Tuesday, January 12, 2010

CULT TV FLASHBACK #97: Harper's Island (2009)

In the annals of terror television history, we've seen vampiric soap operas (Dark Shadows, Kindred: The Embraced), paranormal investigations (The X-Files; Fringe), monsters-of-the-week (Kolchak: The Night Stalker), and even a super-powered "final girl" kicking demonic butt (Buffy the Vampire Slayer).

But Ari Schlossberg's Harper Island -- which aired in prime time last year on CBS -- is the first and only attempt I can recall that faithfully adapts the 1980s slasher movie paradigm to a weekly dramatic format.

It's an interesting and brash experiment: all thirteen hour-long episodes of this drama tell --essentially-- the equivalent of one highly-detailed slasher story. Accordingly, the series skillfully deploys the familiar symbols, misdirections and tricks of the paradigm popularized by such films as Halloween, Prom Night, Friday the 13th, My Bloody Valentine, as well as more recent additions to the sub-genre, including Scream (1996) and I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997).

The central narrative (or organizing principle) of Harper's Island involves wedding nuptials: the union of two different "classes" on the small coastal island off Washington State.

Wealthy socialite Trish Wellington (Katie Cassidy) -- a so-called "swell" plans to marry seasonal "worker"/fisherman Henry Dunn (Christopher Gorham). And her tyrannical father (Richard Burgi) is none too pleased about that.

With huge wedding party in tow -- both groomsmen and bridesmaids -- the youngsters descend upon the island, party beyond all reason, and plan for the big day. Also returning to Harper's Island for the first time in seven years is Abby Mills (Elaine Cassidy), Henry's best friend and childhood playmate.

Why has Abby been away from home so long? Well, in keeping with the slasher paradigm, it's "the transgression" or "crime in the past" that holds the answer. Seven years ago, an unstoppable bogeyman named John Wakefield (Callum Keith Rennie) went on a killing spree on the island, and massacred several people with a head spade (a fishing device used for decapitating whales...). On his spree, Wakefield hanged Abby's mother (Sarah-Jane Redmond), and basically destroyed the economy of the island in the process. Abby's dad is the island's sheriff, and he supposedly killed Wakefield (think Harry Warden). But to this day, the Sheriff is obsessed with Wakefield.

Then, on the week of Trish and Henry's wedding, Wakefield-style killings begin again on Harper's Island -- using the head spade (and the killer's m.o. of hanging...), and soon all the would-be victims suspects that a) Wakefield isn't dead. Or b.) there's a copycat in the wedding party.

Also in keeping with the slasher paradigm, the villain of Harper's Island is a mad killer or bogeyman who has been wronged and suffered a terrible transgression or crime. This act/crime in the past is the precipitating factor in "flipping" said individual from normal to homicidal (think Friday the 13th, Mrs. Voorhees, and her vendetta against camp counselors after their negligence towards her son in 1958).

Other characters here are also pulled right off the slasher shelf...in concept anyway. We have bitches (sassy, attitudinal and pulchritudinous young women...) in the bridesmaid party, plus practical jokers and smarmy jocks like Sully (Matt Barr) on Henry's side. These characters form much of the initial victim pool. The series also offers a Cassandra figure and final girl in tortured Abby; a personality who warns people again and again that Wakefield is back, but is met with disbelief or skepticism.

Also in accordance with the familiar slasher formula, the first big death in the series premiere (after the gory face severing by boat propeller...) involves a well-known but affordable celebrity: guest star Harry Hamlin (as Uncle Marty). Again, think Drew Barrymore in Scream.

There's plenty of partying here too, so vice precedes slice and dice, . And did I mention that there are multiple red herrings? Clues point away from the culprit, there are blind alleys about stolen "drug money" and other assorted sub-plots that keep us off the trail of the real killer and off-balance as the murders pile up.

And finally, what Harper's Island truly concerns is family matters (think Laurie Strode as Michael Myers' sister...). The new quasi-Wakefield murder spree centers around relations; relatives and family members both known and secret.

The other conceit here is that every week, a major character dies...horribly. No exceptions. And the episodes are (amusingly) titled after the sound of the week's brutal demise. Thus various installments are titled "Thwack," "Sploosh," "Gurgle," "Seep," "Snap," Splash" and my personal, macabre favorite: "Thack, Splat, Sizzle."

So indeed, Harper's Island is a knowing slasher pastiche, and the pertinent question becomes this: why extend the repetitive, narrow slasher formula (usually limited to 90 minutes, tops) to a duration six or seven times as long? The answer is simple: characterization.

Oftentimes (at least in the lesser examples), slasher movies are accused of featuring cookie-cutter characters of limited dimension. Yet the 13 hours of Harper's Island allow for a deeper sense of identification; so that audiences truly get to know and like some of the victims; the people we're "losing" on a regular basis. It's not such a big deal in the early episodes, when you don't know the victim so well. But by episodes 11 thru 13, when the head spade falls (always rigidly between the 37 and 40 minute point...), you feel authentic terror and remorse as you realize only few characters are left; and you're likely going to lose somebody you care about. I should add that Harper's Island boasts a mean streak a mile wide, doesn't play favorites, and almost never relies on narrative cheats. It's...relentless.

The thirteen episode format provides Harper's Island with some great and entirely unexpected character development, actually. The aforementioned Sully starts out like every obnoxious frat guy you've ever seen in a slasher movie since Reagan was in office, but by the end of the series becomes something quite different. And there are two great characters - Chloe (Cameron Richardson) and Cal (Adam Campbell) -- that you will absolutely fall in love with over the span of the series. Even Trish -- the spoiled little rich girl -- ultimately proves to be a figure far more tragic and touching than her shallow character description would indicate.

The danger in extending the slasher movie formula to a thirteen week series is, of course, that the writers lose focus; that the sense of danger dissipates; and that the blind alleys take away from the overall pace. Surprisingly, Harper's Island very ably avoids these pitfalls. One subplot involving drug money that starts out as the reddest of red herrings has a throwaway punctuation that is breathtaking, ironic, and pretty damn clever.

Harper's Island also attempts to adhere to the realm of plausibility as much as possible given the permutations of the format. For instance, is never really explained in most slasher films how bogeymen like Jason or Harry Warden always manage to get to the right place at the right time -- unseen and unnoticed - to kill the one victim who happens to be vulnerable at that instant. In this series, the killer utilizes a series of tunnels honeycombing the island, built during the Prohibition Era. Perhaps not a perfect solution, but at least reality is addressed.

I can't (and won't) make the argument that Harper's Island is deep, artistic, or socially relevant. All I can say is that - if watched in its entirety over the course of a few days -- the series proves highly diverting, and entertaining. It's a kick. As my wife Kathryn said when we finished the final episode: "I can't believe I'm saying this. But that was really, really fun..."

So bottom line: Harper's Island is a bloody (and really, really gory...) riot. It's perfectly structured, so that you unwittingly respond like Pavlov's Dog every time the 37 minute mark hits, wondering who is going to die next. The last two episodes are titled "Gasp" and "Sigh," and are perfectly named. A fter the final credits roll, you kind of catch your breath, shake your head, and fight the urge to giggle. Audacious and creative, Harper's Island is gloriously violent, gleefully frivolous, and a hell of a good time.


  1. Jake Lockley3:51 PM

    I couldn't agree more. When this aired I didn't get to see all of the episodes because CBS bounced it around the schedule. Had it stayed in it's original time slot I would have, but instead I only managed to catch the first 4 episodes or so. My conclusion was the same as yours - it was fun and it worked as a TV series. This actually surprised me and I was hoping that they would do a second season with a new cast and a new location like they originally planned. It could have been a chance to have lots of guest stars whose characters could be developed giving actors a chance to chew some scenery before they were killed off, and keeping you guessing who would be next to go.

  2. Jake: I would have loved to see a second season too; especially with the lessons learned from the first season.

    I must say, I was bowled over by this series -- far better (and original) than anything that's come down the pike in a long time. Harper's Island is really well done -- and I'm as shocked as the next guy that this is the case!


  3. Thank you! As a big fan of 80's slashers, I loved this mini-series. Such a difficult thing to convince other horror fans to watch, though. I think some basically couldn't make it through the build-up in the first episodes, or maybe some just thought it was horror-lite. Somehow, I see this series only gaining in estimation as time goes on. The only thing that really bugged me during the series was some of the haircuts! Yikes. I would have been down for a second season as well.

  4. Slasherfan:

    I agree with you that some of the character haircuts (Henry!) were odd to say the least, and that it took a few episodes (maybe three?) for the show to really get going.

    But once Harper's Island did get going, it was like a runaway freight train barreling down the track!

    I loved the series, and wish more slasher fans would check it out!