Friday, October 14, 2016

CHANNEL ZERO: "Candle Cove" Episode 1

I'm not going to pretend that, when I heard about 'Candle Cove' being made into a miniseries, I didn't feel a level of trepidation. I've a lot fewer problems with remakes and adaptations than many, and I'm all about dark media getting more mainstream visibility because it offers an alternative to the gore porn that calls itself 'horror' nowadays. My trepidation came from the fact that, like a tattoo, it needs to be done exactly right or not at all to do any good. Normally I'd be willing to let an adaptation slip into notoriety or mediocrity of its own volition, but when it's television's first look at a subgenre... you kinda want it to be done right. Right?

The idea of SyFy's new Channel Zero anthology series is one that piques my interest, in that it is straight-up creepypasta adaptations. With 'Candle Cove' being one of the most famous that doesn't involve licensed characters, plus the fact that its author, Kris Straub, put it into a print anthology, it makes sense that it'd be up first. Apparently a second season is already planned, with Brian Russell's 'No-End House' up for adaptation.

First, though, comes the question of whether 'Candle Cove' on TV holds water.

For the unfamiliar, Straub's original short story is here on the Creepypasta Wikia. For those who don't feel like clicking, 'Candle Cove' is presented in the form of a TV nostalgia forum thread, where adults reminisce about a strange pirate-themed puppet show they watched in the 70s. The descriptions get more and more outlandish, with many remembering an episode where all the characters just stood there screaming. By the end one contributor with the username mike_painter65 says that, according to his mother, his 'viewings' of 'Candle Cove' consisted of half an hour of him watching dead air.

The story ends there. So how does one adapt that into a six-episode TV series?

Well, it'd be fairer to call it the inspiration. All of the original story forms the basis of the very first episode of the 'Candle Cove' miniseries, complete with our lead character, Mike Painter, getting the truth dropped on him by his mom. But there's a lot more to it than that -- specifically, the idea that a shared hallucination could both a deeper meaning and some staying power.

Painter in the TV series is a renowned child psychologist who begins receiving a variety of prompts (some more urgent than others) to come home. But 'home' is a small town where more than a dozen children, including his twin brother, went missing -- with said twin being the only one not found. Coinciding with Mike's arrival is the 're-airing' of 'Candle Cove'... at least according to some parents. Interspersed with flashbacks to Mike's life with his twin, we begin to see the seams of something dark and foreboding underneath the mysterious children's show.

And overall? I like it.

The original story never carried anything so far as to suggest there was a why to it. It just leaves off, hanging in the air, and for that format it worked quite well. While the reader will certainly wonder what caused these children to share these images of a nonexistent show, it's not an unsatisfying conclusion. At the same time, it's not a concept that would necessarily be 'ruined' by an explanation -- provided it's done well. And so far, so good.

What draws me to dark media of all kinds, especially home-brewed creepypasta, is the liminal feel of it. The sort of raw surrealism generally only found in your mind's eye right before you fall asleep. Many people attempt to recreate it and fail, but when one succeeds -- wow. It's eerie and disturbing and makes you want to shrink away, but you just lean in closer. Like a sprained ankle you just keep testing. Or like, well, a children's show.

The trick 'Candle Cove' has to achieve isn't making a creepy show. Show creator Nick Antosca is already doing that admirably. What needs achieving is that feel, the sort you get both from creepypasta and from those weird shows you somehow watched as a kid without registering what was wrong with them. (In my case those were The Adventures of Mark Twain and the animated Raggedy Ann movie.) Obviously, the show-within-a-show of 'Candle Cove' only gets limited air time, so we haven't seen much, but achieving that feel... is a potential thing.

The big positive for me upon seeing those segments was that I recognised every character immediately. Pirate Percy was the puppet hodgepodge he was originally described as, right down to the incongruous baby doll head. Horace Horrible was exactly as pictured, as was the Skin Taker (called 'Jawbone' in the dinner table conversation, but listed by his original name in the credits). The Laughingstock, Percy's ship, was similar (down to his catchphrase, also the title of the first episode), but overall there was something almost a little too... nice?... about the look of the show.

Then again, we've barely seen any. We've yet to see the screaming, or extended footage of Jawbone/the Skin Taker. I have a feeling they're saving some of the truly jarring imagery of the children's show for later episodes.

And then there's the new character. A very, very toothy new character.

I have no idea in the world how they fit in... but the design of them is right out of creepypasta world, which I appreciate. Even though they're new to the story of 'Candle Cove,' they appear quite true to the genre.

Final thoughts on the first episode? It has promise. So far, I'm sufficiently creeped out, and it seems they've laid down a good story on which to serve the fear that made the original short piece so great. I have a handful of theories on where this could go, and I look forward to seeing what's next.

Channel Zero airs Tuesday nights at 9 PM on SyFy. You can watch the first episode free on their website.