Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Cult-Movie Review: Harbinger Down (2015)

Harbinger Down (2015) is, quite literally, a blast from the past. It pays homage to beloved 1980s monster movies both in forms of storytelling and special effects execution. The movie also possesses a level of tactile “ick-iness” that has long been missing from the screen.

This new horror film stars Lance Henriksen and is directed by special effects guru Alec Gillis. And as you may already be aware, Harbinger Down originated as a Kickstarter campaign last year; one devoted to the proposition that practical creature effects remain a viable option for genre films in today’s CGI-heavy world. 

The campaign was successfully funded -- to the tune of 384,000 dollars -- and now we have a good, old-school horror movie to screen. The film is decidedly low-budget, but it accomplishes much with its resources.  

In the end, Harbinger Down many not prove quite as scary, thrilling, or as atmospheric as one might desire, but the film nonetheless possesses some real virtues.  Most notably, it adds another classic, meticulously-crafted Lance Henriksen performance to the actor’s library.

“We’ve got sea water in our veins; you and I.”

Harbinger Down concerns a graduate student, Sadie (Camille Balsamo), who is working on a school project detailing the effects of climate change on beluga whales.

To complete her work, Sadie, a fellow student, and their (irritating…) professor book passage on the Harbinger, her grandfather’s ship.  Graff (Lance Henriksen) welcomes the students aboard his crabbing vessel, but also reveals some heart-breaking information to Sadie about his wife, who has died of cancer.

Once underway, the Harbinger encounters an object frozen deep in thirty-year old ice. Sadie brings it aboard the ship, with Graff’s permission, and discovers that it is the wreckage of a Soviet space capsule. 

A cosmonaut corpse is also found aboard the wreck, as well as a dangerous and unknown form of life that can change form from solid to liquid and back again..

“We’re gonna need a bigger bucket.”

Harbinger Down succeeds ably as a work of art on at least three notable levels. 

The first level is homage, or pastiche. Harbinger Down is a meticulous, loving tribute to what is perhaps the greatest (and most elaborate…) practical effects movie of all-time: John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982).

The very first moment of the picture establishes this fact. Harbinger Down’s inaugural action -- a Russian space capsule crashing in the Arctic -- commences on June 25, 1982.

That just happens to be the day of The Thing’s theatrical release in America.

Another touch is just as cheeky and fun. At one point, the crew must explore the bowels of the ship for the lurking, hidden monster. For a fleeting moment, the beam from an errant flashlight lands on an old, 1980s Chess Wizard computer. 

Again, that was the device that Kurt Russell’s MacReady played in The Thing.

At a different juncture, the crew discusses the fact that the monster has cut the ship’s power, and therefore possesses at least a rudimentary intelligence. This exchange is rather deliberately a call-back to Aliens (1986), which also starred Lance Henriksen.

Harbinger Down is filled with nice little under-the-radar touches like these, and also features some narrative elements in common with films like Leviathan (1989) and Deep Star Six (1989). We get here some Cold War-style tension/relics, just as we did in both The Abyss (1989) and Leviathan.

We also get here -- as we do in all the aforementioned films -- a diverse, occasionally combative cast of characters grappling with a monster that changes shape and evolves on the edge of civilization. The characters are not all what they appear to be, and invariably expire in gruesome, horrifying, moist ways.

Now, I’ll be the first to suggest that a film cannot thrive on nostalgia alone, but the homage element of Harbinger Down is certain to appeal to longtime fans of “creature feature” horror.  Watching Harbinger Down, I had two realizations.  The first is that the storyline is lovingly filled with old 1980s monster movie clichés.  The second is that it’s been a very long time indeed since I’ve seen these particular conventions and clichés in a movie.  So they felt both familiar and fresh at the same time, I suppose you could conclude. The movie felt like revisiting an old friend.

The second artistic element that elevates this low-budget feature above the norm is Lance Henriksen.  Mr. Henriksen plays a crucial role here as a grizzled ship’s captain, and absolutely succeeds in humanizing virtually every aspect of the picture.

Mr. Henriksen can play villains or heroes with equal aplomb, but no matter what kind of character he undertakes, he always brings his trademark sensitivity to it. There’s something about his eyes that always captivates me, and galvanizes the viewer’s attention. You can’t take your focus off this guy, because there’s always something intriguing going on with his reactions and expressions. 

The sensitivity of which I speak telegraphs a particular idea, I feel. That idea is, simply, that this guy has seen a lot go down in his life, and is watching and understanding everything -- and everyone -- around him.  He isn’t just reacting, he is listening and observing.

I especially like Mr. Henriksen when he is given the opportunity to play paternal characters (see: Millennium [1996-1999] or Pumpkinhead [1989]), and Harbinger Down indeed gives him another opportunity to take on that task.  With Henriksen, I admire the conjunction of his strength and toughness with the gentleness and sensitivity he expresses in his relation to his “children” (or grandchild, here).  It may be just me, but I find Henriksens’ gruff but sensitive approach very powerful, and very true of a lot of fathers. He seems real.

Harbinger Down provides Henriksen a great subplot about his character’s dead wife, and the urn he has brought to sea in her memory.  His task is to scatter her ashes in the ocean, but he has never quite been able to bring himself to do it.  The events of this film give him another opportunity, and the results are both honest and affecting on an emotional level. For me, this character arc was the highlight of the film.

A downside to Harbinger Down is that only one other actor in the ensemble, Milla Bjorn, is able to project emotions on a comparable level of humanity and complexity.  It’s not the actors are bad, it’s just that they don’t emerge from behind their (intentionally) clichéd descriptions. We get a crew consisting of a gentle giant, a sarcastic African-American, and a snotty academic. Beyond those log-line descriptions, the characters, other than Graff, don’t really pop to life, or engage the interest.

The third ground on which Harbinger Down succeeds indeed involves the much-discussed practical effects.  I cheered at the “monster’s” elaborate birth sequence, which involves fleshy trunks emerging from a character’s back and spitting out chunky, pink goo.  In one case, that pink goo flies into the mouth of a gasping character, and I was instantly reminded of the flying eyeball in Bobby Jo’s mouth in Evil Dead 2 (1987).  A creation late in the film, involving Milla Bjorn’s character, also reminded me very much of an iteration of the creature in Leviathan.  The effects look good, and more than good, they look convincing.

Harbinger Down has so much going in its favor, from a love and knowledge of 1980s monster movies and special effects techniques to Henriksen’s affecting central performance.  Yet to some degree, the film never overcomes its budgetary limitations. 

Alec Gillis is a great talent, but his direction here doesn’t craft a sustained vibe of dread and paranoia, at least not to the degree he was probably hoping for; the degree of his cinematic inspirations.  The Thing was practically glacial; supremely patient (and even painter-esque) in its generation of claustrophobia and slow-burn terror.

Harbinger Down loves The Thing and apes The Thing in terms of its monster and story. But it doesn’t follow The Thing closely enough in terms of film style.  For that reason, Harbinger Down qualifies as a good 82 minute diversion, but it is not in the same class as its inspiration. 

Thankfully, Lance Henriksen’s human, well-developed subplot gives the third act the lift it needs, and the humanity the film requires to be judged an hour-and-a-half well-spent.  

The real practical effect in Harbinger Down is his central, grounding performance.

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