The Terror Quietly Escalates the Dread in Its First Few Episodes
The Terror, AMC’s new series about a stranded expedition to the Arctic, is something special: a horror series that’s actually chilling. It’s a departure from the usual gamut of horror television shows that occasionally pop up, which are almost invariably devoid of scares. Part of that lack of horror is due to the way TV is structured — multiple episodes diffuse the tension, and the audience can usually figure out which characters to align their sympathies with. From a technical standpoint, TV also tends to be brighter and less artfully shot, which makes it harder to conjure up a spooky mood. The Terror avoids those pitfalls by leaving all its characters at the mercy of nature and the supernatural (as episode three established) and by looking about as great as a TV show possibly could (as ably demonstrated by each episode to date).
In the first episode, “Go for Broke,” showrunners David Kagjanich and Soo Hugh immediately tip their hat to one of their primary influences, Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979). It’s fitting that Scott is also listed as an executive producer. Shortly after the officers of the Erebus and the Terror have been introduced the action shifts to the much rowdier mess hall. There’s a fair amount of good cheer which will soon evaporate. One of the men who was previously laughing it up with his comrades falls victim to a coughing spell, to the point that he spews crimson liquid all over the table and starts to seize up. The lad’s rapidly worsening health is a harbinger of upcoming woes, though not in the way the ship’s crew fears.
Episode two, the aptly titled “Gore,” opens eight months after the twin ships were encased in ice. It’s now summer, and the men venture outside the ship on foot to play games and bask in the cold summer light. Crozier has talked Sir Francis into sending out groups of the men in all directions in hope of rescue. The previous episode’s use of a digitally created ocean was impressive, but the creation of the ice shelves in this one is something else. The ice, presumably built on set, melds seamlessly with the horizon. The lack of artificiality adds to the sense of unease accompanying the men on their march across the ice. So far, the simple isolation and claustrophobic setting have been enough to induce chills, but now we get to the main development of the source novel by Dan Simmons. Simmons not only focuses on the terror of being trapped in the Arctic, but he adds some kind of supernatural monster that hunts the men down one by one. It brings to mind elements of Alien and John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) as it picks the men off one by one. Unfortunately, the men of the expedition west mistake an Inuit man for the beast (which they assume is a bear). They shoot him, then bring the wounded man and his daughter (referred to as Lady Silence) back to the ship.
The ship’s doctor at first refuses to even touch the man out of some racist disgust, so it’s left to the less prejudiced anatomist (Paul Ready). The anatomist, Henry Goodsir, always seems to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. He’s part of the expedition west that is attacked by the creature and results in the Inuit man’s death. In the third episode, “The Ladder,” he has the misfortune to join Sir John as he visits the sentries, just before the creature attacks them, killing at least one man before it attacks the retreating Sir John. His death, the most baroque one the series has attempted so far, is astounding in its brutality and invention. It’s quite gory and a bit shameful. The episode foreshadows Sir John’s departure through a series of masterfully edited and fragmentary flashbacks to the time just before he left for the voyage to the Arctic.
After Sir John’s shocking demise, Crozier is left in charge of the boats. It’s clear that he has a vastly different approach in mind, but less clear is whether it even matters. The beast on the ice has been awakened, and there is nowhere for the men of the Terror and the Erebus to hide.
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