[Review] "Channel Zero: The Dream Door" leads into a terrifying realm of mistrust and murder-happy clowns
(By Matt Konopka) It was only as recently as 2016 that Channel Zero premiered on Syfy with its first season, Candle Cove. An anthology horror show, the series set out with the idea to adapt one terrifying story per season (generally CreepyPasta adaptations). While the chilling horror series did not “catch on” initially, the fan base for it has steadily grown, and we have now been gifted the fourth season in just two years, Channel Zero: The Dream Door…
…Created by Nick Antosca (Hannibal TV series), The Dream Door is written by Antosca and directed by E.L. Katz (Cheap Thrills), based on the creepypasta tale, I found a Door in My Cellar, and I think I’ve Made a Big Mistake, by Charlotte Bywater. This fourth season follows newlywed couple Jillian (Maria Sten) and Tom (Brandon Scott). They’ve just moved into their new house, the home where Tom grew up. Everything is all sunshine and afternoon delights until the couple discovers a door in the basement, a door that was most definitely not there before. It isn’t long before the newlyweds learn that they and everyone they know are in danger from what waits behind the mysterious door.
Everyone has their favorite seasons of the show, leaving plenty of debate as to which season is “the best”, but one consistent element that Antosca and his crew always seem to get just right is the show’s characters and the dark themes that circle around them. Jillian and Tom may lose intelligence points for staying in a house where a magic door has just appeared-especially when they decide to break it down-but both are fascinating individuals, each playing into one theme which I think anyone who has been in a relationship can relate to: Trust, and the inevitable betrayal. Most if not all of us have probably had that moment with our significant other, where they’re texting on their phone, and we wonder, “who is she/he texting?” Or maybe you don’t like the way he/she looks at someone else, and so on. Love can be a tricky thing. No matter how bright it shines on the outside, there’s always a layer of darkness underneath, growing like a tumor. The Dream Door captures this idea perfectly. During the first few minutes of episode 1, Jillian and Tom seem like the ideal happy couple. Sten and Scott are each wonderfully endearing, pulling the audience into the middle of their relationship like an adopted child. At times, both can come off as a little overdramatic in their performances, but their pain is relatable, which is what makes it so difficult to watch when the serene veil is lifted, and we see the vile ugliness underneath.
Jillian is plagued by trust issues. And Tom gives her plenty of reason to be suspicious, as Jillian begins to unravel a long thread of secrets that Tom is keeping from her. Antosca’s script makes no attempt to mask commentary on the way men treat women in modern society. From claiming an upset female is “hysterical” or “crazy” to the obvious attempts at gas lighting Jillian, the men in The Dream Door range from a level of creepy to pretentious douche. As Jillian unravels the mystery behind the basement door, it becomes increasingly impossible for her to convince any of the men in her life that she isn’t just some hysterical woman with trust issues. Most of them even go so far as to tell Jillian she’s only making matters worse, that it’s all in her head, that everything is her fault. For those who are tired of this sort of treatment of women, it’s enough to get you seething so hard you might find smoke shooting out of your ears. Thankfully, Antosca does not push Sten into the role of the “victim”. Sten is ferocious in her role. She rampages through her scenes, refusing to take any shit in a performance that had me cheering for her. We live in difficult times, and it’s refreshing to see more and more genre work transform women from cornered victims into proactive badasses.
The Dream Door deals with various sinister constructs of society, and every element of the show is reflective of that. The unsettling score epitomizes the growing sense of mistrust amongst the exceptional cast (which includes a brief but superb outing from Barbara Crampton). Cinematographer Isaac Bauman sets the mood with lighting and imagery that creates a dreamlike quality which, like most bad dreams, begins bright and colorful, and quickly descends into dark, dreadful territory. To say that the cinematography in The Dream Door is inspired would be an understatement. Together, Bauman and Katz present us with relentlessly creepy sets, all made so through wise choices with the camera. Outside of the basement with its supernatural door, there is nothing inherently scary about The Dream Door’s setting. What makes it so is Katz’s ability to make the mundane seem ominous. A home becomes foreboding. A bedroom becomes a pit of lies. And a door is not just a door, but an entrance into the most nightmarish parts of our imaginations.
As a horror series, The Dream Door works by tapping into our greatest fears from a wide variety of sources. Whether it be the very real fear of betrayal, or the idea that no one would believe you when you’re at your most vulnerable, Antosca’s script pulls us in deeper and deeper with Jillian and the many traumas of her character. But, like any season of Channel Zero, it would not be complete without one insanely unsettling villain, which, in this case, is Pretzel Jack (Troy James). Oh, did I not mention that this season features a childish, murder-loving contortionist clown? Yeah, you read that right, a creepy clown that can fucking bend and crack his bones to fit into/crawl through just about any space imaginable. If clowns aren’t your worst nightmare, they will be after you see The Dream Door. What James manages to pull off as Pretzel Jack is nothing short of brilliant. The filmmakers are smart in their decision for Jack not to appears as an obvious monster like Pennywise or the clowns from Killer Klowns from Outer Space. What makes Jack so frightening is his joyful demeanor and child-like curiosity. Pretzel Jack at first appears as what he is: the childish image of a clown, created by Jillian when she was a kid. Other than his Gumby-like ability to bend, there’s nothing that is particularly outright evil about Jack, that is, until he starts gleefully stabbing people with a smile on his face. Less is always more, and there’s so much more to be afraid of with a character that looks like he should be a friendly circus clown, but is anything but. James is an instant star. He achieves a massive presence with zero dialogue, prancing around in a somewhat comical way, as if to say Jillian should be proud of his bloody work. Antosca even came out recently and said that there is no CGI involved with James’ movement, making his contortionism even more unsettling yet applaudable.
What is odd and perhaps most fascinating about The Dream Door is that the relationship between Jillian and Jack may be the purest out of anyone in the show. Jillian and Jack share a “friendship” that goes all the way back to childhood. Without spoiling, I will say that their connection is reminiscent of films like David Cronenberg’s The Brood. Jack can hone in on Jillian’s rage, and acts it out in the only way he knows how. And for those wondering, The Dream Door lives up to effects of the past seasons, not only giving us a delightfully scary Jack, but tons of cringe-worthy gore and violence, all of it done practically, aka, the right way.
Along with titles like The Haunting on Hill House and The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, The Dream Door continues a strong trend of successful horror television during this unbelievably superb month of October. Antosca once again delivers a frightening concept which taps into uncomfortable human traits and shows us the horrors that rage and mistrust can lead to when unchecked. The characters may not always make the best decisions, and will likely drive you mad at times with their inability to do the right thing, but their relatability is key, and should be enough to keep audiences engaged with their stories. Turn off the lights and open your mind to The Dream Door. Pretzel Jack is guaranteed to wrap himself around your spine and give it a good squeeze. Unless you love clowns, in which case, what’s wrong with you?
All episodes on Channel Zero: The Dream Door are available On Demand. You can also catch it weekly on Syfy, with an eventual release coming to Shudder.
By Matt Konopka