Syfy has pitched The Dream Door, the new installment of horror anthology Channel Zero, as a special Halloween TV treat, releasing six episodes nightly from Friday through Oct. 31. It’s a clever release pattern, half-binge and half-event, and I hope it helps The Dream Door stand out in the crowded spooky television space. Channel Zero is the kind of thing you want Syfy to do all the time: Low budget, boundary bursting, just downright weird at a moment when a lot of genre television is expensive enough to be classily boring.
Dream Door begins with low-key tension. Newlyweds Jillian (Maria Sten) and Tom (Brandon Scott) are settling into domestic life. They’re living in the house Tom grew up in, renovating and remodeling, painting ’80s-era pink walls a fearfully modern shade of gray. Since you know you’re watching a horror show, you’re attuned to certain things that seem a bit off in their coupling. They were childhood friends, but Jillian moved away after her father’s philandering led to her parents’ divorce. That break-up left her suspicious of men — and Tom is acting suspicious, having a strange conversation with a mysterious woman in a store, driving someplace he won’t tell Jillian about. Is Dream Door a frightfest about marriage? “Don’t gaslight me,” Jillian demands in episode 1, invoking the grandparent of all domestic freakouts.
And then, also: The Door. A blue door, against the back wall in their basement, which just appears one day after never remotely existing in any capacity. Well, what would you do if a door just arrived in your house one day? E.L. Katz, who directed all six episodes, has some fun staging their meticulous reactions. Tom’s best friend Jason (Nicholas Tucci) arrives with a hammer. When that fails, he grabs a shotgun.
The door opens — minor spoiler alert, but we’re just getting started — and what emerges is the vision of nightmares. Jillian had an imaginary friend when she was young, a clown-like contortionist named Pretzel Jack. And now, somehow, Pretzel Jack is real — and real scary. Played by real-life contortionist Troy James, Pretzel Jack is an immediately memorable featured creature, with long gangly limbs that seem to defy gravity. The demon-mime makeup job is a marvel, halfway between human and lab experiment. And one of the scariest parts of The Dream Door is how it doesn’t really hide its monster: The camera lingers on his face, in bright close-ups, daring you to breathe.
James had a role on the previous Channel Zero installment Butcher’s Block, and he’ll play villainous Rag Doll next month on Flash. Even buried under makeup and splatters of slasher blood, his performance is a funny-freaky delight. Pretzel Jack’s a violent entity, but there’s a weird sweetness there, too, and James’ Seussian eyes give the creature a childlike aura even when he’s bloodbucketing around town. The character’s meant to be a kid’s dream resurrected into the adult world, and James’ expressive physicality gives PJ a hilariously particular way of walking, like he’s a cartoon character rediscovering the third dimension with every step.
The story moves outward. There’s a mysterious next-door neighbor named Ian (Steven Robertson) who starts talking about what doors symbolize in Jungian psychology. There’s Jillian’s peevish psychiatrist (Steven Weber). There’s a great performance by horror favorite Barbara Crampton as a mysterious woman. Like all Channel Zero‘s iterations, The Dream Door is based on internet-y short stories. The opening credits identify this as an adaptation of Charlotte Bywater’s “Hidden Door,” a trim piece of Reddit Gothic. Creator Nick Antosca has transformed that tale into a weirdening twisty-turn narrative. The particular supernatural mechanics underlying Dream Door are very loopy, encompassing family trauma, the plight of post-Recession real estate, and unusual powers. Best not to overthink it, especially when the gooey-gloopy effects work coughs up memorable body-horror set pieces.
Beyond Pretzel Jack’s appearances, some of the early episodes move a bit too gradually. The budgetary seams show, though past a certain point that’s part of the fun. (Episode 4 features my new favorite slice of ADR exposition: “Why did a clown come out of your basement and stab me in the f—ing leg?”) By episode 5, the plot’s a snowball rolling down a mountain of crazy. As Antosca mentioned to my colleague Clark Collis, the future of Channel Zero is a bit hazy right now. I hope there’s more. Pretzel Jack needs friends! Just look at him! Seriously, LOOK AT HIM.
The first episode of Channel Zero: The Dream Door is currently streaming on Syfy. The premiere airs Friday at 11 p.m. on Syfy, with new episodes released nightly through Halloween.