Review by guest contributor Sammi Freund.
On a niche retro television message board, a user brings up a long forgotten show from their childhood local TV station. As more users remember and bring forth memories, they share details about Candle Cove that seem believable for a low budget children’s puppet show, but frequently dip into the nightmarish. A talking ship repeats “you have to go inside,” a skeleton named Jawbone wants to take your skin, a final episode interspersed with footage of a screaming girl. You’ve probably seen this post before in one form or another, purported as real and passed around as a modern ghost story.
Channel Zero: Candle Cove, the first season of Syfy’s new horror anthology series created by Nick Ancosta, seeks to expand the original micro-fiction post by Kris Straub. With six episodes in the season, there’s a danger of stretching out an original idea that was so effective because of its brevity. Three episodes in, the show has simultaneously fallen into and avoided this trap. The very first episode gets the twist of the original story out of the way in the final seconds, as it turns out the show appears as static to adults, so what does that leave? Boring conversations and great monsters.
Candle Cove stars Paul Schneider as Mike Painter, a child psychologist and author returning to his small town home to confront his traumatic childhood. When he was a boy, five children including his twin brother disappeared. Weeks later, the kids turned up dead in a tree missing their teeth, all except Mike’s brother Eddie. Though he first claims he’s there to write about what happened, it becomes clear that something has brought him back. Possibly the same something that took those children and is working to take more. Around the same time the disappearances started, a dead channel began broadcasting a show about a crew of pirate puppets full of scan line errors, out of tune music, and quietly horrifying dialogue. Basically any creepy story about a “lost episode” of a kids show, except it’s the whole thing. Now, the show is back along with spooky business, and Mike is either the only one who can stop it or he’s hurrying it along without knowing. And whatever it is, it’s got its eyes on his family.
Much of the horror of Candle Cove lies in the familiar. Mike has awkward and even terrifying moments reacquainting himself with the town and his old neighbors, from his former bully-turned-police officer to a bit of sinister grammar lessons from his former school teacher. Anyone who’s returned to old stomping grounds to find things that are just as they left it and wildly different at the same time can relate to dread expressed in these sorts of scenes, especially the tense conversations Mike has with his mother Marla (played by Fiona Shaw, easily the best human on the cast). She treats him with a mix of curiosity, hostility, and disappointment. She’s scared of her own child, and may have been long before he started raving about puppets.
Director Craig Macneill is skilled at quiet moments of terror, punctuated by a understated score from Jeff Russo. When a child attacks her brother, we don’t see the aftermath, just a bloody hook on the ground. A young Mike cowers in terror from the unseen. A child drops from a cliff and we’re only left with a terrible thud. But for every silent cutaway to a man carving a message into his own arm, there’s the feeling that the show isn’t sure of its own direction. Is it about creepy kids? A man losing his grip on reality? Or is it about how your hometown and everyone in it really does suck as much as you remember? The small town Midwest is an integral part of the terror. Monsters lie in abandoned warehouses and sprawling fields where your friend wants to show you “something cool.” Missing children are found near old signal towers in hangouts that you and your friends named. Someone you can’t quite make out is right at the edge of the woods. Kids hold down your brother and break his finger while all you can do is watch. I feel the setting is brimming with potential, though I might just have an affection for towns ruined by America’s industrial age coming and going.
What really keeps me coming back to this show is the monster designs. Each looks like something that could be assembled with papier mache and props from the Halloween store that’s only open for a month. Well, all except for the walking pile of teeth in humanoid form. Tooth Suit, as I’m henceforth calling this perfect monster, is a great illustration of what Candle Cove excels at. Tooth Suit hasn’t really done anything aside from walk around, eat some teeth, and stick Mike’s finger in his mouth while he’s sleeping. But the sounds it makes while it moves, the unnatural movements, the fact that it’s a tooth suit are all part of the atmosphere of casual, almost folksy terror. I’m not sure I was supposed to laugh out loud while Mike’s old teacher fed Tooth Suit teeth like a goat at a petting zoo, but it was still an effective image.
Where it falls flat, and not even in an enjoyable way that leaves me wondering what Tooth Suit gets up to in its off time, is the dialogue. Mike first introduces us to the show with a clumsy expository conversation in a dinner party. His schoolteacher confronts him with a comical lesson in the past participle (it has happened before and will continue to happen, OH, I GET IT NOW). Three cops have a extra-judicial prisoner and it plays out like every single version of that scene you’ve seen before. Maybe there’s no elegant way of going about telling your audience about kids’ corpses missing teeth, but at the very least they’ve eliminated one method from our search.
I’m sticking around with Candle Cove til the finish in hopes that it realizes that it’s at its best when terrible things are quietly playing out and not when Mike Painter is out of breath and telling his childhood crush that something is happening. That, or in hopes that Tooth Suit will turn towards the camera and address the audience with an old timey Brooklyn accent and a little soft shoe. Either way, it has three episodes to either elevate or doom itself to a future where no one ever asks “remember Candle Cove?” at their awkward dinner parties.
Channel Zero: Candle Cove airs Tuesdays at 9/8c on SyFy.