Harbinger Down (2015)

Well, I can honestly say “Nice try, guys…nice try.” This ‘creature feature’ is the first film created by Tom Woodruff Jr. and Alec Gillis, via their film make-up and prosthetic studio ‘Amalgamated Dynamics’. Woodruff Jr and Gillis were proteges of the late, great Stan Winston, and were with him on a number of high profile genre flicks, like ‘Aliens’ (1986), ‘Tremors’ (1990), ‘Alien 3’ (1992), ‘Jumanji’ (1995), and ‘Starship Troopers’ (1997), among many, many others. Rumor has it that after they were hired to handle the practical creature effects for the surprisingly decent 2011 prequel to John Carpenter’s classic 1982 flick ‘The Thing’, they were taken aback by how much of their efforts were erased by digital trickery in Post Production. They fired up a Kickstarter campaign and raised the cash to script and create a horror flick of their own that used no CG at all, where the ‘monster’ was concerned. Out of this came ‘Harbinger Down’.
The story focuses on a group of grad students who gain passage on a crabbing boat operating in the Bering Sea. The captain of the boat, ‘Graff’ (Lance Henriksen) is the grandfather of one of the students, ‘Sadie’ (Camille Balsamo) and almost immediately there’s your standard tension and distrust among the crew and marine biology students. The goal, as set out in the beginning, is to ‘crab’ during the night and then, while the crew is on break, the students and their douchebag teacher would perform their research tasks revolving around the study of a pod of Beluga whales in the region. After happening upon the pod, ‘Sadie’ spots a pulsing red light emanating from inside a floating chunk of ice nearby. After the strange object is brought aboard and investigated, is becomes clear that it’s the remnants of a Soviet-era space craft that crash landed back in the early 80’s. Nestled in the smashed vessel are the remains of a dead cosmonaut and closer examination of the frozen corpse show clear signs of parasitic infection. Naturally, the remains aren’t as dead as they should be…and soon there’s a nasty being roaming the darkened confines of the large boat, picking the cast off one by one.
The influences on this flick are VERY transparent and the visual ‘shout-outs’ are amusingly blatant at times. I definitely approve of the movies they’re emulating and it was fun picking the references out as they showed up. Like the dipping bird toys that keen-eyed viewers will remember from ‘Alien’ (1979). Or the ‘Chess Wizard’ computer that helps introduce us to Kurt Russell’s ‘Macready’ character in ‘The Thing’ (1982). There’s also a not-so-subtle ‘Jaws’ reference, when ‘Graff’, after getting his first real look at the monster, says they’ll need a bigger bucket…of liquid nitrogen. At times, the cinematography and lighting had me remembering ‘The Abyss’ (1989), while the inclusion of a Russian ‘science experiment gone awry’ plot made me think of it’s box office competitor ‘Leviathan’ (1989). These are all movies that I like, so it was cool…if a little lazy, to see them turn up here. It was almost like Woodruff Jr. and Gillis, clearly acknowledging all the outside influences they were ‘borrowing’ from, said “Fuck it…everyone’s going to see through it anyway. Why hide it.” On that level, this movie was fun.
What wasn’t so fun was watching actors ‘act’, as directed by someone who didn’t know how to direct humans. Gillis, taking the director’s chair, obviously has more comfort in drawing convincing performances out of latex, steel and hydraulics then he does with using flesh, blood and brains. With the notable exception of the ever-reliable Lance Henriksen (‘Near Dark’), pretty much everyone was weak. I didn’t buy any of the one-dimensional stereotype characters, and the amateurish dialogue certainly didn’t help. They really did amount to just Victim #1, Victim # 2 etc.
For a film that prides itself on 100% practical creature effects, from one of the premier effects houses in Hollywood, I have to admit that I was underwhelmed by what they had to show. The creature was a clear rip-off of the alien parasite from ‘The Thing’, in that it had no clearly discernible shape and, when it wasn’t showing parts of victims bodies protruding from it’s tentacled, gelatinous mass, it was just a translucent blob slipping around in wet pipes or shadowy ducts. We never get a really good look at it and even when the opportunity to do so presents itself, they chose to shake the camera up and obscure the image. A little disappointing, I must admit.
The cinematography, which to me looked digital (understandable, given the low budget), was decent in some places and maddening in others. I understand that going ‘hand held’ is less work and requires less time for set-ups, but I found the ‘floating’ frame edge to be a distraction. The film would’ve sustained a much more polished look had they opted to simply lock down more of the shots.
Speaking of ‘locking down’, a tightening on the script also would’ve gone a long way to help the flick. While it was clear that it was reveling in the referencing of classic genre fare, it was also clear that it was also just ripping them off. The 3rd Act, in particular, needed some help. The Final Solution for dealing with the monster was stupid and really wasn’t a solution at all. There was nothing to suggest that the beast had been defeated in any way and it felt lazy. There was also a VERY convenient subplot involving a traitorous crew member (shades of ‘Ash’ from ‘Alien’, anyone?) that felt like it came out of nowhere…and not in a good way.
All in all, ‘Harbinger Down’ was a nice attempt from some well-renowned industry veterans who clearly wanted to give the whole ‘let’s make an actual movie’ thing a shot. In some respects, they succeeded. In others, work and research still needs to be done, before they try again. It’s funny, the more I ponder it, the more I’m reminded of the 1999 sci-fi horror flick ‘Virus’, in which long-time James Cameron cinematographer John Bruno opted to try his hand at directing for the first time, and the end result was rather lack-lustre and unpolished. Go figure…that one also featured a marooned ship, an alien monster lurking in the shadows, a heavy Russian component and much piss-poor acting. ‘Harbinger Down’ is a perfectly acceptable B or C-grade genre flick that certainly isn’t perfect, but has enough fun stuff to not be a total waste of your time.

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