There’s a moment in the premiere episode of Channel Zero: The Dream Door, the newest installment of Syfy’s horror anthology series, that’s as good a jump scare as any this year. Newlywed and new homeowner Jillian has ventured through a mysterious door that has suddenly appeared in the basement of her new suburban home, the childhood house of her husband, Tom. Scanning her flashlight slowly across the back wall of the inexplicable room that has opened up beneath their home, we just know something is going to appear. And that foreknowledge gets wedded to a perfectly timed eruption of movement—the viewer startles in fear, the monster reveals itself, and the show has its first genuinely unnerving and arresting sequence.
For its first three episodes, The Dream Door is the most effective balance of narrative and nightmare the series has pulled off yet. The normal world seems ever so slightly awry, with conversations and behavior that don’t quite add up to logical behavior. This is a hallmark of Channel Zero, a show which started haphazardly but slowly figured out how to turn its problems with coherence and believability into strengths, by re-situating its entire universe into the hazy half-real atmosphere of a dream. It’s a strategy that hit its zenith with this past spring’s Butcher’s Block, a luridly evocative and deeply scary depiction of mental illness and, uh, cannibalism. And if the newest season eventually suffers by hewing too faithfully to a streamlined and grounded level of reality, even that lessened emotional power ends up substituted with a warped black-comic momentum—a nightmare turned surrealist action-thriller.
The chills this time come in the form of a childhood imaginary friend made all too real. (The Dream Door is based on the Creepypasta story “Hidden Door” by Charlotte Bywater.) The aforementioned magical doorway ends up leading down a flight of steps to reveal a room containing a jittery and bendy clownish figure, who immediately escapes. We soon learn Jillian invented “Pretzel Jack”—a wide-mouthed contortionist based on a clown she had seen at the circus—as a girl, while mourning her father’s abandonment of her and her mother. This creation, meant to comfort her during a time of emotional distress, reawakens after Jill and Tom move into their house and she begins to suspect her new husband of keeping secrets. After escaping from behind the “dream door” that appears, Jack acts as a sort of rampaging id to his maker’s darkest emotions, and, without going into spoilers, quickly makes life a living hell.
What makes nightmares so affecting is how the intensity of the experience transforms the twisted dream-logic of the situation into somehow making sense. What’s happening is so emotionally harrowing that it renders the illogic of the premise reasonable. Being chased through an M.C. Escher-like series of hallways? That’s plausible enough. Getting trapped in quicksand inside your own house? Sure, why not.
In fact, the slightly askew nature of reality in a nightmare is what anchors it in the mind and makes it so terrifying. It’s Freud’s definition of the uncanny: the unfamiliar approaching you under the guise of the familiar. It’s a large part of this series’ appeal, especially in the last two seasons. But with The Dream Door, what was previously subtext on the show becomes text, complete with a psychologist (Steven Weber, amusing in a small role) to literally lay out the ways in which childhood trauma can manifest itself. By attempting to streamline its storytelling to a singular and straightforward story, Channel Zero goes overboard in holding the audience’s hand when it comes to making sense of its malevolence.
There’s fun to be had in the new state of affairs, though, even as it becomes progressively less scary with each episode, until a conclusion that plays almost more like deadpan slapstick absurdism than horror. Part of the strength of the latest story is how effectively it’s translated to the screen. Thank new co-exec producer and director of all six episodes E.L. Katz (Cheap Thrills, Small Crimes), who knows his way around nervy, tension-building sequences. Katz adds a loopy sense of funhouse-mirror extremism to the early installments, twisting his camera in circles and using jump-scare expectations to his advantage. Additionally, when the series drops the horror and goes more for a conventional thriller structure (albeit with gonzo supernatural elements), Katz leans into it, ramping up the action elements even while engaging in a penchant for retro ’80s genre flourishes, as though sampling visual motifs from Nightbreed, Dreamscape, and more. It comes off like a strange amalgam of the gritty indie pulse-pounders on which he’s made his bones (the smash-cut music cues are especially good) fused to previous iterations of Channel Zero, but it works.
As with each season of this strange but compelling show, the narrative avenues introduced but not taken suggest that showrunner and writer Nick Antosca has more ideas than he knows what to do with. The first episode hints at a far more complicated story about how men will gaslight even the women closest to them, but quickly drops the thread in favor of a more traditional “secrets hurt a marriage” plot. Similarly, questions of multi-racial families and suburban culture clash get teased only to be sidelined when the bodies start piling up. This would normally be in service of a sleek and efficient story, but Channel Zero has never been about either of those things, at least until now.
Watching the show attempt to cram its sprawling dreamscapes into a more conventional framework has its pleasures—there are very funny moments of absurdity, such as a police officer responding to Jillian’s frightened report of a clown running out of an impossible door below her home with a clipped, “For what it’s worth, I don’t think that situation in your basement is up to code.” Antosca has also assembled another strong and distinctive cast: Along with guest spots for Weber and Barbara Crampton, Brandon Scott’s Tom delivers mystery and bemusement in equal measure, while Steven Robertson, playing next-door neighbor Ian with a low-key affability that suggests a mumblecore Ryan Gosling, gets in some nice deadpan beats. There are weirdly sexual elements littered throughout, including a truly jaw-dropping bit of weirdness in the penultimate episode that references Eraserhead. But those are the moments that make Channel Zero such an unusual pleasure. The Dream Door is straightforward enough for a change, but that’s not the show’s strong suit; getting strange, scary, and logically unjustifiable are where it soars—just like a nightmare.