Channel Zero

I don’t have a lot of time, so I’m going to try and make this post short and sweet. I’ve just started a huge project that I’m going to be devoting a huge chunk of time to. So much so that it may spill over into my blog here and change the focus of the entire thing. But now is not the time for that, so, with the possibility of me no longer writing about TV or movies, I want to make sure that I talk about a few of the shows I consider “must see”. Particularly the ones I feel just don’t get enough love. Which brings me to Channel Zero.

Channel Zero was a horror anthology that ran for 4 seasons on Syfy. It was written by Nick Antosca, who has, in addition to writing Teen Wolf and Hannibal, has also written several novels, like Fires and The Quiet Boy, and even a few films, like The Forest and Antlers. It’s an impressive resume, which explains some of my praise. And while my praise is effusive, it’s a little hard to explain. It’s like those jokes that you sort of just have to be there for. I’m normally a “story guy”, all about the plot, the character development, but, admittedly, Channel Zero is a bit weak in that department. Not that the plots or the characters are bad, it’s just that they aren’t the strengths of the show. The characters are thin, the plots slightly confused, but the feel of the show itself is CREEPY! It’s one of the eeriest shows I’ve seen, giving the viewer that otherworldly feeling that is so elusive. I’ve talked about this rare quality before, in films like The Endless and A Cure for Wellness.

Each of the four seasons tells a story involving different bits of creepypasta. If you don’t know what creepypasta is, welcome to the club, even now I have only a cursory understanding of the term. The best description I can think of is urban legends for the internet. The Slender Man and The Russian Sleep Experiment are examples of creepypasta, spooky stories, once told round the campfire, now skulking around the information superhighway. Season 1 tells the story of Candle Cove, a mysterious children’s show from a studio that shouldn’t be transmitting. The theme of Season 2 is The No End House, which, as the name implies, consists of a series of impossible rooms. Season 3 is called Butcher’s Block, about a highly carnivorous family of exceptional longevity. Lastly, season 4 is a story that is equal parts disturbing and depressing, called The Dream Door. Each one is very different, except for the ability to make one’s hairs stand on end.

I consider Season 1 to be the best, but I’m not sure if that’s because it’s true or if I wasn’t prepared the impact it would make. The first few minutes of the first episode stay with me to this day. There’s so many things to creep one out in this season. The children’s show, Candle Cove, is a puppet show and puppets are almost as creepy as clowns and dolls. Murderous children are involved and children are kind of sinister even when they’re normal. And, then, then there’s the tooth monster. The main character is guilt ridden and possibly insane. Almost every scene exudes menace and danger lurks just out of sight.

Before I had seen season 2, I had never heard of the No End House. There are several iterations of this particular creepypasta, but it essentially is about a house that people are called to go into, sometimes because there’s prize money if they go through all the rooms in the house, sometimes because they are dared to. Each room is sequentially numbered, this number appearing on the door to the next room, usually starting with 1 and going up to 9. The first room is deceptively cheesy, but each of the others get progressively more horrifying, the last one nearly driving people to madness. Those who get through all of them to finally escape the house initially feel relief and return home, only to find the next number on their front door. This is basically the story in Season 2 of Channel Zero, except that a group of friends enter the house, each experiencing different things, based on their individual fears and, as you might guess, they don’t all get to leave. There’s a heck of a lot more to it, themes involving grief and loss and how much of one’s self is in their memories, but I don’t want to ruin any of this by saying too much. I also wanted to say that one of the cast members in this season is the phenomenal John Carroll Lynch of The Drew Carey Show and Fargo. He’s an amazing actor who absolutely nails his roles in everything I’ve seen him in and this is no different.

According to Wikipedia, season 3, Butcher’s Block, is based on Kerry Hammond’s “Search and Rescue Woods” , but if that’s true, it’s very loosely based. If you’re unfamiliar with “Search and Rescue Woods” (I was), it was originally a series of stories first featured on the subreddit, No Sleep, and later collected into novel form. The stories are told by one of the search and rescue rangers who work a particular set of woods where all sorts of mysterious and spooky happenings occur. Butcher’s Block involves a pair of sisters, one with severe, almost incapacitating, depression, who move to a new town and find a strange flight of stairs, in the middle of the woods, seemingly leading to nowhere. Eventually, they meet Joseph Peach (played by the incomparable Rutger Hauer, RIP, of Blade Runner and Hitcher), the elderly patriarch of the Peach family, the head of a butchering and meat packing empire. This season is a bit more meandering than most, but no less eerie, culminating in the sisters having to make a devastating choice.

The fourth and final season is Dream Door, based on Charlotte Bywater’s story, Hidden Door. I’m guessing Antosca is a Reddit fan, because Hidden Door also is a find from r/Nosleep. In Dream Door, a married couple find an odd door in their basement, that they hadn’t noticed before. They explore it and initially found nothing, but before long, the door, or the room behind it, manifests their dreams. And, true to the nature of the show, these things are perverted manifestations of these dreams.

My love of television is well known. I mean, I’m writing a frickin’ blog about it, for goodness sakes. Most of the shows I talk about here are shows that I feel are high quality entertainment, shows I want to tell people about, because I think that they’ll enjoy them as much as I do. That being said, I wouldn’t really call them art. Entertainment? Yes, but art? There are the few rare shows that attain that vaunted title that few television shows even consider. I feel that Legion did it, Antosca’s other show, Hannibal did it and Channel Zero does it. By this, I’m not saying that these are the best shows in the world, but that they “subvert the paradigm”. They don’t care what a show should be, they have an artistic vision, one that is different than what the very concept of a television show should be. Often, certain things, like plot, are sacrificed in pursuit of this vision, but what emerges is a thing of beauty. Well, maybe not beauty, per se, in the case of Channel Zero, but something pure nonetheless. It’s not so much entertainment as a work of art that evokes a feeling. It bypasses the brain and triggers fear and dread directly to the brain stem. If you, dear reader, ever decide to watch Channel Zero, remember this. Don’t dwell on plot points or if things make sense or any of the things that one normally focuses on a show, just feel it.

Pontypool

This is a film that doesn’t get nearly enough love. I get it; it might not be for everyone. It’s a zombie movie with no undead, flesh-eating zombies. It’s a horror movie with little blood and the secret weapon against the apocalypse is poetry. It’s weird. It’s unique. Dare I say, it’s a thinking man’s zombie movie. And the threat isn’t a monster or a virus or a demon; it’s language, it’s a meme. I would say that Pontypool is way ahead of its time in demonstrating how dangerous the wrong meme can be. I actually feel a little bad about calling this a zombie movie, in that the producer has explicitly said that this is not a zombie movie, referring to the infected, instead, as conversationalists. That being said, the infected were once normal humans who have been turned into mindless creatures bent on violence and everyone else calls them zombies, too.

I don’t think many people have seen this movie, so I’ll give a brief description. It’s a bottle movie, almost the entire movie takes place at a small radio station in the town of Pontypool, Ontario, reminiscent of 10 Cloverfield Lane. We soon meet shock jock DJ, Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie of Watchmen and Come to Daddy), a grizzled renegade, abrasive and slightly arrogant due to being a big fish in a little pond. He comes into the station to do his show on a cold and snowy day, assisted by the station manager, Sydney (Lisa Houle of Cold Squad and Scene of the Crime). Given that it’s talk radio, his show involves taking calls from listeners, but the first call is from their “eye in the sky” traffic reporter. He describes an odd scene in which a group of people seem to be attacking another and then he gets cut off. That sets off a series of calls, each one more bizarre and frightening than the last, the story of a zombie apocalypse told in snippets. Finally, the infection and the infected arrive at the studio and death enters the bottle.

It feels like a radio show, almost more so than it does a movie. There’s a good reason for that, in that, not only was the production inspired by Orson Welles, War of the Worlds, but it was also made into a radio play at the same time it was filmed. Based on a book, Pontypool Changes Everything, written by Tony Burgess, who also adapted it for the movie, it is part of a trilogy. The first book in the trilogy is The Hellmouths of Brewdley, followed by Pontypool Changes Everything and finally, Caesarea. I say trilogy, because that’s what’s on the Wikipedia page. Reading the descriptions of the three books , however, I have no idea how they are related. In addition to writing the screenplay for Pontypool, Burgess has written 7 other screen plays, including Septic Man and Hellmouth. He has even been in a number of his own movies, including Pontypool (he played Tony Lawrence).

In order to be complete in my research, I started tracking down these other movies. Septic Man involves a sewerage worker who gets trapped in a septic tank and becomes mutated by toxic sewage. It addition to sounding too much like The Toxic Avenger, it just sounded incredibly disgusting. Ejecta got horrible reviews, scoring a 4.6 on IMDB and sounded like it might be tortuous to watch. So, Hellmouth it was. Much like Pontypool, it seemed as if were made on a show string budget. Filmed in black and white and making liberal use of cheap editing tricks, it has the feel of the movie, Sin City. It’s the story of Sydney, an old and dying cemetery caretaker. He receives a box that contains a key and a mysterious map. Hellmouth was …okay. Watchable, but not too compelling. Somewhat disappointing, really. I’m writing this post because I LOVED Pontypool. I though it was amazing enough that I’ve seen it three times and I would see it again in an instant, and I rarely see movies more than once.

At the start of this post, I mentioned the word meme. While I have never heard anyone else associate Pontypool with memes, the connection seems obvious. A meme is defined as an idea, behavior or style that spreads by means of imitation from person to person. Many of these are merely humorous, like Bad Luck Brian and Business Cat, but memes can be weaponized. In 2015, The journal, Defense Strategic Communications published an article by Jeff Giesea titled, It’s Time to Embrace Memetic Warfare, urging that, as countries prepare for cyber warfare, they should also be preparing for memetic warfare. One passage reads:

Cyber warfare is about taking control of data. Memetic warfare is about taking control of the dialogue, narrative, and psychological space. It’s about denigrating, disrupting, and subverting the enemy’s effort to do the same. Like cyber warfare, memetic warfare is asymmetrical in impact. It can be highly effective relative to cost. The attack surface can be large or small. Memetic warfare can be used in conjunction with troops, ships, aircraft, and missiles, or it can be employed without any kinetic military force at all. It operates in the communications battlespace.

Anyone who has been online in the last few years knows how pervasive a good meme can be, influencing large segments of society. I believe that Pontypool mimics this effect, though pushed to nightmarish conclusions.

This movie isn’t for everyone. The monsters in it are less monsterish than in most horror movies, and the deadly infection is somewhat conceptual in nature. Still, I feel that the actors are excellent and that the director does a fantastic job of slowly dialing up the tension until the viewer feels just as trapped and threatened as the people inside the tiny, small town, radio studio. The nature of the infection itself is so esoteric that I couldn’t stop thinking about it for weeks. The best horror movies are the ones that won’t let go. That hold onto one’s psyche. And, for me, Pontypool is exactly that. I may just have to watch it again.

Supernatural

Earlier, I had shared my concept of the Children of the Slayer, in a reference to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, (BtVS), a show so influential it begat a myriad of imitators. Of all these children I could discuss, one would assume I might talk about her closest child, Angel, spawned from the same writers, the same creative minds and sharing quite a few of the same actors. I will discuss Angel later, but right now I want to talk about arguably the most successful of all the Slayers children, Supernatural. It’s ending this year, after an impressive 15 seasons, with thousands of adoring fans, it was originally only planned for a three season run, but the overwhelming popularity of it extended that.

The show follows a pair of brothers, Sam (Jared Padalecki of Gilmore Girls and House of Wax) and Dean (Jensen Ackles of Smallville and Dawson’s Creek) Wincester, who are “Hunters”, a vocation which involves them tracking down and killing all manner of supernatural creatures. It’s a family calling, as their parents were hunters, but their mother was killed in a tragic, demon-related fire when they were young. Their father accompanies them in the end of the first season, he leaves early in season 2. And it’s just the brothers for the vast majority of the series, though he does return briefly (1 episode) in season 14 . Actually, that’s not entirely true. Throughout the show, there is a rotating cast of characters that interact with the Winchesters. I say interact, because these characters are wonderfully dynamic, villains becoming allies, friends becoming evil; there are so many twists and turns, double crosses and reversals of fortune, that the show traipses dangerously close to soap opera territory. It is this crowd of personalities that gives the show a richer, more complex tone that I am sure contributed to the show’s longevity.

Sam and Dean are consummate bad-asses, often going toe-to-toe with demons, vampires and even the gods themselves. They have demonstrated exceptional fighting skills, though more street fighter than martial artist. They are also weapons experts, usually carrying around enough firepower to equip a small army. Given the nature of their prey, they have demonstrated a comprehensive grasp of magic, routinely exercising demons and creating protective circles. To round out these many talents, they seem to be masters of disguise, or, at the very least, infiltration. On multiple occasions, we see them being accepted as doctors in a hospital using nothing more than a stethoscope and a lab coat or getting the run of a police departments by wearing a suit and tie and flashing a fake FBI badge accompanied by the hokiest sounding of fake names. By far, their greatest weapon, however, is The Colt, a mystical weapon that will kill anything, and I mean ANYTHING, that it hits. And lest I be incomplete, I must mention the Impala. That’s not a euphemism; their car is a 1967 Chevy Impala that Dean refers to as Baby. It’s magically protected and serves as both second home and rolling arsenal.

While the Winchesters, sometimes affectionately referred to as “The Boys” (Not to be confused with the Amazon show, which is based off of Garth Ennis’ comic, The Boys. Though, to be fair, the Amazon show is written by the writer of Supernatural, Eric Kripke), are very much the stars of the show, they share the screen with many others, who occasionally steal the spotlight. There’s Crowley (Mark Sheppard of 24 and Leverage), the once-King of Hell, a demon, who frequently teams up with Sam and Dean, for his own purposes. I have to mention Bobby (Jim Beaver of Justified and Deadwood), long-time family friend and hunter, who acts as the wise uncle. If there was anyone who could be considered a “third Winchester”, it’s Castiel (Misha Collins of 24 and ER), an angel who is a staunch ally to the Boys. Introduced to the show in 2008, in the fourth season premier, Collin’s character went from guest star to regular, won a People’s Choice Award in 2015 and has even directed for the show. There’s Rowena (Ruth Connell of Hari Kari and The Cursed Man), the mother of Crowley, before he became a demon, and 1000 year old witch who, while usually helpful, is as fickle a friend as her son. I shit you not, I could go on and on, there’s so many well fleshed out semi-regulars to mention, but I also wanted to mention the level of guests they have on the show. Nerd-favorite, Felicia Day; Battlestar Galactica’s, Tricia Helfer; Curtis Armstrong, known to most people as Booger from Revenge of the Nerds; The Walking Dead’s Jeffrey Dean Morgan, AKA the infamous Negan; Star Gate’s Amanda Tapping; BtVS alumni, Amy Acker and Julie Benz; even Linda-fucking-Blair was on the show. Talk about royalty

So, how is Supernatural doing as a Child of the Slayer? Let’s see, bad-ass main characters that fight vampires, werewolves and demons with both conventional weaponry and magic? Check. A team of Scoobies to back them up? Mega-check. Combining dark humor and witty banter with gothy angst? So much check. Supernatural may be more BtVS than BtVS. Just like Buffy, Supernatural was a monster of the week series that also had a larger story arc playing over the whole season, but the big bad at the end wasn’t always something that could be fought. Many seasons included an “inevitable” dark fate for one or the other of the Boys, or insanity-provoking torment for a beloved member of the team. There are some parts that are so over the top brooding and sad that, well, it’s almost too much. But, then, they balance it out with something so ludicrous completely turning the mood. Over the course of its 15 season run, both Sam and Dean have been killed and sent to Hell, Dean actually going on two different occasions. Sam has had a girlfriend killed and became addicted to demon’s blood (who knew that was a thing?). Dean was trapped in Purgatory for a year and bore the cursed Mark of Cain. Themes of abject loneliness and painful regret should be listed in the credits, they’re on the show so much.

Oh, I almost forgot, Supernatural‘s contribution to pop culture. Much like BtVS, Supernatural has spawned several artistic offspring. Fan conventions began in 2006 and have been going strong ever since. Mayor Steve Adler of Austin, TX proclaimed June 23rd, 2018 as Supernatural Day. There are comic books, a series of novels, webisodes, an anime series, and several attempted spin-offs. I say attempted, because none of them really ever caught on. Maybe once the show is over they’ll stand more of a chance, because, let’s face it, the Winchesters should never truly die.  

This may be the longest post I’ve ever written and I’ve still only just touched the surface. I’ve already mentioned the writer of the show, Eric Kripke, but in addition to writing The Boys, he’s also written NBC’s Revolution and The House with a Clock in Its Walls. He pitched the concept of Supernatural for nearly 10 years before the WB picked it up. While some seasons are better than others, the storytelling on this show is always solid. It’s been a favorite of mine for the entire 15 year run, but I’m not sad to see it end. It’s not only outlived its mother, but all its brothers and sisters. And they’re sure as hell going out with a bang; the big bad they’re up against for the finale is none other than God himself. I don’t know how it all will end, but I can’t wait to see.

A Cure for Wellness

While many works of fiction strive for the label of Lovecraftian, very few live up to the title. Trust me, I’ve seen more than my fair share. I love cosmic horror and the term Lovecraftian is irresistible to me and I am almost always disappointed. Then I saw the movie, A Cure for Wellness. It has that eerie, alien feel that proves so elusive to so many other contenders. It doesn’t quite embody cosmic horror, there’s no sense of a terror so large that it encompasses the planet or some god-like entity from outer space, but certainly a feeling that something is just…off. The sense that reality is not as solid as we thought and that there are corners of the world where man is not the only form of sentient life.

The movie follows Lockhart (Dane DeHaan of The Amazing Spiderman 2 and Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets), an employee who is tasked with retrieving the absent CEO of a large company. The CEO went off to an exclusive spa in the Swiss Alps and has not been seen or heard from since, except for a cryptic letter, in which he sounds bat-shit insane. Just as Lockhart is arriving at the spa, he is involved in a major car accident and regains consciousness, in the spa, to find his leg in a cast. That’s when he meets Dr. Heinreich Volmer (Jason Isaacs from Star Trek Discovery and the Harry Potter films), the enigmatic proprietor of the spa and, shortly after, Hannah (Mia Goth of Nymphomaniac and Suspiria), a patient at the spa. I would describe her as a manic pixie girl, if she weren’t so damn creepy, almost inhuman. And while Dr. Volmer is quite personable, he will still give viewers the willies, though they won’t quite know why. Or maybe that’s just Isaacs. Through out the film, Lockhart never quite seems to find the CEO, and then, when he tries to leave, he finds that impossible, as well. In his explorations, Lockhart sees plenty of weirdness, but nothing compared to when he starts to get treatments himself. Let’s just say that there’s a lot of worms involved. I can’t say much more without giving anything away, but, while the movie does start a little slow, it gets to edge of your seat territory soon enough.

I am not very familiar with the works of DeHaan or Goth, but I have loved Jason Isaac’s work for years. I loved him in Case Histories, was very happy to see him in Star Trek: Discovery and was so, so disappointed when Awake was canceled. Regardless of his role, I’ve always felt that he’s given his all to to the part. There’s a certain weightiness to his acting, a gravitas that makes me think he performed nothing but Shakespeare, before making the leap to film, but what the hell do I know. I would love to tell you to go see the series Awake, since some have described Isaac’s acting in it Emmy worthy, but I can’t, in good conscience, recommend a one-season show to anyone. In it, Isaac’s plays a police detective, who is in a serious car crash with his family, in which, he loses his wife or his son. That “or” isn’t a typo. For the extent of the show, Isaac’s character lives in two realities; one in which his wife survived, but when he goes to sleep, his reality changes into one in which his son survived. These fluctuating realities, and the confusion behind which one is “real” is a central theme of the show. Writers for Awake had to keep track of two separate realities and timelines to avoid continuity errors. It was a phenomenal show and I have no idea why on Earth it was canceled. As to the other two actors, all I can say is that I’m glad I saw DeHaan in A Cure for Wellness first, because Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets totally sucked balls.

I wish I could talk about how this movie is genre bending, because the mystery behind the spa is key to the plot and there is a bit of romance between Lockhart and Hannah, but the oppressive unease that it fills one with places it squarely in the realm of horror. The way many of the characters act, one could be convinced that they aren’t really human at all and could take off their skins at any moment, revealing their true, horrifying nature. The conspiracy to manipulate and control Lockhart had me paranoid the entire time, like I was trapped, with the walls closing in. We never quite feel that his life at risk, there is no ax wielding manic hunting him down to dismember him or inhuman monster hungry for his flesh, but he is slowly tortured, in a variety of ways, and through watching this, we experience this torture as well. In fact, if I were to level one bit of criticism at this movie, it’s that it’s so damn long. While I was entertained by the non-stop anxiety the film induces, at almost two and a half hours, the run time may be more than most audiences can bear.

For all the negative emotions that I rattled off, this is a gorgeous film. Beautifully filmed, this may be one of the prettiest horror films I’ve seen. Filmed in the Swiss Alps, at a sanitarium that hosted Adolf Hitler and where political prisoners were lobotomized, the movies walks a line between horrific and ethereal. Like a fever dream that one wakes from, covered in sweat, plagued by vague fears that fade from the mind as consciousness takes hold, but remain in the pit of one’s gut, this film is psychological torture porn. I’ll be the first to admit that A Cure for Wellness may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it strikes a chord in me that few other movies do. Perhaps that’s why no one ever wants to go to the theater with me?

The Endless

To a movie lover, like myself, it’s always a joy to discover something new, something fresh and unexpected, and that is what I recently found in The Endless. The movie involves two brothers, Justin and Aaron, who had escaped from a “UFO Death Cult” when they were young and are now eking out a meager existence. Justin accepts this, as he feels that they escaped an inevitable mass suicide, but Aaron just remembers being loved and cared for, not to mention being well fed, and hates the life they are currently living. So when they receive a video cassette tape from said “cult”, involving a mysterious message, Aaron convinces Justin to return for a short visit. They are warmly welcomed back and everything seems just as they has left it, but, little by little, odd things keep happening until the truth of their community is revealed.

The movie is good, the mystery captivating and pulling the viewer deeper and deeper, but I am more amazed at the film makers, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, and what they were able to create on a (relative to Hollywood) shoestring budget. I haven’t been able to track down the actual budget for this film, but, for reference, their first film, Resolution, was made for $20,000. I’m willing to bet that most blockbuster movies spend more than that on food for the crew. How do they do it? By wearing a whole shit ton of hats. In addition to the both of them co-directing, editing and handling the special effects, Moorhead does the camerawork and Benson writes the script. In the movie The Endless, they both co-star in the movie, as well. They get amazing mileage out of the simplest of special effect and editing tricks.

Many movies have been called genre-less, but The Endless spans so many styles that the term is especially apt. I’ve already called it a mystery and that is truly what is at the heart of the film. It’s also a horror, the brothers often stalked by otherworldly creatures that drive other characters to madness and suicide. The creatures’ effect on time push the film into the realm of sci-fi and the interactions of the two brothers, between themselves and as prodigal sons to the “cult”, makes for excellent drama. After seeing The Endless, I was inspired to track down their other works, but, so far, the only other movie of theirs I’ve seen is Spring.

Their first movie, Resolutions, 2012, is about a man trying to get his methed out tweaker friend clean. Tracking him down to a backwoods cabin he’s in, the man handcuffs him to a pipe, forcing him to kick cold turkey. Then, weird things start to happen. Benson and Moorhead followed this up with the short film, Bonestorm, 2014, featured in the movie, V/H/S: Viral. They put Spring out in the same year, the most romantic monster movie I’ve ever seen. The Endless came out in 2017 and I just discovered, while researching for this blog post, that they’ve got a new movie coming out called Synchronic. The movie is about two New Orleans paramedics who arrive at an overdose victim and stumble upon the drug, Synchonic, that allows its user to be able to see all time at once. I cannot frickin’ wait to see this!

Some articles have also listed After Midnight to their credit, but they didn’t have the near total involvement that they did in those other films. While The Endless isn’t the only great film that was produced on pocket change, think Primer and The Man from Earth, but there’s so regrettably few of them that it definitely stands out. It’s probably what made the biggest impression on me. In the current atmosphere of blockbuster movies that have more money than some small countries and are absolute crap, seeing a movie made by someone who is really passionate about their craft is a reminder of what good filmmaking can do. After all, attention to details is what makes any art, be it culinary, graphic or orchestral, is what makes a piece great. With the duo of Benson and Moorhead, their love of the craft shines through and makes their movies something that sticks with you, long after the credits have rolled.