[Photos courtesy Alan Fraser/Syfy]
Season One , Episode One “This Is Not Real”
Written by Nick Antosca
Directed by Steven Piet
“We’re both stumbling around together in this unformed world, whose rules and objectives are largely unknown, seemingly indecipherable or even possibly nonexistent, always on the verge of being killed by forces that we don’t understand.”
“Hey, tell me the truth … are we still in the game?“
eXistenZ (1999) Dir/Writer – David Cronenberg
Channel Zero: No-End House (NEH) begins in medias res (in the middle of the action). Like the characters, we’re compelled to keep watching even if we’re not quite sure what’s going on. NEH may be very different in tone than Channel Zero, but retains the masterful, compelled to watch quality that distinguished CZ.
Of course, Spoilers Ahead!
Under a slate-gray sky, individual micro-houses appear on screen in quick succession.
Identified only by number.
2 – 26 – 34 – 51 – 10 – 6
We hear frantic, desperate panting. A terrified young woman (Jess Salgueiro) peers around the corner of house number 6. The only living thing we see. She gazes fearfully around her, then skitters to the middle of the suburban street. We follow her gaze to the end of the lane and a house that dominates the puny dwellings around it.
Black, flat, like it’s made out of construction paper. A house that might’ve flown from the pages of The Babadook.
With barely controlled panic, the woman walks, then runs towards the looming house. Behind her a bearded man (Sean Skene) matches her pace. Almost supernaturally, he’s upon her as she reaches for the front door. Knocking her down, he viciously slams her head to the turf.
“Why do you do this to yourself?” The bearded man croons to the unconscious woman. He pulls up her sleeve. We see “THIS IS NOT REAL” burned (carved?) into her skin. “We’ll take this right off,” the man promises. The flick of a lighter blurs with a series of images into a switching noise of a lawn sprinkler, and we’re in front of a two-story home with a young woman pacing at an upstairs window.
We meet young woman Margot Sleator through her father’s home movies, John Sleator (John Carroll Lynch). “Everybody, this is Margot.” Child Margot (Abigail Pinowsky) hosts a tea party, swims, plays the piano, every moment recorded. In the present, Margot’s Friday Night Lights binge watch is interrupted by her friend Jules (Aisha Dee), home from college and ready to drag Margot out of the house and into the world.
At least today she’d not giving Margot the option of staying at home, “living with your mom and in the past.” They’re going out to meet another childhood friend, JT (Seamus Patterson). Margot’s Mom (Kim Huffman) will (conveniently) be out of town for a few days.
Though the blind date JT set up for Margot (at Jules’ request) bailed, the trio is joined by Handsome Stranger (played by Jeff Ward and listed as Seth in the credits) to hear JT fill in the backstory regarding the viral video Jules and Margot received that afternoon of a weird, purple tinged orchid. Even though he didn’t receive an invitation himself, JT is well versed in his urban legends.
They received the calling card of a roving haunted house attraction known as No-End House. Last seen in the US in Detroit six years ago, it’s since popped up in Eastern Europe and South America. Soon they will receive a message with an address in the area. If they dare, there are six rooms of mind games and psychological terror to explore.
Like all good urban legends, there’s a twist: Anyone who survives to enter the sixth and final room is never seen again. Jules dismisses the story as just a “Bougie haunted house” (think she’s using Kids Today Slang for Bourgeois).
As young people do, the quartet ends up at Margot’s house. Jules tells JT about discovering a book about Succubae as a child that opened the door of perception. Seth and Margot bond by describing their respective childhood traumas. Seth’s tale of woe; growing up in a series of foster homes. Margot beats that cold. She discovered her father dead in the house. He suffered al allergic reaction to medication; Margot now wonders – was he still alive at 10 p.m. when she was supposed to be home? Could she have saved him?
Margot strolls back inside, see the TV is on. An old black and white drama switches to more flashing images of water, blooming orchids, a wedding couple – and a street sign for Nivens Street. Of course these crazy kids have to go. Jules drives (this is important later) through a maze of anonymous halogen- lit streets
They have to park a ways from the looming hulk we saw in the teaser. People wander to it like moths to a black light bug zapper. A woman is too busy vomiting to tell JT how is was. A backpack toting man (Sebastian Pigott) strides past them. How did he find this place? “I’m looking for it.”
Like any good pretentious pop up pretentious art installation, there is a small identification plaque by the door.
The No-End House
Wood, nails, copper, caulk, you
Our quartet is part of a group of eight let in through a black door spray painted with “Beware the Cannibals” in red.
A glowing numeral 1 appears in the center. The door opens.
A spare white room. Eight white pedestals in two rows. Each supporting a white plaster bust of each person who just walked in the room. Perfect likenesses, eyes closed. All marvel at the weirdness of all. JT theorizes about 3-D printing a photo image capture. Backback Guy stands by the fireplace located between two closed doors. One labeled Exit, the other Next Room.
The room plunges into darkness for a few moments. The lights go back on. The “kind of creepy 1930’s tune” heard as they entered is now heavily distorted and slow. The head of each bust is now split, ripped apart by pairs of charcoal black hands. All, that is, except JT’s (no invitation, remember?).
The door labed Next Room opens. The young woman who’d complained that “this isn’t scary” before the lights went out decides to leave.
If Room One was “Tasteful Dining Room,” Room Two décor can be described “Early 19th Century Abandoned Mental Hospital”. A circular room of peeling blue and white paint. The remaining seven turn to see a figure standing at the far end of the Room Two. He (or she) wears black gloves, a blue suit – and a carved wooden mask which could be a wooden funeral mask – or maybe an owl. Owl Man approaches JT, pushes him back. The figure approaches Margo and whispers in her ear.
Another blackout. When the light return, a woman (Echo Porsky) stares in horror at the floor. A long smeared streak of blood leads away from where her boyfriend stood a few seconds earlier. She flees. Before choosing the “Next Room” option, Backpack Guy warns, “You guys should leave. It’s not too late.”
JT scoffs that both BG and OM were performers. Jules wants to leave, but Margot must go on. She tells Jules what Owl Man whispered in her ear – “Welcome back, Martian.”
Only one at a time may go through the black revolving door. Margot stands in a hallway. A standing mirror blocks her route to the exit. Loud agonized weeping fills the air. This is Margot’s nightmare of her grandmothers’ house she’d described to Seth earlier. Margot steels herself to move forward, squeezing between the wall and the mirror, past a round table with a vase of orchids. The weeping turns into a maniacal hybrid of tears and laughter from a bearded man (Robert Borges). Margot makes it to the door, hearing Jules shouting her name.
Margot stands in a bare framed attic space, facing a white space where a wall should be. Projected on the white space are images of Jules, a seated man with a blurred face, then the living room of her home the night her father died. She sees him sit on the couch and close his eyes. Margot chooses the “Next Room” door.
Is her living room. The TV repeats the water/orchid imagery she saw earlier as she approaches the couch. A man with head covered in clay sits where her father had been. The clay is rough, grey, with crude anonymous features. The TV switches to the home movie montage we saw at the beginning of the episode. As the scene proceeds, the dialog loops, overlaps, and repeats. “Hello there, hello there Margot. How are you? Hello there, Hello there Margot. How are you?” “Sugar?” Her father’s laugh.
Margot tries to grab the remote in Clay Man’s hand. He lumbers to his feet and envelops her in a hug. Crying “I want to go home,” Margot flees toward s an open door. Clay man speaks. “You have to go through to go home.”
Margot is outside with Jules, who appears dazed. They go back to the car, but it won’t start. There is nobody else is in sight – no JT, no Seth. Jules and Margot begin to walk home.
We see the girls walking down a street that looks very much like the opening scene. They appear to walk for some time as the light changes. Margot asks if Jules wants to crash at her place. Jules, who had (we thought) left her non-starting car back at No-End House, says sure and goes to her car (!) to get some clothes.
Margot walks past some potted orchids and goes inside. Jules approaches the house and gazes with shock at the house number. For the first time we see the house number for Margot’s home is 6.
Inside, there isn’t the silence of an empty house. A cheerful whistling emanates from the kitchen. Margot approaches, and sees the impossible. Her father, dressed in the same jacket and coat as Clay Man in Room Five, cheerfully prepares food and asks, “Hey Martian, how was your night?”
Notes from Nowheretown
*In my recap/review of Channel Zero: Candle Cove’s first episode, “You Have to Go Inside,” I noted how unusually distant and detached the interpersonal interactions were. “At times it felt like I was observing their story through a pane of warped bubble filled glass. This time it’s the environment around the characters that seems stilted and unreal, while the human interactions are pretty straightforward.
*The “Creepy Old Timey Tune” mood music in Room One is by Billy Murray called “The Ghost That Never Walked,” a classic from the Hit Parade of 1904. (Thanks to showrunner Nick Antosca for the information!)
” … at night I’m near,
I’m just a harmless stranger,
Don’t think me wild,
I’m meek and mild,
For weakness is my (feature?).
Please have a little pity,
And listen to my ditty … “
*JT says Room One reminds him of a “Douglas Gordon” exhibit. If he’s referring to works like “Exhibit D” by this Scottish artist, we agree!
*My recent SciFi4Me/Horror4Me preview article for No-End House mentioned a remark by showrunner Nick Antosca regarding the mood of Season Two as opposed to One. He compared Season Two to Halloween or the recent It Follows. The opening scene is a definite callback, including the unfortunate fate of the terrified young woman in both scenes. The dreamy mood with an undertone of menace also fits the recent 2016 horror hit.
*The flower of this opening title logo, which is mixed with water imagery throughout the episode, sure looks like an orchid to me. Don’t know if any of the symbolism surrounding orchids will come into play.
*Jules tells JT about finding a book on succubi that had a profound effect on her (as Hunky Guy tells Margot he was raised in foster homes). Margot’s story from this scene ended up as her Room 5; want to bet both stories played out for these two in Room 5?
*The TV program she’s watching in the first scene looks like a bit of the Jason Street/Lyla Garrity/Tim Riggins triangle from the series Friday Night Lights. I believe the TV program Margot sees after the pool scene is a clip from a 1956 Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode entitled You Got To Have Luck starring the late actor/director John Cassavetes.
*The hallway of Margot’s nightmare/Room Three sure reminds me of the hallway Fiona Shaw’s house in Candle Cove. Margot mentions the dream was set in her grandmothers’ house – and Abigail Pinowsky (Child Margot), played Fiona Shaw’s granddaughter in that series. Coincidence? I THINK NOT.
*The man (?) in Room Two with the wooden funeral mask reminded me a lot of The Owlman. Supposedly a creature of Cornish folklore, he’s the antagonist in the indie ghost story Lord of Tears from Hex Media. You can read our review of the 2016 remastered version here.
*According to IMDB, Arkasha Stevenson is directing Season Three, which should be filming now.
Channel Zero: No End House airs Wednesdays at 10/9c on Syfy.