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Bite your tongue: The Terror: Infamy's ratio of scares to clichés remains hard to swallow

Photo: Derek Mio as Chester Nakayama (Ed Araquel/AMC
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We open in the Wild West, where everything is black and white and the cowboys speak Japanese.

We’re watching a movie screening in the internment camp where Chester Nakayama and company are being held prisoner by their government for the crime of their ethnicity. The star is John Wayne, but the voices and sound effects (a tambourine doubles for the jingle-jangle of spurs) are being provided live and in person by other residents of the camp. But it’s a strange effect, seeing this bit of American mythology remade by the circumstances of ugly American reality.

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And it gets stranger when the Duke starts speaking directly to a member of his audience. “You have to go, Chester,” his dubbed voice proclaims. Now the footage of a shootout in the town square transforms into a black-and-white replay of the death of Chester’s family friend Mr. Yoshida, who himself warned Chester to go before he charged the guards and got himself gunned down.

Taking the advice perhaps too literally, Chester gets up and leaves the makeshift theater to relieve himself. As he does so, one of the camp’s blinding and intrusive searchlights sweeps over him, like the light from a movie projector. It renders him momentarily as ghostly and unreal as the phantasmagorical cowboys themselves.

This opening sequence proves that there’s a smart, restrained work of horror residing somewhere deep within The Terror: Infamy. Peel away enough corny dialogue and spooky clichés and you can work wonders with this premise and setting. But it’s the exception that proves the rule, and the rest of this episode (“Gaman,” which translates to “Persevere”) is more of the wearying, disappointing same.

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The trouble, it must be said, starts with Chester. Our protagonist is a one-note worrywart who considers everything, from his returning father Henry’s frostbite to his girlfriend Luz’s pregnancy to the possibility that he’s being stalked by an old-world demon with the same look of a man trying to do long division in his head. His hackneyed dialogue (“They put us in here and expect us to sign up? Screw that,” “I’m not like other people,” “I’m a translator. I won’t see any combat,” haha, whatever you say buddy) does not help. But it ultimately falls on actor Derek Mio to extract something human from what he’s been giving, and he’s thus far unequal to the task.

Fortunately, Mio’s performance livens up the moment he’s given an emotion to express other than “concerned.” Midway through the episode, Chester decides to enlist despite his misgivings so that he can support his family, and more than likely heed the advice he’s been receiving from beyond that he has “to go.” After seemingly stumbling his way through a translation test during his job interview with the Army, he’s in the process of being dismissed. Then he casually mentions a code present in the text he was handed. His evident pride in detecting and effortlessly cracking that code—he even risks a minor breach of protocol by asking how many other applicants figured it out—brings a smile to his face and makes him more vibrant and interesting a character than he’s been all season.

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The rest of the cast isn’t so lucky, as their dialogue hammers home points better made through inference and implication. When Chester points out a strangely moving flock of swallows (a recurring presence in the series so far), his friend Walt Yoshida says “I don’t know the first thing about birds—I’m not about to start while we’re supposed to be building a fence.” Emphasis mine, just in case you hadn’t noticed that they were, you know, building a fence.

Henry Nakayama, who is unceremoniously returned to his family in the middle of the night, seems to speak in nothing but these kinds of declamatory statements. Made paranoid and old before his time by his experience being abused by the military, he goes full-on stock character by saying things like “I sacrificed so much for you, and this is how you repay me?” Worse, he underlines the entire nature of this subgenre of horror like he’s delivering a book report when he tells his wife that her ofuda talisman “may protect us from spirits, but not from human evil.” Oh, is that what this series is about? Good thing a character is here to explain the premise of the show!

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Sadly, the scenes centered on the supernatural are even weaker than average, both in terms of dialogue and delivering actual scares (with a couple of exceptions). When Mrs. Nakayama discovers the sad little garden they’ve been tending has yielded a single pepper, she exclaims “A sign of life! Always a good omen!” as if we couldn’t figure out the latter from the former. Any guesses as to whether there’s a worm waiting for her when she bites into it?

Chester, meanwhile, spends much of the episode asking people if he thinks Luz’s accidental fall was no accident, on account of unexplained strong gusts of wind. It’s about as creepy as it sounds, which is not very. And the final scene, in which Luz is tended to by a mysterious midwife who turns out to be Yuko the evil spirit, is the least surprising surprise reveal I’ve seen this year.

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But Yuko does have something going for her: a great gross-out scene. Based on her exchange with blind Mr. Furuya, it sure seems like she is a vengeful spirit, paying Furuya back for some unspoken nighttime incident in his past. He’s already been established as violent towards women, so it isn’t too hard to guess what that incident may have been.

And man, her payback is something to behold. Not content with blinding him by forcing him to stare into the sun, and additionally unsatisfied with driving him to nearly choke his own son to death, she has him dragged out into the woods by a mind-controlled soldier, then bites off his tongue, leaving him to choke to death on his own blood. It’s the first time since the season-opening hair-stick-through-the-ear gag that one of the show’s horror scenes has actually been horrifying. Here’s hoping for more where that came from, messed up as it sounds.

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Stray observations

  • C. Thomas Howell appears as a garrulous member of the military brass, and boy, he sure aged into his handsome, weatherbeaten old man phase beautifully, huh? He looks like he could understudy for Sam Elliott now.
  • Chester’s departure does provide the women who love him with some nice grace notes. The night before he leaves, he and Luz slow dance to distant music; as he’s preparing to go, they exchange a windswept kiss before his mother clips some of his hair just in case he’s unable to return for a proper burial should he die in combat.
  • A more thoughtful show could probably mine more out of Luz, a native Spanish speaker who’s now learning her third language and culture, than making her merely the butt of insults about her unwed pregnancy. If anything she’s even more concerned than Chester, and it’s a waste of a character with perhaps the most complex backstory of any of them.
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