The third season of Syfy’s horror anthology Channel Zero wrapped up last night, bringing a cathartic end to the wild ride that was Butcher’s Block. The show’s most artistically ambitious season to date was also its most challenging, with surreal elements weaving through its plot and its visuals. It was all very weird... but it also totally worked.
Created by Nick Antosca and directed by Arkasha Stevenson, and inspired by the Creepypasta story “Search and Rescue Woods” by Kerry Hammond, Butcher’s Block crams a lot of layers into its six episodes. It explores the macabre local history of a downtrodden former industry town, a fictional place that still somehow feels depressingly familiar in contemporary America. It imagines a twisted fairy tale that riffs on Alice in Wonderland and Little Red Riding Hood. It pays homage to surrealism, David Lynch, Hannibal, Candyman, and Italian horror movies, among others. It examines the pain of watching a severe mental illness transform a loved one into a stranger, and the panic of wondering if the disease will be passed down through the generations.
And it digs into some very complicated families: a cop who realizes his relationship with his Chief of Police father is cruelly flimsy; an elderly woman who’s shut everyone out while grieving the loss of her brother; sisters who try to make a fresh start but can’t escape the ghosts of their past or the unknown terrors of their future; and an affluent clan, the Peaches, who’ve turned to the occult and some extremely disturbing dietary habits to sustain what’s revealed to be a highly unusual, frozen-in-time lifestyle. The Peach patriarch, Joseph (Rutger Hauer), is a courtly, straw hat-wearing gentleman, while the Peach women all dress in flawless 1950s fashions. There’s also another Peach family member who manifests as a gruesome figure that appears to be composed of smushed-together cuts of raw meat. So.
To that end, while the season has some of the most vile and grisly moments ever to appear on Channel Zero—including multiple instances of self-cannibalism—it also has some of its most genius doses of pitch-black, over-the-top humor, too. It never quite crosses into Ash vs Evil Dead territory, but you do see blood gushing forth as a chainsaw carves up a body. You see a maniacal killer perform a soft-shoe down a hospital corridor. You see someone greeted at a dinner party hosted by cannibals with the line, “I hope you’re not vegan!” And you also see someone who’s really not in the mood to hear about their student loans rip out the throat of a smarmy collections agent, in an act of sweetest revenge.
The main characters—troubled sisters Alice (Olivia Luccardi) and Zoe (Holland Roden) move to the outskirts of Butcher’s Block—and soon attract the interest of the Peaches, whose fiefdom reaches beyond reality and into an alternate realm where the sun always shines, nobody ever ages, and a demon lurks while awaiting a very special offering. While Alice finds herself slipping under their control, Zoe begins to puzzle together exactly what the Peaches are up to. Their way of life is connected, she realizes, to the long string of disappearances that have plagued Butcher’s Block, and the heart of it is very, very evil.
Even if it didn’t have the forward momentum of solving a mystery, Butcher’s Block would still vibrate with its own strange energy. Part of that is thanks to the performances; this season has, hands-down, Channel Zero’s most intriguing cast to date. As sisters who struggle to find a connection when they need it the most, Luccardi and Roden play off each other very well (they even look alike). Hauer is obviously a powerful presence, as is Krisha Fairchild as Louise, the sisters’ quirky but battle-ready landlady. Another standout is Paula Boudreau, who’s carefully made up in very different ways to play two physically separate but spiritually connected characters. (Hint: Both women are a little too overly fond of scissors.)
The previous two seasons of Channel Zero—Candle Cove and No-End House—definitely had memorable artistic touches (I’m still haunted by the image of Candle Cove’s click-clacking Tooth-Child). But Butcher’s Block is so far the series’ most ravishing entry. The color red is a major motif, echoed in Zoe’s crimson lipstick and nail polish, the scarlet robes worn by the Peach family’s pint-sized enforcer (a sly nod to horror classic Don’t Look Now), the jellybean-like pills that spill around Alice as she begins to lose her grip on reality, the iconic red door that leads into the mansion’s most significant room, and of course the prodigious amounts of blood that are constantly spraying the frame.
But it’s more than just a color palette. There’s just so much detail in the production design, from the Candyman-esque street art that looms like a warning on the walls leading into Butcher’s Block, to Louise’s huge taxidermy collection, to the lovingly repulsive food styling that goes into every Peach family meal. And there’s such confidence in its execution that even the most bizarre stuff—like a life-sized puppet that scampers after Alice and mocks her fear of mental illness, or the show’s relentless affection for giant centipedes, or the sight of Joseph Peach casually munching on a disembodied human finger—feels like a believable part of Butcher’s Block’s version of reality, the baseline for which is the freakiest nightmare you’ve ever had.
Much like previous Channel Zero installments, Butcher’s Block ends on a note that mixes some major melancholy into its glimmer of hope. This third season, though, also can’t resist one last sight gag—in every sense of the word. Needless to say, we can’t wait to see what this innovative series will reveal (or how it will make us shriek, recoil, stare in awe, or hide our eyes) when it returns for its next season.