Tonight, Syfy launches the new season of Channel Zero, its low-budget knockoff of American Horror Story. Like other outsourced copies, the Canadian-produced series tends toward lower quality and a more workmanlike, no-frills approach to its product. I have been critical of the anthology series’ past efforts, all of which I have found to be aesthetically displeasing, occasionally wooden, and rather thinly sketched. However, I will offer praise for the remarkable renovation that the series has undertaken for its new six-episode edition, “The Dream Door,” which premieres this evening and will run a new episode each night until Halloween.
The new story, based on the online short story “The Hidden Door” by Charlotte Bywater, tells the story of a married couple, Tom (Brandon Scott) and Jillian (Maria Sten), who move into Tom’s childhood home and begin renovations. As anyone who has ever seen a haunted house story knows—and here’s looking at you, Netflix’s Haunting of Hill House—renovating an old property can only stir up unfortunate ghosts from the past. In this case, the horror emerges in the form of a door in the basement that wasn’t there in the past and shouldn’t be there now. Opening the door, which takes up most of the first hour, is an intensive process and also a massive mistake. Opening that door releases a horror that sees Jillian descend back into a madness from deep in her paranoid past.
To say more would ruin the effect, so I will leave it for you to discover yourself. I’ll only say that Bywater’s “Hidden Door” is a cliché-ridden pastiche of better stories, and “Dream Door” turns its borderline incompetent storytelling into something coherent, creepy, and interesting—and very different from the source material.
Instead of dwelling on the show’s plot, which I will not spoil, I’d like to talk a bit about the differences between this season and the previous ones. First, this year’s story begins in a more grounded and naturalistic setting. Previous versions tried, and failed, to create a heightened, stylized world on a budget and with an aesthetic sense that couldn’t support it. This was especially obvious in “No-End House,” whose setting in a nondescript Canadian bedroom community in Manitoba never felt like a real, lived-in neighborhood, but it was also a problem in the most recent season, “Butcher’s Block,” which tried to create a parallel dimension populated by decadent midcentury Southerners but couldn’t quite gin up enough style to distinguish the story’s “real” world from the supernatural one. Don’t try for period or fantasy if you can’t afford to do it right.
The cinematography is much closer to a horror movie than to the static old-school TV setup of previous seasons, lending a bit of class to what is an exceptionally violent and bloody affair.
In “The Dream Door,” the location shots and sets are staged convincingly for the first time, and a few stagey touches in the basement aside, the sets feel like the characters are actually living in them. They aren’t perfect—in one case the interior set noticeably fails to match the exterior location shots—but it is much improved. The Canadian feel of the locations is lessened a bit, though the rather loudly 1980s houses used seem, to my eye at least, aesthetically different from their American counterparts, at least from the part of the U.S. where the show is supposed to take place. They really should just have the courage of their convictions and do like Slasher and admit that they are in Canada. It’s a lovely place: Let people know you’re there!
I also thought that the actors were well cast for this go-round. Scott and Sten turn in performances that are understated and which recognize that the best way to approach over the top material is by underplaying it. In the first episode, Nicholas Tucci also turns in a fascinating performance as Tom’s best friend, by turns charismatic and menacing in an unusual combination, and a believable instigator for the horror that follows.
The narrative is more richly textured than previous outings, with the characters given backstories and motivations that make them feel more like real people than marionettes. But the monster, once revealed, will either make you gasp in horror or laugh at its absurdity. I confess that having guessed its presence before seeing it, I found it funny rather than scary despite the effectively creepy introduction that used a few horror movie clichés to great effect to hint at the looming terror before it is seen.
Unfortunately, after a much-improved season premiere, the series seems poised for a return to form (not to mention some rather specific themes and leitmotifs from the first season, “Candle Cove”), which is not entirely encouraging. The Night Gallery-style eeriness of the Dream Door itself will give way to a much less inventive monster chase and revelation of personal secrets and demons.
Overall, though, director E. L. Katz should be praised for the marked upgrade in the quality of Channel Zero, which might pull off a worthy, if not quite original, fourth season.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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