Executive-produced by Ridley Scott, this eerie retelling of what might have happened to the crew of a doomed expedition boasts a scary start
Despite its unstoppable increase, there remains something undeniably exasperating about small-screen horror, the extended format bloating any potential scares. The campy American Horror Story franchise has grown tired, The Walking Dead should have died a long time ago and news of a Blair Witch series is terrifying for all of the wrong reasons. But horror fans remain resilient, having endured more big-screen disappointments than most, and in The Terror they might finally have something worth staying in for.
Executive-produced by Ridley Scott (whose small-screen output has ranged all the way from Taboo to The Good Wife), this menacing 10-parter is loosely based on true events. The truth is that in the mid-1800s, two British ships underwent an ambitious voyage to the Arctic in order to force the Northwest Passage. It was doomed and the crews didnt return. But exactly what happened to them remains a mystery and in his 2007 novel, Dan Simmons created a fictionalized account of what befell the men of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror.
In this handsome adaptation were thrown in at the, ahem, deep end, joining the men far into their trip with flashbacks filling in some of the smaller details on land. The two crews are headed up by Sir John Franklin (Ciarn Hinds) and Captain Francis Crozier (Jared Harris) whose dueling outlooks cause friction, with the inexperienced yet bolshy Captain James Fitzjames (Tobias Menzies) stirring the pot. As they find themselves further from home, their problems start mounting with the unforgiving climate threatening to put their ambitions permanently on ice and a mysterious force suggests an even darker fate might be in store.
One of the major issues with small-screen horror is pacing. Most scary movies tend to run for around 90 minutes for a solid reason: putting an audience on edge for any longer requires considerable, rare skill and keeping them in the dark proves frustrating once the running time is extended beyond breaking point. After some sleek credits, in the first 15 minutes of The Terror, theres enough menacing grisliness to suggest that a 10-part story wont feel like a snooze, showrunner David Kajganich confidently timing reveals (the second episode is set eight months after the first). Its already been announced that The Terror will work as an anthology show and if a second season were to be produced, it would follow a different story and this awareness leads to tighter storytelling.
While the knowledge of what will occur does give the show a foreboding sense of dread, the cinematographers struggle to lend it the claustrophobic tension it needs to fully burrow under the skin. The vast icy landscape surrounds the crew in brightness, a challenge within the horror genre, yet unlike John Carpenters The Thing, the initial episodes struggle to make it seem like a truly terrifying place to be. The TV budget gives it a staginess that also prevents us from truly feeling transported.
But the unknowable nature of what sinister force is tormenting the men means that the show remains steeped in intrigue and it bristles with the constantly shifting powerplay within the crews. Hinds is a compellingly tragic figure with the haunted expression of a man whose optimism in what might be achieved and faith in the protection of God are both being slowly chipped away. His performance lends a tragic edge to the increasingly dire situation and while hes the shows undoubted MVP theres strong support from a spiky Harris as his opposing captain.
The unrelenting misery of The Terror might prove a tad joyless for those who prefer their horror without a side of bleak semi-realism and it remains to be seen just how effective it will be once the 10th hour has aired. But, for now, theres hope for small-screen horror, albeit wrapped in a hopeless package.
The Terror begins in the US on AMC on 26 March with a UK date yet to be announced Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2018/mar/26/the-terror-review-menacing-arctic-horror-series-gives-a-lasting-chill