TV: The Terror

June 23, 2019

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The Terror (2018), AMC’s stunning historical horror about intrepid British explorers searching for the Northwest Passage in the 1840s, requires suspension of disbelief on two fronts. First, there’s the fantastical creature that stalks the crews of two vessels seeking a new route to the Pacific; this is an easy one for a speculative fiction fan. The other is the unsettling dissonance of witnessing its deadly, unforgiving historical setting from the remove of our dramatically climate-altered present. Primarily a survival drama of gripping horror, The Terror — based on the Dan Simmons novel — also serves as an unnerving window onto our environmental past, making its theme of men undone by hubris all the more chillingly resonant.

Based on an actual expedition, The Terror fictionalizes the efforts of two British ships — the Erebus and the Terror — to locate an elusive, invaluable shipping route through the Arctic, north of the Canadian mainland. The expedition is led from the Erebus by serious, respectable Captain Sir John Franklin (Ciaran Hinds), a glory-seeker who believes he’s on the verge of discovering this maritime Holy Grail. His second-in-command, Captain Francis Crozier (Jared Harris) of the Terror, is more circumspect about their chances, especially once the Erebus is hobbled by damage and the polar ice-pack starts to descend. With winter drawing closer and the expedition nearing a point of no return, Crozier advocates caution, but Franklin — blinded by faith in his destiny — makes the fateful call to push on, propelling the men in his command down a dark, perilous path from which they may never return.

Initially, the most striking aspect of The Terror is its Arctic setting, brought to stark, freezing life thanks to a combination of astute location shooting (in eastern Europe, surprisingly) and extremely effective CGI. The desperate remoteness and brutal weather of its world is utterly convincing. Even without the fantasy elements — which are cagily, incrementally revealed for maximum suspense and impact — the scenario is increasingly desperate and tense, as the unforgiving climate is every bit as lethal as the supernatural nemesis terrorizing them. But even more impressive than the sense of place is the acting, a master class from everyone involved. In particular, Jared Harris delivers and electrifying performance in a complex, nuanced role. Overall, I haven’t seen a world this thoroughly inhabited since Deadwood, thanks in large part to superb performances from Harris, Hinds, Tobias Menzies, Ian Hart, Adam Nagaitis, Paul Ready, and the rest of the cast.

Adding to the depth of the experience is that The Terror has potent allegorical resonance. Its characters are ambitious men, looking to exploit an environment in their search for glory and riches; instead, as their goals crash down around them, they do little more than despoil it. It’s chilling to watch an expedition brave the frozen reaches of our environmental past at a time when that very environment is melting tragically away. I’m not sure whether this theme arises directly from the source material, is imposed by the adaptation, or is merely a side effect of my personal viewing experience; regardless, I think it plays in this space, and is all the more tragic a tale for it.

Interestingly, The Terror will continue as an anthology series of historical horror; forthcoming is The Terror: Infamy, which will visit supernatural horror upon a Japanese internment camp during World War II. It will have a difficult time living up to this grim, powerful inaugural season, but it’s a horrifically timely concept and I’ll definitely be onboard for it.