Thursday, September 22, 2016

Harbinger Down

Harbinger Down (2014)
Dir. and written by Alec Gillis
Starring Lance Henriksen, Camille Balsamo, Matt Winston, Winston James Francis, Milla Bjorn, Giovonnie Samuels

OK, first off, full disclosure: HARBINGER DOWN began life as a kickstarter project, and one that I personally funded and followed for pretty much its entire creation. I had the poster on my living room wall up until a few months ago. So much for journalistic detachment. It’s not like I make money off this or anything, and of course I root for every movie I see to surprise me and end up good, but even so, it seems worth mentioning that I may have got too deep in here to be entirely objective. These are still my honest opinions, but please keep in mind that, like all my reviews here, they’re my honest subjective opinions. Now back to your regularly scheduled rant.


Lance Henriksen made five films in 2015. Five. That’s one new completed movie every ten weeks. The guy’s a national treasure, obviously, but I think it obvious that appearing in watchable movies has not really been a high priority for him for some time. He always brings his A-game, even when it’s just to three or four unnecessary exposition scenes in an otherwise utterly barren SyFy channel movie or something, but when was the last time he made something which could even remotely be called “good?” Closest I can come is APPALOOSA, a little-seen Ed-Harris directed Western from 2008. And before that, he’d made three DTV sasquatch movies in four year, plus two made-for-TV PUMPKINHEAD sequels. Even so, when I saw he’d signed on to an as-yet-unfunded kickstarter campaign for an “all-practical-effects monster movie,” I was excited. What, am I the kind of guy who learns a lesson just from being constantly, consistently disappointed several times a year for more than a decade?

Besides, there’s some poetic justice to this project. See, director/writer Alec Gillis and producer Tom Woodruff Jr. are not your typical indie film school grads trying to scrape together a cheapie horror film with other peoples' money to boost their profile and hopefully end up directing whatever the current re-imagining of the FANTASTIC FOUR is in 2021. Instead, they’re practical effects artists whose company, StudioADI, was responsible for practical effects in, among others, DEATH BECOMES HER (for which they won an Academy Award), STARSHIP TROOPERS, ALIEN 3, THE 6th DAY, PANIC ROOM, CASTAWAY, SPIDER-MAN 1-3,  GODZILLA 2014, ENDER’S GAME and --most pertinently here-- the 2011 THE THING PREMAKQUEL. Or, at least, they made a bunch of monster puppets for THE THING PREMAKEQUEL. Unfortunately, in the finished film, they saw that someone in post had essentially hired CG animators to basically cover over their cool practical work with a bunch of phony baloney shiny CG.  I wrote at the time: “Despite the freedom CG affords, the filmmakers fail to create anything as imaginatively disturbing as Carpenter’s body dysmorphic nightmares from the original, and the CG effects make the monster look clean, weightless and, well, CG.” It’s so relentless in its late-'oughts mid-level CG monster fetishism that I never imagined at the time they’d bothered with anything practical, but it turns out they did: take a look at this video of the amazing work StudioADI did… and compare that to all the corny ass CG they buried it under in the final cut. Increasingly heartbroken over the apparent disregard their craft was getting in the standard studio system, Gillis and Woodruff decided to DIY, or more specifically DIYWOPM (Do It Yourself With Other Peoples’ Money), resulting in the concept of HARBINGER DOWN: basically just a THE THING RIPOFF, but on a boat with Lance Henriksen and all practical, lovingly crafted latex plastic and animatronic monster effects. I gave. We all gave. And now, here we are.

So how is it? Honest to god, not that bad. In some ways, kind of good, really. They did DIE HARD on a boat, so why not THE THING on a boat without really understanding why THE THING is a good movie, except the monster part?

That sounds like a backhanded compliment, and I guess it is, though I mean it with some affection. I sincerely doubt HARBINGER DOWN could fool even the most forgiving filmgoer into thinking it was a movie which could be released in theaters, let alone mistake it for the 1982 John Carpenter masterpiece. The setup is as simple as they come: the hardscrabble crab boat Harbinger, captained by Lance Henriksen and crewed by a bunch of motley roustabouts and his graduate-student daughter (Camille Balsamo, the classic role of “Beach Girl #1” in THE PAPERBOY) pulls a big mysterious frozen object out of the ocean, and we all know that can only result in a shape-changing body-snatching alien rampage. (When Space sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re bringing mysterious Russian space landers. They’re bringing rampages. They’re shape-changers. And some, I assume, are good people.) Yes, it’s just a smaller-scale, single-location ripoff of THE THING, that should be obvious, and that fact is never far off-screen. But considering it was shot for like 400,000 dollars, it looks quite a lot like a real movie, in most ways, sans the powerfully unpleasant found-footage opening credits. The lighting and sets, at least, are solid workaday professional stuff, the miniatures are near-flawless, and the cinematography gets the job done with minimal distinction but little real incompetence.

But so what, all these shitty no-budget wannabe creature features these days tend to offer at least some base level of basic competence; it’s just so damn cheap and easy to shoot a movie on your iphone these days that there’s really no excuse anymore for the adorably incompetent nonsense of yesteryear, when this shit was actually hard. Just being functionally professional ain’t much of a compliment. HARBINGER DOWN distinguishes itself, though, by being a little more thoroughly 80’s than its competition, in a good way. I'm not saying it's some kind of Stranger Things kitche pastiche or anything, it's just spiritually more in tune with that era of horror movies. The acting is a little broader than you’re used to with these self-serious modern movies, and it suits it: a movie like this is not reasonably expected to generate deep feelings, so instead, the actors try to win you over by inserting some welcomed personality. It’s somewhat cartoonish personality (the big strong guy, the whiny fast-talking guy, the hardass Russian, the prissy academic) but for these purposes that works just fine. After suffering through years of dull-eyed indie horror mumblecore for Mature Grown Ups who don’t really like horror movies anyway because who likes horror movies, that’s kids stuff not for real Serious Postmodern Hipster Types Like Us, it’s honestly a welcome change to see a cast of actors more or less on the same page about giving broad, bawdy performances which inch just up to the point of parody without quite crossing that line. These are not instances of great acting, but they’re definitely fun, colorful performances, which ends up having a lot more impact than great acting ever could on something this straightforward and silly.

Of course, Henricksen is on another level entirely. For once he's actually got a real role in one of these movies --he's not just in four scenes shot separately for the rest of the cast, he's a prominent character and in almost the whole thing-- and he obviously elevates every scene he's in by an order of magnitude. He’s predictably great doing the standard gruff captain stuff, but, as usual, he goes above and beyond the call of duty here, delivering an otherwise unnecessary scene about his wife’s recent death from cancer with such genuine texture and pathos that I swear to god I briefly forgot I was watching a DTV THE THING ripoff and started to think about this stock monster fodder as an actual character. I remember Henriksen being interviewed somewhere, praising John Woo for HARD TARGET (the only person to have ever done so), because he says that for all the roles he does, he spends time working up a backstory and putting in what he considers interesting character beats, which are almost always excised from the final edit. Woo, though, kept them in, obviously to the infinite improvement of HARD TARGET and also the world more generally. This seems like that kinda thing -- You could easily cut it out and it wouldn’t change the story, but with an actor of his quality, it really does add a little something if you leave it in. That’s the unexpected pleasure here; HARBINGER DOWN is a stupid movie, but the characters do distinguish themselves enough that even when there’s no monsters around it’s not a total deadzone, and at times you even kind of root for these morons to actually survive.

The unexpected annoyance, unfortunately, is not the script, it’s the monsters. They look pretty cool where you can see them, but for a movie designed solely to showcase practical monster effects director Gillis really doesn’t seem to have much faith in the results they came up with; way too many are hidden with poor lighting, visual obstacles, and confusing edits. This is strange, because I’ve seen the behind-the-scene footage, and these monsters look great, even in a brightly lit workhouse-- so why hide them? Atmosphere is one thing, but come on man, we wanna see these fucking monstrosities you’ve built, that’s the whole fucking point. The 80’s movies they’re emulating here --and I don’t mean THE THING, I’m talking waaay worse shit than that, PROTEUS and the like-- boasted vastly crappier creature puppets which were probably not a labor of love the way these were, but they tended to be better at showing them off. Too many shots here are just flashing lights and masses of tentacles. If I wanted to see that, I’d watch a crappy CG horror film. By the final credits, there’s enough solid monster action here to satisfy, but not as much as there should be, given how derivative everything else is here.

Oh, and incidentally: If you’re going to rip off THE THING, how ‘bout remembering that the real monster --going all the way back to the original John Campbell Jr. short story Who Goes There, which was essentially a Cold War parable-- was always paranoia, the uncertainty about who you can trust in a world where the enemy can look like your friends? Here, the monster can take over bodies and stuff... but… nothing ever comes of it. There’s never really any significant scenes of doubt about who can and can’t be trusted. Monster effects are always welcome --and some cheerfully broad 80’s characters are maybe even more welcome-- but even THE THING REMAKEQUEL seemed to grasp the mechanics of this premise better than these guys do. I’d be less grumpy about that if HARBINGER DOWN was wall-to-wall puppet action, but this is a crucial --and completely missing-- piece of the puzzle if you’re going to get shy about the claws and tentacles and try to play it as a suspense piece.

On the other hand, Henriksen has a beard, that’s pretty special. And despite my grousing, at almost no point in the movie are you more than ten minutes away from another slimy creature puppet, which is something very few Fellini movies can claim, for example. Combined with a tone which takes the stakes seriously but isn’t afraid to have a little fun, and you could obviously do a lot worse. But I also wish it was a little more of a slam dunk, because it definitely has the ingredients to be more than it quite adds up to. As Dan P pointed out at the time, It's not worse than THE THING REMAKE, but it's not really any better, either. Which in one sense is pretty impressive, given it had a budget about 1/38th the size of its direct competition. But it also puts it squarely into that most unfortunate category of films which are good enough that you can’t help wishing they were just a little better. Still, “good enough” is still a lot better than this might have turned out, and it’s still more than enough to make it Lance Henriksen’s most legitimately watchable screen appearance in ages. At the final buzzer, HARBINGER DOWN is manifestly more entertaining than most modern creature features and at its core it's got the goods, but it doesn’t always have sense enough to put its own best foot (or tentacle) forward.  

Play it Again, Samhain

Terror is Just Beneath The Surface
Pretty much unacknowledged remake of THE THING, but whatever. The line between ripoff and remake has always been a little blurry.
USA. (wikipedia calls it a Russian-American production, but I see no evidence of that).
There’s some truly heinous found footage right at the start over the credits, but thankfully it ditches that shit quickly.
Lance Henriksen, practical creature effects
Lots of body horror which probably counts
Oh yeah, some goodies
Oh hell yeah

Fairly obscure, but it’s on Netflix now!
If you find a big mysterious thing in a giant block of ice somewhere, you should definitely bring it to your isolated location and let it sit unattended for long periods of time.
It’s a weirdly poetic title for an actual literal thing which happens: the boat (the Harbinger) goes down. And I’m pretty sure Henriksen barks that over the radio at some point.

Pretty strong 3, a C+. I'd definitely watch the fuck out of a sequel, hint hint.

A couple female characters talk to each other about monsters and science and stuff.

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