That Sinking Feeling
“The Terror” on AMC
Are you one of those rare people who loved “Downton Abbey” but wished it had more gore? AMC has come to your rescue with the highbrow hybrid “The Terror.” Executive produced in grand style by movie bigwig Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner, Black Hawk Down, Gladiator) and based on Dan Simmons’ best selling historical horror novel from 2007, “The Terror” is prestige binge-watching at its best.
Simmons’ novel was based on the real-life story of the Royal Navy’s polar exploration ships HMS Erebus and HMS Terror. In 1854 Captain Sir John Franklin led an expedition to locate the mythical “Northwest Passage.” As a particularly harsh winter hit North America, Franklin and his crew of 129 men vanished without a trace. Simmons’ novel speculates—not without a certain dose of historical evidence—what happened to the crews of the two ships after they became icebound in the Canadian Arctic.
The show’s stellar cast starts with Ciarán Hinds (best known as Julius Caesar in HBO’s “Rome”) as Captain Franklin and Jared Harris (Lane Pryce on AMC’s “Mad Men”) as his second-in-command, Captain Francis Crozier. Franklin is the more adventurous (we might say foolhardy) of the two, while Crozier is the more cautious. It’s Crozier who recommends turning back when winter bears down on the expedition. But Franklin is determined to do the Queen’s Duty, and presses on. It’s not long before the Terror and the Erebus are sitting on a shelf of ice, unable to move.
With food supplies dwindling and morale crumbling, the Captains debate various ways to escape. As a historical tale of survival, “The Terror” is gripping and down-to-earth. Some grim cinematography and the occasional, judicious use of CGI conjure up the dark and frozen atmosphere of the Arctic with deadly precision. But there’s more than just frostbite and starvation preparing to take out these sailors. A haunting sequence in which a sailor braves the frozen sea to break a chunk of ice from the ship’s propeller is heavy with dread and hints at a dangerous world that wants nothing more than the quick and violent death of these intruding humans.
The story tips its hand toward the supernatural soon enough, when one of the expeditions looking for a way out of the ice field is attacked by what could be a polar bear. A very big polar bear. An impossibly big polar bear, in fact. In fear for their lives, the panicked sailors accidentally shoot a wandering Inuit shaman. Dragging the elderly shaman back to the ships, they try to save his life. But the doctor refuses to operate on a “savage.” When the old man expires, his daughter grows gravely concerned, knowing that he was the only one who could control “Tuunbaq.” Now the sailors have another problem to deal with, a bloodthirsty native demon who wants to munch on their internal organs.
“The Terror” has its fair share of monsters and gore, but the mysterious creature stalking our cast of Brits is actually only a small part of the horror laying in wait. Demon or no demon, these men are in deep doo-doo. Will it be the elements, the monster or their own dark natures that drags them down? Don’t expect thrills on the level of John Carpenter’s The Thing. On the other hand, don’t expect history lessons on par with “Master and Commander.” At 10 perfectly paced episodes, “The Terror” is a judicious balance of white-knuckle survival horror and classic historical drama.