Harbinger Down (2015)
Synopsis of “Harbinger Down” via IMDb:
A group of grad students have booked passage on the crabbing boat Harbinger to study the effects of global warming on a pod of Belugas in the Bering Sea. When the ship’s crew dredges up a recently thawed piece of old Soviet space wreckage, things get downright deadly.
Drinks have been few and far between for fans of cinematic rubber monsters of late. After the art form’s halcyon days of the 1980’s passed by, creatures of the silver screen have generally been created with computer graphics, much to the chagrin of genre fans who prefer their talons and tentacles a little more tangible. We’ve been suffering a prosthetic drought, and this particular reviewer is very thirsty.
Enter Studio ADI’s successful kickstarter for Harbinger Down, which came with a promise of delivering an old school practical effects-driven horror/sci-fi film - an oasis in the desert of creature features. A savior clothed in fake gore and torn foam latex.
ADI have a long history of helping some of cinema’s greatest monsters come to life, so on paper the concept looks great. Add genre favorite Lance Henriksen into the mix and things start to get very interesting. So how did effects wizard Alec Gillis fare at pulling all of this together from the director’s chair? Unfortunately, not as good as we hoped.
On its surface, Harbinger Down is an admirable homage to the classics, drawing its aesthetic and plot directly from Carpenter’s The Thing while making numerous visual and dialogue nods to Alien, Jaws, Predator and other beloved creature features. Sadly, in being so reverent it fails to develop its own identity and never becomes anything of its own. Yes, we all love the classics; but being so stuck in reference and homage causes stagnation.
All of that shouldn’t matter as long as the creature is good. There are some cool, creative moments of practical effects, but they’re fleeting and lit darkly, and you’re rarely sure what you’re looking at. The film is shot so claustrophobically to hide the limitations of the set that you never feel that much of anything is real, including the monster. We don’t find much out about its abilities or the way it operates, and to be honest, it’s so derivative that it really doesn’t matter.
But it wasn’t just the monsters that made Harbinger Down’s major influences work. Those films were generally populated with casts full of character actors that generated an on-screen sense of camaraderie and implied history between them, which went a long way to bringing home the horror when their friends fell victim to whatever unknown force they happened to be dealing with.
The cast here falls flat. Lance Henriksen’s presence heightens the bar slightly, but he looks tired and probably would be more comfortable rocking away on a porch with a glass of cold iced tea in one hand and a paycheck in the other. Our protagonist lacks any charisma whatsoever, and spends the entire film looking a little too perfect for the setting. Her make-up is freshly applied and her hair meticulously straightened in every scene, even though she’s among a crew of grizzled sailors fighting a gooey alien enemy on board a rusty old tub. We don’t get enough time to know any of the other characters, as the film’s run time is so short that it can only barely be called a feature.
With all of its problems, it’s still a fun, dumb, nostalgic ride. It just comes nowhere near competing with its influences. We need a practical effects monster movie to hit the screens with a force of originality and show that there’s still plenty of life in this art form rather than reinforce the idea that it’s a thing of the past only worthy of homage and fondness for the good ol’ days. Harbinger Down had plenty of opportunity to be that film, but missed the mark by a long way.
So we go back to waiting for the return of the rubber monster.
Note: Harbinger Down features repeated use of a particular squeaky door sound effect. It’s used so many times (often more than once in the same scene) that it becomes comical. This is the “Wilhelm Scream” of squeaky door noises. Once you become familiar with it, you’ll start hearing it in every single movie. It cannot be unheard. Harbinger Down wins for having the most uses of this sound in any movie I’ve ever seen. Congratulations, Harbinger Down.