Passenger review – this supernatural thriller is scarily fresh

<span>Every kind of anxiety and trepidation is given its due … Wunmi Mosaku as detective Riya Ajunwa in Passenger.</span><span>Photograph: Matt Squire/ITV</span>
Every kind of anxiety and trepidation is given its due … Wunmi Mosaku as detective Riya Ajunwa in Passenger.Photograph: Matt Squire/ITV

Ah, former Met detectives who have moved to quiet northern towns for personal reasons and find themselves longing for the big cases and exciting days of old – be careful what you wish for! Detective Riya Ajunwa (Wunmi Mosaku) is our frustrated gal here, in the actor Andrew Buchan’s screenwriting debut (no, come back, come back – it’s good!), Passenger. She moved to the small Lancastrian town of Chadder Vale five years ago with her husband, who wanted to be nearer his family.

Now that he has left, she is looking after his mentally unstable mother, while her caseload comprises mostly missing bins and, occasionally, cats. There is the odd bit of excitement from the protesters at an intended fracking site, owned by Jim (David Threlfall), but otherwise – bins.

As luck would have it, however, there’s summat nasty in the local bread factory. Or, at least, summat nasty being brought in and out on a semi-regular basis. Something that causes gasps of horror when seen by the driver. These dark oozings – and assorted other ominous disturbances – are puzzled over by people who have clearly never seen a supernatural tale metaphoring all over a nationally representative town before.

A local girl, Katie Wells (Rowan Robinson), is driving with her friend Mehmet (Shervin Alenabi) through the woods one night after a bust up with her boyfriend, John (Jack James Ryan), when something large, dead and bloody lands on the bonnet. Mehmet’s eyes open in an unblinking stare, because Passenger leans into its folkloric and televisual tropes while still delivering something that feels fresh and real. The next thing we see is him safely home and fast asleep in bed. Katie is missing.

Not that anyone notices for 24 hours, because she is young and she has her mum’s car. (“Why would you ever come back?” seems to be the prevailing opinion in Chadder Vale.) Just as her mother realises something may be amiss, Katie returns – apparently none the worse for wear, but with no explanation, either.

Meanwhile, Riya and her team (a pair of comedy sidekicks, one of whom especially – Arian Nik as Nish – seems to belong in a different show, but is so effortlessly funny that you forgive the tonal disruption) have discovered a segmented stag in the woods near Katie’s abandoned car. It is spattered with sticky black liquid. Probably motor oil – you know how mechanics like to segment stags in their spare time – but Riya sends it off to the lab anyway. She should, of course, talk to Katie, who has started coughing up gobs of the stuff and is feeling increasingly poorly. Mehmet hasn’t noticed, because he is too busy playing a strange video game so intently it is almost as if he is … possessed.

To the supernatural threat are added more tangible fears. A man who was given a 10-year sentence for stabbing Jim is being released early. Eddie Wells (Barry Sloane) is Katie’s father. He is welcome nowhere, but his wife takes him in. While she is out, he tries to enter his younger daughter’s bedroom. With an alacrity you presume is born of practice, she locks the door against him.

Every kind of anxiety and trepidation is given its due here, from the daughter’s unspoken dread, to the factory owner’s fear of displeasing the masters who are using his place as part of their oozing cargo-smuggling operation, to Jim’s PTSD, to the darker, timeless terrors the woods and their possible ancient and malevolent inhabitants represent. The two episodes (of six) that were available for review keep the mundane and the mystical in nice balance, each one enhancing the potential horror of the other. Alone in the woods, Riya suffers her own flashbacks, too, to some kind of childhood trauma yet to emerge from the shadows.

There are odd moments that pull you out of the story. Riya, for instance, seems oddly unbothered when, before she knows Katie has reappeared, she finds blood inside Katie’s car and on the handle. In the second episode, Katie finds a website dedicated to “The Curse of Chadder Vale”. It seems strange that she has never heard about it before and that no locals have mentioned it in passing to Riya over the past five years, either.

Despite that, this is a confident, well-paced and atmospheric series that I hope continues to be as sure‑footed and scary to the end.

• Passenger is on ITV1 and ITVX