One of the things that stands out about Wreck – particularly compared to a lot of the other new Halloween series debuting this October – is that it’s a slasher. Where most of the new horror arriving over the coming weeks leans more towards the psychological (The Devil’s Hour) or the supernatural (The Bastard Son + The Devil Himself), falling under true crime (The Watcher) or big franchises (Werewolf by Night), Wreck is considerably less subdued than each, fully committed to its anonymous killer duck, blood splatter and all. There’s an upfront kind of boldness to the whole thing, and it feels very distinctive and very itself.
The series follows Jamie Walsh (Oscar Kennedy), who signs up to work on the cruise ship Sanctorum to investigate the disappearance of his sister Pippa; the parent company Valorum, who operate with minimal oversight and are protected by their dubious legal status at sea, told him that she jumped overboard and died, but he’s convinced they’re hiding something. Jamie becomes one of thousands of employees – waiters, cleaners, entertainers, so on – at the beck and call of the privileged holidaymakers calling the cruise ship home for the summer. It quickly becomes clear that whatever happened to Pippa was more complicated than Valorum let on – especially as other crewmembers who had been close to her start dying too.
The cruise ship itself turns out to be a great setting for a slasher, smartly used to strong effect by both writer Ryan J Brown and director Chris Baugh. Part of that is the resulting sense of isolation – cut off from the rest of the world, there’s no authority apart from the Valorum corporation – and the danger represented by the water on all sides. There’s also an incongruous feel to it all, with its confrontations in extravagant ballrooms and colourful ballpits alike: the killer duck, Quacky, is a murderer dressed in the ship’s mascot costume, and seeing the duck violently stab someone in one scene and then pose for pictures with children in another lends the show a nicely pervasive air of creepiness.
The Sanctorum is also key to one of Wreck’s big animating ideas. On a cruise ship like this – a thousand guests waited on hand and foot by three thousand staff, often young and vulnerable, all treated as essentially disposable by upper management – class divides are stark, and it’s something Jamie and his friends have to navigate cautiously. “This ship will chew you up and spit you out if you let it,” one employee warns another partway through Wreck, and it’s clear that the ship itself is as dangerous if not moreso than Quacky.
The cast are impressive across the board (uhm, so to speak): Oscar Kennedy is great as Jamie, vulnerable but determined, only gradually willing to consider the possibility his sister might not still be alive, set on exposing whatever Valorum is hiding no matter what. The others – including the always-brilliant Thaddea Graham as Vivian, Jamie’s first friend on the Sanctorum, Anthony Rickman as Olly, a sweet and tentative love interest, and Peter Claffey as Cormac, probably the funniest part of the show – acquit themselves admirably too, rounding out a generally quite strong ensemble. They’re each very acutely keyed into the show’s heightened tone, note perfect with the broader comedy and the big scares alike.
At times perhaps the show can feel a little uneven – not every joke lands, although in fairness Wreck never seems as interested in the comedy part of the ‘horror comedy’ it’s been marketed as; it is funny, but that’s just one of several things it does rather than a main aim – but rarely to its own detriment. With something like this, a certain level of unevenness is priced in – it’s almost part of the appeal, really. It needs to be a little messy, a little unpredictable, a little scattered – that’s part and parcel of what makes it bold and interesting and worthwhile.
Ultimately, Wreck is atmospheric and lively, buoyed by a ship-shape ensemble cast, and perfect for Halloween – the exact right mix of genuine scares and bold, ostentatious fun. It’s the sort of show that feels like it’ll make more than one “hidden gems you might’ve missed” lists at the end of the year – so why not get ahead of the wave and watch it now?
Wreck begins on BBC Three and iPlayer at 10pm on Sunday 9 October; I watched all six episodes before writing this review. You can read more of our TV reviews here, sign up for our weekly newsletter here, and follow @NationalWorldTV on twitter here.