The Horrifying Films and TV Shows That Inspired 'Channel Zero: Butcher's Block'
Director Arkasha Stevenson on 'Hannibal,' 'Cannibal Holocaust,' and taking inspiration from David Lynch.
The monster known as Father Time takes a page from the David Lynch playbook. Image courtesy of Syfy
Arkasha Stevenson watched a different horror movie every night while directing Channel Zero: Butcher’s Block, the third season of Syfy’s creepypasta anthology series. This wasn’t a requirement put forth by showrunner Nick Antosca, but something that Stevenson did to get into the right mindset. "I don't know if there was a thought process for me,” she recently admitted to VICE. “I was watching everything and anything that's inspiring. I grew up on classic horror… so that was very natural. No matter what we were making, I would be watching."
Butcher’s Block tells the story of two sisters, Alice (Olivia Luccardi) and Zoe (Holland Roden), who move to a small town and end up connected to the mysterious Peach family, a once-elite clan that died off and left the town in ruin. As Alice and Zoe soon discover, the Peaches are alive—and living off of human flesh. Cannibalism, cosmic monsters, and stark set pieces abound. And as with past seasons of Channel Zero, the show conjures the specific effects of the artists and films that inspired it. VICE spoke with Stevenson about her influences and compiled a guide to the season's creepiest references.
Right out of the gate, real fans of the cannibalism genre will know that what’s coming ain't pretty. The very first episode opens with “Crucified Woman” by Riz Ortolani, the main theme popularized by the 1980 exploitation film Cannibal Holocaust. Outside of anything involving zombies or Dr. Hannibal Lecter—we’ll get to him—it’s one of the most famous films about eating humans, and also one of the most controversial. To reference it in the first few minutes of Butcher's Block is some serious foreshadowing.
Bryan Fuller's three-season NBC drama might as well be a companion piece to Butcher’s Block. For one, Antosca himself was a writer and producer on Hannibal and brought specific things he learned over to Channel Zero. When it comes to food, for example, the closer to human the ingredients are, the more appetizing they're made to look. Stevenson explained that her crew made a concerted effort to make normal foods look unappetizing, while "long pig" looked gourmet. “[The food in the Peach household] has to be beautiful and inviting and lush and you want to have to be there. You want to be there,” Stevenson explained. “There has to be a temptation to join the Peaches, otherwise it's not evil and sinister.” On a visceral level, this allows the audience to understand Alice and Zoe's motivations, just as it did for criminal profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) in Hannibal.
American photographer Joel-Peter Witkin's work skirts the line between a freak show and a graveyard. You might recognize him as the guy who takes photos of intricately-styled and posed corpses. As Stevenson described it, his work is "very macabre but also very beautiful at the same time." "I wanted my photographs to be as powerful as the last thing a person sees or remembers before death," Witkin has said in the past. For Stevenson, the MO was to “take the macabre imagery and [make] it aesthetically appealing."
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
One of Stevenson’s biggest personal influences for her work on Butcher’s Block was Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul's 2010 film, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. The first Thai film to win the Palme d'Or at Cannes, Uncle Boonmee features supernatural events such as a woman getting eaten out by a catfish, depicted matter-of-factly.
Stevenson described Weerasethakul's style as akin to “a malaria fever dream” and wanted to blend “social realism with a surrealistic aesthetic"—at least in the first episode. “The surrealistic aesthetic, almost like a virus, takes over, and images like a homunculus child eating a cat needed to feel natural to us. We looked at a lot of imagery that led us into the hyper-real very seamlessly.”
Beyond the Twin Peaks creator's generally unsettling vibe, some pervasive images popularized by Lynch made their way into Butcher’s Block. Take the creature that crawls out of Alice’s brain, which Stevenson refers to as “Father Time," for instance: It certainly bears a striking resemblance to Eraserhead's Lady in the Radiator, with her swollen papier-mâché cheeks and jerky movements.
“It was one of the things I couldn't really visualize," Stevenson recalled, "and then we're on set and this thing stands up and it’s so deranged and so frightening. I was almost discovering how frightening it was as we filmed it."
Park Chan-Wook's Thirst, which came out after the Korean director's Vengeance trilogy (Oldboy, anyone?), stars a priest who turns into a vampire and struggles with his newfound hunger for human blood. Watching Zoe struggle with her taste for human flesh in Butcher’s Block evokes much of the same tragic sentiment, especially as we watch her cut meat from her own leg to ease her pain. For Stevenson, the struggle was all in how Chan-Wook utilized the camera: “The camera is a character in itself. It has a life of its own,” she explained. Bon appetit!
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