Black Mirror has rejuvenated the horror/anthology series for the 2000s through the canny use of technological moral panic. The iconic Black Mirror episode is a concern-trolling hot take on some up-to-the-nanosecond social issue. Does Facebook enforce stifling niceness? Has helicopter parenting gone too far? Is reality television debasing our moral fabric? Add tech to take us five minutes into the future, and witness the dystopia.
Black Mirror's formula can be a lot of fun, but it can also feel glib. Fear of the latest app can seem a little beside the point with President Donald Trump squatting in the White House like a malevolent orange toad. In contrast, this season of the anthology series Channel Zero, titled Butcher's Block, has found a terror more attuned to our current moment of corruption, feral violence, and decay. Don't fear your phone, Butcher's Block says. Fear the rich.
This is the third series of creator Nick Antosca's Channel Zero. Where each Black Mirror episode is a discrete story, Channel Zero has one six-episode narrative per season. Each of these seasons is based on short Internet stories—called Creepypasta. Butcher's Block is inspired by an image in Kerry Hammond's story "Search and Rescue," which describes a giant staircase in the middle of a park, leading up into nowhere.
From that starting point, Antosca and the Butcher's Block writers' room have spun a story that casts capitalism as a cannibalistic fever dream. The narrative focuses on Alice Woods (Olivia Luccardi), a young social worker who moves to a new city with her schizophrenic sister, Zoe (Holland Roden). The two attract the attention of Joseph Peach (Rutger Hauer), the scion of what was once the town's major industry, a meat-packing company called Peach's Meats. Peach's Meats has long ago shut down, though, and Joseph should be dead. But he and his family still live on in the park where their mansion used to be, feeding on the residents of the surrounding neighborhood of Butcher's Block. Because he's lost his daughters, Joseph takes an interest in Alice and Zoe, and offers them a chance to become part of his family—for a price.
The Peaches are obviously related to parasitic, aristocratic vampires past, but they give Count Dracula a capitalist twist. The neighborhood of Butcher's Block, we're informed early in the series, is a "socioeconomic dead zone," as the collapse of the meat-packing industry has left behind joblessness and despair. The Peaches' first victim in the series is a single, jobless mom whose child is about to be taken away by child protective services. Alice is trying to help the woman when she disappears from her home. The police barely care, because, as the malevolent Robert Peach (Andreas Aspergis) says with lip-licking enthusiasm, the poor are insignificant. "Your lives don't stick. You do this, you do that. but your lives don't matter. To us, you're just protein."
At one point, the Peaches employed the people of Butcher's Block, but de-industrialization has turned the meat industry into a corpse, and so more direct exploitation has become necessary. Episode 3 of the series is set mostly in an empty hospital, which is being shut down owing to budget cuts. Robert stalks his prey through the hallways of a hollowed-out health system, cheerfully and noisily sucking up blood while wearing a suit as fine as that of any insurance executive. While he's chasing his victims, Alice, elsewhere in the building and running from her own demons, receives one of her periodic calls from her student loan collection agency. "Is this real?" she asks incredulously. The joke, if it is a joke, is that the blood-suckers, are not, in fact, a fantasy; collection agencies exist.
The metaphor may seem a touch on the nose. But one of the strengths of horror is that it doesn't have to be especially subtle. The Lynchian influences in Butcher's Block can be overly insistent; you may wonder if you've mistakenly tuned into Twin Peaks when Robert launches into a tap dance routine, or when it plays creepy retro '50s tunes over scenes of him eating a man's lungs. But Butcher's Block is at its strongest when it tosses aside the stylistic flourishes and just revels in close-up meat porn of flies crawling across maggots sliding across glazed ham, or zooms in on Hauer contemplatively biting into a severed finger. Capitalism consumes, and everything it touches rots.
Butcher's Block wants the rich to make your gorge rise. But it's also aware that they have their attractions. Joseph offers to help Alice and Zoe by providing them with health care; they both suffer from hereditary schizophrenia, and he can cut their heads open (literally, since this is horror) and slice it out. They're capitalist failures, ill-equipped for careers or paying back their student loans—but Joseph can help them self-actualize. Similarly, the Peach patriarch has a shadowy agreement with the chief of police (Tyrone Benskin) to help the chief advance his career if he ignores what happens in Butcher's Block. The chief says Joseph is "just another weird rich man," but that's the point: Weird rich men will pay you for the privilege of devouring your soul.
Perhaps the best set piece in the series so far is a disconnected skit centered on Edie Peach, played with freakily motherly relish by Diana Bentley. Edie is in her kitchen, slicing up roasts, and sliding portions of meat with an audible squelch onto the plates of gathered children. One of the kids asks why they eat ham, and Edie explains, with hearty obliviousness and a thick Georgia accent, that when you're at the top of the food chain, you eat those lower down the food chain. Thus, the Peaches eat the inhabitants of Butcher's Block—even though, as Robert says, "they taste like shit."
The public service announcement with Edie has a deliberately '50s vibe; that's the decade when the Peaches all mysteriously disappeared. Butcher's Block is retro horror—its haunting comes from the past, not the future. And yet, by situating our bloody present in our bloody past, Butcher's Block manages to get a firmer, toothier grip on tomorrow than the more celebrated futurism of Black Mirror. The rich, after all, don't die and fade away. They just pass their money on to their children, who sit in the Oval Office and gnaw on our bones as the flies gather around. We're all living in Butcher's Block, waiting for the same monsters as yesterday to come feed again tomorrow.