Monday, 16 October 2017

October Nightmares III #16: Channel Zero (2016 - ) - Tuned to a Dead Channel

The internet is a scary place. Craigslist serial killers/rapists; dark web terrorists, hit-men, and human traffickers; Tumblrinas who think they have Dr Who or Sherlock Holmes (the twatty Cumberbatch one, not Robert Downey Jr. or better) as their 'headmates' living rent-free in their brain; bronies who write about sticking their favourite My Little Pony figurine in a jar of their own spunk. Shudder.

It's utterly misanthropic, and yet strangely intoxicating, just how renegade the internet is as a public space. The (mostly) unregulated weird and wonderful nature of the internet has proven to be the perfect breeding ground for the next generation of urban legends. Capitalising on the internet's (dwindling) Wild West frontier ethos is a brand of short fiction known as 'Creepypasta' - a derivative form of 'Copypasta', so-called because it used to be spread all over internet message boards like a rumour about your mum.

As a kid, I used to love urban legends. When you're that age though they usually involve your mate telling you about how his never-before-seen friend knew a kid who died whilst taking a shit in the school toilets. In its earliest days, Creepypasta had that same air of the it could be true. The details were left vague, the author was anonymous, and the story trappings were kept to a believable level. Nowadays, Creepypasta is mostly just a stylistic choice.

Creepypasta used to be yet another niché internet thing, and the closest it got to the mainstream was being read out by Mr. Creepypasta on Youtube. Channel Zero, an anthology series airing on Syfy, marks the first serious attempt at a mainstream adaptation of Creepypasta. And I mean serious: this is probably one of the most well-crafted horror series on TV at the moment.

I imagine such a task as adapting Creepypasta wasn't easy. This isn't like adapting Edgar Allan Poe - who obviously didn't have the audience of a visual medium to consider when he wrote his works, so the biggest challenge is cutting down his verbose word soup. Creepypastas are written by amateurs without editors and, as such, are usually terribly written and full of all manner of plot holes and faulty logic.

Fortunately with Creepypasta it's the ideas which count, and Channel Zero has so far adapted two particularly standout pieces: 'Candle Cove' and 'No-End House'. I'm not a fan of the whole one Creepypasta spread over a single six-episode season, however; the original stories were usually kept succinct for a good reason. This is pulling a Peter Jackson. But outside the seemingly endless Slender Man, Jeff the Killer, and Chuck E. Cheese stories, Candle Cove and No-End House represent some of the best this peculiar format has to offer.

Season One adapts Kris Straub's Candle Cove, which concerns child psychologist Mike Painter (Paul Schneider) who returns to his hometown to confront his childhood trauma. When Mike was a child he witnessed a curious show, Candle Cove, which is cross between one of those semi-educational pre-school shows with puppets, and The Adventures of Captain Pugwash. But instead of pirates with rude names like Seaman Staines, Candle Cove has The Skin Taker - a massive pirate skeleton marionette who has a thing for grinding up the skin of children.

What shocked me about Channel Zero's take on Candle Cove is that the writers just threw out the Creepypasta's big twist at the end of the first episode. In the original story the protagonist's mother catches him watching Candle Cove, only for it to transpire that there's only static on the screen. Whilst there's worse things for your mum to catch you doing, the twist ending threw something of a curve-ball compared to other Creepypastas which tried to present their lost 'episodes' of children's TV shows as the real deal. As though Danny Antonucci - creator of Ed, Edd n Eddy - were the Dario Argento of Cartoon Network.

From the end of episode one you knew all bets were off, as the writers use the source as a launching point only. Whilst this does create pacing issues - especially if you're only here to see the ridiculously over-the-top macabre pirate show brought to life - it also expands the story into a psychological portrayal of childhood trauma and psychic children (just go with it). Channel Zero's Candle Cove taps into the same sense of tragic nostalgia as IT and Darkness Falls. This version of the story goes to much darker places, and the payoff at the end of season one is worth the slow, character building pace.

Instead of just serving up a scary slice of not-so-conventional children's TV and resting on its laurels knowing full well the Youtubers are shitting themselves and making videos about how they "can't even"; Channel Zero digs deeper right into heavy weight themes such as the loss of childhood innocence, trauma, damaged relationships, and grieve. And then comes at you with a child made entirely out of teeth. It's like a paedo dentist's wet dream.

Channel Zero is better than it has any right to be. And I know that sounds like such an arsehole thing to say; but seriously, no one in their right mind would have expected an adaptation of an amateur short story, posted online by some random Johnnie, to work out so great. This is the equivalent of a Sunday league football team winning the Premier League. The eponymous show itself is a pitch-perfect depiction of the ropy Saturday morning kid's TV show, with a growing dread bubbling under the surface.

I can't really comment on No-End House, as it hasn't finished airing yet. But from what I've seen so far, and from what I know of the source material, it's a bit throw-everything at the wall and see what sticks for my liking. The idea is a cross between the Twilight Zone and one of those crude, half-put together fun houses you find at fairs. But the series expands beyond this simple mystery-spot concept, and creates some Stepford Wives faux reality filled with weird imagery and layers upon layers of meaning, like a more pretentious Inception. No-End House delves into themes such as depression, conformity, and the feeling of being trapped. Huh, I suppose that is the average experience on a fair fun house.

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