This is a spoiler-free review based on The Terror’s opening episodes.
Horror TV is going through something of a golden age, thanks to American Horror Story, Penny Dreadful, The Exorcist and Inside No. 9. And, of course, there are the towering giants of The Walking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead, which are unavoidable in their omnipresent, shuffling, divisive gore. For those who prefer their scares zombie-free, though, a blast of new creepiness is coming our way, courtesy of AMC’s The Terror.
The series mines history for a uniquely unusual story: the tale of two ships who found themselves trapped in the Arctic. Not just lost, or blown off course, but entirely unable to move. We’re dropped onto the 1847 voyage in full swing, as 129 men set sail in the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus, hoping to find the Northwest Passage – the elusive path that links the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean. Neither ship ever returned and the crew were never seen again. What happened on that doomed trip remains a mystery, a mystery that inspired Dan Simmons to write a 2007 novel speculating what might have occurred. Now, A Bigger Splash’s David Kajganich has adapted that fiction into 10 episodes – and judging by the opening double-bill, it’s set to be a nerve-jangling survival thriller.
Our crews are led by Sir John Franklin and Captain Francis Crozier, played with gusto by two of the screen’s best actors, Ciarán Hinds and Jared Harris. Where a normal horror might send them running afraid from bumps in the night, The Terror is a quieter beast, with the two ships locked in a sheet of ice and unable to move anywhere. Hinds and Harris are perfect for that still tone, soaking up the chance to find tension not in what lurks outside of the boats, but the conflicting views within.
Harris is Mad Men levels of good, stubbornly principled and unable to go along with the pretence that everything is fine and God will save them all. Hinds, meanwhile, is imperial as the commanding, craggy Franklin, determined to make the history books and carefully composed at all times. But over just two hours, we begin to see that collected surface begin to quiver – cracks in his facade start to show, and there’s more dread in the sight of such conviction losing certainty than in a thousand zombies.
Director Edward Berger, who helmed the uber-stylish Deutschland 83, crafts an atmosphere of motionless suspense and frozen style, juxtaposing the creaky interiors with the endless brightness that engulfs them – an aerial shot that zooms out as the men venture onto the white is dizzyingly unnerving. Stitched together by cool credits, Kajganich’s confident storytelling is just as precise. His second chapter fast-forwards months from the initial freeze, yet without any real progress being made – an effective blend of glacial pacing and compelling writing. A brief encounter with an errant bear highlights how perilous the Arctic wilds can be, but they’re equalled by the threat of dissent and bickering on safe ground – mostly courtesy of Outlander’s Tobias Menzies, who plays Franklin’s loyal number two, Captain James Fitzjames. That shifting balance of power makes for an intriguing landscape to navigate, and as the hours tick slowly by with no sign of hope on the horizon, The Terror’s icy chill begins to seep into your bones. Wrap up warm: this nautical frightener should be worth staying the course.
The Terror is available to buy and rent on Amazon Prime Video