most enduring forms of storytelling. From ancient stone carvings to campfire ghost stories, radio shows, and of course literature and film, human beings have always found ways to spook each other with terrifying tales of the bizarre. With the internet and message board culture came the rise of Creepypasta, intimate short-form horror tales that went viral as a form of digital urban legends, slowly working their way into the mainstream.
That wellspring of terrifying tales is the rich source from which Syfy and series creator Nick Antosca created Channel Zero, the ongoing anthology series that expands some of the most famous Creepypasta stories into imaginative, tightly-scripted six-episode narratives. The previous installments, Candle Cove and No-End House, demonstrated Antosca’s eye for world-building and chilling detail, and the third season, Channel Zero: Butcher’s Block, improves on that solid foundation to become the most imaginative, fantastical entry in the series yet.
Inspired by Kerry Hammond’s creepypasta “Search and Rescue Woods,” Butcher’s Block introduces us to the Woods sisters, Alice (It Follows‘ Olivia Luccardi) and Zoe (Teen Wolf‘s Holland Roden), who move to a new town looking for a fresh start after a particularly violent run-in with their family’s propensity for mental illness. Alice is a social worker eager to help the less fortunate children in the area, while no doubt working out some of her own family demons in the process. Zoe is recovering from a mental breakdown and addiction problems after experiencing the “insidious onset” of the schizophrenia she inherited from their mother.
Unfortunately for the pair, they’ve chosen to make a new home near a sinister place plagued with disappearances. Not your average forgotten slum, the titular Butcher’s Block is a dangerous realm where otherworldly phenomenon slips through the cracks of society to prey on those who won’t be missed. Fans of “Search and Rescue Woods” will recognize some familiar imagery (most notably the mysterious, pristine staircase to nowhere that appears in the middle of the woods, seemingly at random). However, Butcher’s Block adapts the source material more freely than the previous Channel Zero installments, tying the tales of the dangerous woods into neighborhood squalor and the enigmatic, meat-peddling Peach family, who once owned the town before disappearing after a family tragedy.
I’m loath to give away to give away too many of the wicked twists and turns, but suffice it to say, Butcher’s Block makes great work of unfolding the mystery of the Peach family — headed up by Rutger Hauer‘s disarming patriarch Joseph Peach — and each new reveal further connects the Woods sisters to the sinister forces poisoning the infamous town. Butcher’s Block also makes great use of Krisha breakout Krisha Fairfield, who co-stars as the sisters’ new curmudgeonly landlord, who spends her spare time on taxidermy and has no interest in her tenants, but does have a deep and personal interest in the town’s history. In the four episodes provided to the press, Antosca makes thrilling work of tying these ends together in unexpected, deliciously pulpy ways.
As the title suggests, Butcher’s Block is more immediately visceral and carnal than the previous Channel Zero installments. There are stomach-churning moments of fleshy frights, but if you’re worried about the show turning into a sloppy splatterfest, put your fears to rest. Channel Zero remains inventive and unusual, tapping into the surreal and mingling it with potent character drama to conjure psychological terror. As the very intentionally named Alice heads further down the rabbit hole of madness and violence in Butcher’s Block, the series dives headfirst into uncanny urban horror fantasy.
Antosca and director Arkasha Stevenson, who helms all six episodes of the new season, wear their influences on their sleeves — usually, in bright swaths of red, from the crimson hoodies that evoke Don’t Look Now, to the bold wallpapers and technicolor lit hallways that pulled straight from Luciano Tovoli‘s Suspiria playbook. Elements of David Lynch‘s style are also at play consistently from (there’s a heavy Fire Walk with Me and Eraserhead vibe throughout), but most effective when they’re used to needle at the phobia and terror of insanity, and the threat of losing yourself to an inherited evil. Butcher’s Block finds ways to literally and figuratively prod at the human mind in ways that will leave your skin damp with panic and crawling with disgust.
That visual language and emboldened aesthetic give Butcher’s Block a distinct flavor from the previous two installments. It’s easily the most striking and eye-catching season, but it also has a distinctly twisted sense of humor that pops up between — and sometimes during — the moments of ringing terror. Butcher’s Block makes big, bold swings and the payoff is a Channel Zero installment that feels unique. It’s the most ambitious, imaginative and aesthetically rich season yet, and it suggests a growth and experimentation that could allow Channel Zero to continue for years. The internet has plenty of creepy stories ripe for adaptation, and Antosca clearly has enough worlds in his head to do them justice.
Rating: ★★★★ Very good
Channel Zero: Butcher’s Block premieres Wednesday, February 7th on Syfy.