In the 1982 horror film Halloween III: Season of the Witch an ancient order of Celtic witches takes advantage of Halloween to perpetrate the worldwide ritual execution of mass amounts of children. Sadly, the film’s execution comes across as hopelessly cheesy. Luckily, Channel Zero, the new anthology series on Syfy, is currently picking up where the truly disturbing horror of Halloween III left off.
The series, which is based on internet urban legends called “creepypastas,” is in the first of two single-season installments. Candle Cove tells the story of Mike Painter, a bestselling author and child psychologist who returns to his small, close-knit town of Iron Hill, Ohio decades after the unsolved murders of his twin brother Eddie and four other kids. His still-uneasy relationship with his mother Marla (Fiona Shaw) is summed up by this particularly icy but telling opening salvo: “Every two years, someone turns up in Iron Hill to solve those murders. I’ve always been afraid that one day it would be you.”
What he’s really back in town to accomplish remains a mystery, but the murders seem to be connected to a lost children’s television show called “Candle Cove,” which originally aired in pirate broadcasts 30 years ago. The amateurish program — replete with puppet characters named Pirate Percy, Jawbone, and Horace Horrible — seems like a harmless memory … until the show mysteriously appears once again and inspires a new spate of child-on-child violence, not to mention the appearance of some kind of entity made entirely of the teeth of dead children.
Throw in Mike’s own revelation that he escaped back home following a recent psychotic episode and the fact he may have been the one who murdered Eddie, and the series is bound to take any number of extremely dark turns.
But, the nucleus of the creepy insanity playing out so far has been the puppet show. The idea of adults sternly debating the viability of a long-lost TV show suddenly causing their children to begin killing other kids seems absurd, and the idea could easily go off the rails. There can only be so many scenes of a character exclaiming, “That show!?” before it becomes tired. Luckily, Channel Zero undercuts the potential cynicism suggested by its premise by actually being creepy, which is something Halloween III couldn’t really seem to achieve.
Whenever the show-within-the-show randomly pops up on a TV screen — whether in the present day or flashbacks of Mike and Eddie watching it in their childhood home — it’s borderline incomprehensible, which is on purpose. We can’t really get a grasp on what it is, making it fundamentally off-putting. Then there’s the three main characters sailing the seas on a talking pirate ship that seems to be heading to a cave of some kind, with Horace Horrible repeating the phrase “You have to go inside.” It’s all undercut by hazy subliminal messages.
It causes Mike to constantly see visions of these characters, either in his hotel room or while out searching for answers about the murders, and they could maybe continue to inspire more murders in the coming episodes. But, most importantly, it takes the exaggerated evil toys with access to TV storyline and grounds it within the reality of its world. Halloween III flirted with these kind of ominous moments of utter unease, but devolved into unintentionally funny schlock value to try and get its point across.
The non-Michael Myers-focused movie’s plot is hatched by a novelty toy company, which is run by an Irish descendant of witches; this new CEO coordinates the ritual via the distribution of a trio of new Halloween masks for kids. It’s as corny as it is convoluted, and it put the film squarely in the “so bad it’s good” territory, even while horror fans are reevaluating it three decades later.
A scene in Season of the Witch, where a woman’s face is torn off after messing with one of the evil masks, or one where the evil toy maker intentionally melts a kid’s face to observe the reaction the masks will have on the millions of children who wear them on Halloween night are the only two real standouts in terms of unsettling horror. Channel Zero is already two episodes in and has those scenes beat wholeheartedly.
It isn’t really a contest. They both seem to want to plug into the same kinds of childhood fears, it’s just one figured out how to do it better than the other. Tune into Channel Zero: Candle Cove, and you’ll never want to look away.