The Terror review

Our The Terror review examines the chilling new horror mini-series from AMC. Potentially mild spoilers follow.

The Story

History tells us the fates of the crew of Sir John Franklin’s so-called lost expedition in 1845–1848. Any expedition that has “lost” in its name isn’t going to have a happy ending, and years after seemingly vanishing off the face of the earth, it was confirmed that every soul who sailed on the ships HMS Erebus and HMS Terror perished in an attempt to traverse the last unexplored section of the Northwest Passage.

The Terror, an appropriately-named new mini-series from AMC, adapts Dan Simmons’ massive novel of the same name and sets out to weave a supernatural spin to the true story. It wasn’t just the elements and starvation that picked these men off one-by-one – it was something unspeakable, come forth from all that cold, blinding ice and snow.

A triumph of production design, The Terror unfolds like a gothic cross between Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World and John Carpenter’s The Thing, with a little Alien thrown in for good measure (appropriate, since Alien helmer Ridley Scott is an executive producer). The harsh, frozen landscape awaits the men of the expedition; men who seem fully in control and almost ridiculously confident in themselves. To the men on the Erebus and Terror, the Arctic they journey to isn’t forbidding, uncharted territory – it’s merely yet another domain meant for the claiming.

The expedition is lead by two men: John Franklin (Ciarán Hinds), who commands the Erebus; and Francis Crozier (Jared Harris), captain of the Terror. Franklin is jovial and well-liked, but clearly in over his head and a bit of an inept sailor; a man who has his rank merely due to class, not skill. Crozier, in sharp contrast, is a much better seaman, but is also plagued by a constant state of melancholy. The men of the expedition have a hard time liking Crozier, who throws off chill almost as icy as the frozen seas the ships sit on.

There’s also a third in command, James Fitzjames (Tobias Menzies). Fitzjames is there to do the actual captain work aboard the Erebus while Franklin is more of a figurehead who will get all the glory should the expedition prove successful. Rather than resent his situation, Fitzjames is proud to serve, and fiercely loyal to Franklin while being suspicious of the dreary, depressing Crozier.

The expedition goes very wrong very fast. The ships sail from England for the Arctic, only to soon become hopelessly trapped in ice. Crozier is seized with a nearly existential dread at the prospect, while the cheerful, slightly clueless Franklin seems confident that sooner or later, the ice will thaw and the ships will be on their way.

But the ice doesn’t thaw, and things go from bad to worse very quickly. There’s a threat of scurvy hanging over the ship, but scurvy is nothing compared to the mostly-unseen monster lurking somewhere out on the ice. At first, the men think it might be a bear, but it becomes apparent that whatever this thing is, it’s no bear. “Not a man, not a bear, then what?” asks Fitzjames. Then what, indeed?

the terror show

Creepy As Hell

The Terror comes from a long tradition of gothic horror stories of foolhardy men who dare to tamper with the natural order; whose hubris gets the better of them, and sends them on the path to destruction. It’s no coincidence that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein featured a framing device about a naval expedition lodged in ice.

In adapting Dan Simmons’ novel, creator David Kajganich has streamlined the text into something compelling and manageable. Simmons’ novel is exhaustive to the point of being exhausting – the author clearly did a ton of research, and left none of it out of the book. The Terror discards some of Simmons’ loftier, often maddening diversions for a more concise, engrossing narrative. With each episode running around 45 minutes (without commercials), The Terror is surprisingly breezy, bustling from one moment to the next.

Yet at the same time, the series never feels rushed. It takes its time to introduce us to the characters, and is also wise enough to change the scenery from time to time. Rather than keep us stuck out on that ice for the whole series, The Terror provides flashbacks to events before the expedition, as well as scenes of loved ones back home wondering just what, exactly, has happened when word from the men ceases completely.

Jared Harris, as the morose Crozier, makes for a sympathetic lead. We’re caught up in his plight, and we relate to his weariness. Crozier is the first member of the expedition who seems to know the ships are in mortal danger, and when he starts offering warnings that are shrugged off as more of his melancholy nature, we find ourselves really wishing the other men would listen.

Other standouts include Paul Ready, playing a kind-hearted, inquisitive anatomist named Dr. Henry Goodsir. The warm Goodsir doesn’t quite fit in with the rough-and-tumble other members of the crew, and he’s often the only individual who has his wits about him. Unfortunately, he’s more book-smart than world-weary – a potential recipe for disaster. Adam Nagaitis makes an impression as well as mate Cornelius Hickey. Possessed of delusions of grandeur, Hickey is far more confident in his abilities than he should be, and part of the fun of the character is watching Nagaitis play up Hickey’s duplicitous nature.

The true star of The Terror, though, is the production design. The cinematography is gloriously foreboding, full of flickering lanterns, murky darkness, and blinding white snow. Then there’s the feel of it all, conveyed mostly through sound design – there’s not a moment when we don’t hear the creaking sounds of the ships, or the crunching of snow and ice underfoot…or the splattering of blood.

Make no mistake: The Terror is creepy as hell. Even before the mysterious monster shows up to lay waste to the men, there’s an undeniable sense of dread. In the first episode alone we’re treated to a ghastly, antiquated autopsy, and things only get more graphic from there. There are also quiet, chilling moments, as when a character is lowered beneath the icy water in a diving suit, only to see the frozen corpse of a lost man drifting eerily towards him in the murky water.

Perhaps best of all is the sense that The Terror is an entirely self-contained tale. There’s no room her for additional seasons, and as a result, creator Kajganich and company aren’t dragging their feet. There are no deliberately vague notions brought-up to tease second-season events; no mysteries that are pushed aside to be solved at a later date. Instead, The Terror tells a complete tale, and what an engrossing tale it is.

In an era when horror-based television is becoming more and more prevalent, The Terror stands out. It is a triumph of mood and setting, full of scenes that chill the blood and quicken the pulse. We know going into The Terror that the cast of characters are doomed, but this foreknowledge doesn’t lessen how downright creepy the story ends up being.

The Terror premieres March 26, 2018 on AMC.

Cool Posts From Around the Web: