*Beware, here be mild spoilers for The Terror.*
Maybe it’s because I’m a life-long Texan and I have no concept of what real winter is, but I love horror movies set in cold climates. I find that there’s a certain exoticism to an icy, snowy horror setting, where the threat of freezing to death is just as real as being eaten by a monster. That’s part of what draws me to films like Let The Right One In, The Shining, 30 Days of Night, and, of course, The Thing.
Now that it’s the end of July, and because I live in Houston, this time of the summer is particularly brutal. To ignore the oppressive heat and humidity, I’ve been spending most of my time indoors watching television and sucking down cold drinks. Every Texan knows that the best way to take advantage of our powerful air conditioning is to watch a movie that makes you feel cold.
Which brings me to The Terror.
Adapted from Dan Simmons’ novel of the same name, The Terror is AMC’s series about a group of English explorers who go looking for the Northwest Passage but instead find frostbite, poisoned rations, cannibalism, and a terrifying supernatural monster. The story is based on the true story of the Captain John Franklin’s lost expedition, where the British Royal Navy sent two ships, the Erebus and the Terror, to find a naval passage connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans through the Arctic Ocean north of Canada. In real life, the expedition was lost due to what researchers say was a variety of factors arising from the challenging arctic landscape and an ill-prepared expedition. By all accounts, it was a horrible but realistic way to die.Still, none of the crewmembers survived to tell the world what really happened to them. Again, researchers have worked tirelessly to piece together the story, but there are just enough unexplained details to stoke imaginations.
Essentially, The Terror asks this question: what if we take this doomed expedition, with its freezing to death problems and lead poisoning and warring personalities, and add a nightmarish monster to the mix?Yes, please!
In AMC’s The Terror, an expedition sets off to find the Northwest Passage aboard ships Erebus and Terror, led by Captain Sir John Franklin (Ciarán Hinds). Franklin is joined by his second-in-command Captain Francis Crozier (Jared Harris) and Commander James Fitzjames (Tobias Menzies), and there’s immediate tension between the three men. Crozier has more cold weather experience than Franklin, which Franklin resents, leading him to ignore Crozier’s warnings about the expedition’s chosen route. Soon enough, the ships get stuck in the ice, and the crew is forced to sit and wait for the ice to thaw. Facing merciless conditions and dwindling supplies, the men struggle to maintain their stiff upper lips. That is, until the arrival of a mysterious Inuit woman, Lady Silence (Nive Nielsen), who seemingly leads a terrifying monster right to the ships.
Ever since Hannibal and Penny Dreadful have left the airways, I’ve been itching for a horror show that’s well-produced, expertly acted, and genuinely frightening. But my prayers have been answered. The Terror makes for some excellent prestige horror television and more than fills the TV horror hole in my heart. It’s so good.
One of the best aspects of The Terror is its commitment to atmosphere. The stakes are made clear immediately, as is the men’s quiet desperation and struggle against hopelessness. The show takes full advantage of the unforgiving Arctic environment and the ships’ cramped quarters. Scenes alternate from claustrophobic and grimy interior shots to desolate and howling exterior wastelands. And because the ships themselves are stuck in the ice at tilted angles, the show shoots entire episodes using Dutch angles, which makes elegant use of the slanted floors and contributes to the pervasive sense of dread.The art direction and set design are top notch. As a viewer, it’s all too easy to put yourself in the men’s shoes, feeling the cold and harsh wind, shivering in a cramped bunk while listening to the haunting sounds of the ice expanding and twisting the ships. It’s creepy as hell, and it doesn’t take much to imagine how awful those conditions were, especially once body parts start freezing off and characters start dying.And just wait until the social hierarchy and power structures completely break down. Yikes!Then, on top of all that, the show uses the monster very well. I won’t give anything away, but shit gets real and fast. I had to watch whole scenes from behind my fingers.
The show builds on this solid foundation with fantastic actors. My favorite part of The Terror was the incendiary performances from the leads—it was like watching the Olympics, only for acting and dominated by the best British character actors.The Terror was a masterclass in how gifted and disciplined actors layer in character nuance and motivations to create fully-formed flesh-and-blood people in the space of a single episode. Thank God The Terror let Jared Harris (it’s his show, after all), Tobias Menzies, Ciarán Hinds, and a bunch of up-and-comers bring gravitas and grit to their roles. Half the fun of the series was watching these characters go at each other, especially once their circumstances become dire and the men start to go a little crazy. The actors, not the premise or the monster, made the show compelling.
Thus, The Terror uses its atmosphere and talent to create a show that’s very creepy and surprisingly scary in parts. The show can get gory, but it’s never overdone, nor does the show rely on the bloody bits to land a scare. It doesn’t have to, not with that premise and level of acting. I was captivated from the beginning, and even though I knew the ending, I couldn’t wait to watch the next episode.All in all, The Terror was an excellent adaptation of a bloated 700+ page novel that suffered from confusing flashbacks and an overwhelming amount of unnecessary scenes away from the action.
That being said, my major critique of this show was that ten episodes were not enough to accomplish all the show’s goals. The show was forced to sacrifice a fair bit of character development, even for the protagonists. Some plot developments didn’t get the attention they deserved and would have fallen flat with less skilled actors. It’s a testament to the actors that they were able to create such fierce, detailed portrayals of their characters in a relatively short time frame. Still, principle characters, like Lady Silence, the show’s only major female character, were given the shaft.Additionally, I question the show’s insistence on including certain scenes about what was happening in England during the expedition. Sure, those scenes show us Franklin’s wife and her niece drumming up support to send a rescue after the expedition, but they felt underdeveloped and didn’t add much. They took up valuable screen time that would have been better spent on the expedition’s characters.
I wanted the show to immerse me in the drama and horror of the Franklin expedition without pulling me away to a bunch of people who weren’t on the ships. They interrupted the atmosphere and dragged down the pace. I couldn’t care less about Lady Franklin standing barefoot in the snow to feel what her stranded husband must be feeling. I can watch him and all the others freezing to death! Cut back to that! That’s far more interesting.(I assume the show was aware that the story was light on female characters and included Lady Franklin and her niece just to have them. And hey, I always support juicy female roles, but maybe they could have focused on fleshing out Lady Silence, a main character.)
My other critiques include the less-than-impressive CGI used for the monster. As in much horror, the monster was most effective when it remained partially obscured or just out of frame. While the CGI effectively portrayed a monster I’ve never seen before, my imagination had to do a lot of work to make it scary once it was fully shown. However, this is a minor critique.Another minor critique I have is the omission of one of the best scenes from the book–SPOILER…….Franklin’s death. While I hated the book because of Simmons’ writing style (The Terror has one of the stupidest sex scenes ever printed), I ADORED the way he portrayed this scene. It gave me the chills, which is very hard to do in print. But the show revamped that scene and excised much of the horror. I’m sure it was due to a budgetary constraint or network standards. While the show’s depiction was still scary and awful, but it would have been METAL to see the book version on screen.
I get shivers just thinking about it.
Despite its flaws, I want to see more horror shows like The Terror, especially with its exploration of hubris, group dynamics, and how internal conflict and external threats can rip apart a group of otherwise civilized people. This will always be a compelling premise, but it’s especially poignant right now. We need more art like this, and as always, I believe horror is ideally positioned to do just that.
Thankfully, AMC is producing a second season of The Terror, set to air sometime next year. I can’t wait!