Channel Zero: Butcher’s Block (2018)
Written by Nick Antosca
Directed by Arkasha Stevenson
Sisters Alice and Zoe are attempting to start their lives over and end up in a new city, adjacent to the Butcher’s Block neighborhood. This neighboring slum is infamous for what happens at night when residents seem to vanish into thin air. There is a connection to a nearby park which used to be the land belonging to the Peach family, a wealthy old South type of family who ran the now decaying meat processing plant. People talk about strange figures that roam the park at night and a staircase going nowhere that pops up. You are warned to never go near those stairs, to turn around and leave if you see them. Into this strange melange of urban legends, our two protagonists are dropped, and they might not make it out alive.
Channel Zero has had a moderately positive while bumpy track record in its first two seasons. The opening Candle Cove miniseries wasn’t every viewer’s favorite thing while No-End House was a decent increase in quality of storytelling, though it still didn’t appeal to widely. With this third installment, it is safe to say Channel Zero has hit one out of the park and found its footing. Butcher’s Block is likely the best television horror I have seen in years. From the first episode, I was hooked and have made sure to catch every episode as it drops. But what made this season hit so well while others didn’t connect with audiences as well?
The first key is the direction of Arkasha Stevenson. Stevenson is an independent filmmaker who has made a handful of shorts and a pilot for the online network Blackpills. Butcher’s Block is her first full coming out to the broad audience and what a debut. She has stated that there was a strong giallo influence to the series and I would argue some Phantasm was thrown in for good measure. Now, these influences aren’t starkly apparent in the first episode, but they become blatantly clear when our protagonists end up in what is called “The Summer Home.” Zoe, in particular, will give you reminders of the opening of Suspiria, running through a garish manor home as she is stalked by an evil presence.
The cast has some solid players. Chief among them is Rutger Hauer as patriarch Joseph Peach, unaged since he was supposedly burned alive in his family home. Hauer finds that right air of menace and fatherly love to make his character human. It’s only in the final chapter that we see his inhumanity come forth, and even then his story ends on a very emotional note. You sort of feel sorry for the guy…well know if it wasn’t for the whole eating people thing. Krisha Fairchild plays Louise, a woman who rents a room to Zoe and Alice. I have loved Krisha since I saw her star in her nephew’s appropriately titled film Krisha. She has that air of a jaded old hippy, but with deep empathy when she sees someone in peril. She plays off the lead ladies very well and has a whole subplot of her own that winds its way back into the main narrative by the end.
I found the weak part of the acting to rest on Olivia Luccardi as Alice. She is a familiar face to viewers of Orange is the New Black or if you’ve seen It Follows. Sometimes she is excellent, particularly in the scenes where Peach is pressing on her fears of inherited mental illness. There is a surreal dream sequence like surgery scene where she has to be paralyzed while her skull is opened and Luccardi is great with her face. However, some of her line deliveries do not hit right. Her character is a social worker, and when she is talking to a child in her care, her lines feel forced and disingenuous. If her role is in a high-stress situation and she is explaining things to another character it also sounds rough.
Her co-star Holland Roden on the other hand…wow! Roden is tasked with playing the sister who is succumbing to her mental illness, and this could be played really over the top and insincere. She completely avoids this and creates a character who is genuinely sympathetic. At the same time, she makes dangerous decisions so that we understand why Alice would be angry and frustrated with her.
Butcher’s Block does something I love horror to do. It presents us with incredibly twisted ideas or images and refuses to explain them to us. In the first episode, Alice is visiting a home of concern to the local social services office. There is a moment where the camera pans so that we can see behind the drywall and what we see is horrific. As soon as I saw that, I thought I hope this never gets directly addressed or explained. Thankfully it never does. It is just allowed to exist as an unsettling moment to add layers of atmosphere to the story. There are also some little people that are scurrying about that have some truly disturbing makeup and are the cause of many problems in the story.
I cannot recommend Butcher’s Block highly enough. This is can’t miss horror for fans of oozingly atmospheric creepy and well thought out entries in the genre. This has me excitedly anticipating our next entry into Channel Zero hoping it lives up to this incredibly high bar.