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Sunday, 9 August 2015


No, I'm not talking about the lumpy superhero one - who would surely sink a boat with his weight were he ever on one - though you'd be forgiven for thinking so, given that the latest Fantastic Four is now out and assaulting everybody's eyeballs with its apparent awfulness. I mean THIS Thing:

and I mean THIS boat:

I'm talking about HARBINGER DOWN (2015). I don't think I've been so angry/disappointed in a film for ages. With that lazy, but unfortunately accurate, post title, HARBINGER DOWN sets his sights both too high and too low and as such squanders any potential on derivation.

The plot, such as it is, follows university student Sadie, her professor, and a fellow student, as they track migrating whales. They hitch a ride aboard Sadie's grandfather's ship (the titular Harbinger) and settle in with the rest of the crew, as they go about their usual business of scooping up crabs from the Arctic sea. However, when Sadie dips a camera into the sea one night to video some nearby whales, she spots a blinking red light - some space junk is stuck in the ice! After it's brought aboard, they find a dead astronaut inside, and Russian markings. WEIRD!

We already know this set to happen after a intro sequence showing the astronaut hurtling to earth with pink goo dripping into the craft. In 1982. For no explicable reason, the film itself is set nowadays. I assume it's to explain the 'cutting edge' genetic testing equipment Sadie and company bring aboard, but that all feels ultimately rather perfunctory - there is nothing in this film, technology-wise, that couldn't have been done to a certain extent if the film was still set in the 80s. In fact, it would have made a lot more sense overall.

This is a low budget film with an emphasis on practical effects, which is certainly something to be applauded. Especially if you've grown up on a steady diet of 80s horror like me. I suspect HARBINGER DOWN wants to be a throwback, but it only succeeds at the very basic level. An underdeveloped script and ropey acting isn't surprising, but what is, is the utter lack of inspiration evident elsewhere, especially the effects.

Something happened on the Russian space craft that affected microscopic organisms aboard. These 'water bears' have developed a disgusting knack of absorbing the genetic code of whatever they touch and mutating the host/themselves into grotesque creatures. Nothing wrong with that idea at all; it's pure pulp sci-fi horror. When a sample of the creature/living pink goo is tested by Sadie, she comments that it's likely to have absorbed the genetic code of over 100 creatures as it lay frozen/hibernating in the Arctic sea. Immediately, we're being elegantly told that this monster can become pretty much anything, can form any number of horrific combinations.

So why does it largely appear as a formless quivering mass/worm thing/worm thing with tendrils? There is one instance when it appears as a spindly clawed person-thing that is obviously a puppet/person in a suit, but by god it's glorious. The film sets itself up to go balls-to-the-wall with weird/insane creature designs but it plays it safe 99% of the time.

It's not all bad - the clear highlight is Lance Henrikson as the ship's grizzled captain. He's known for phoning his performances in lately, but he certainly does not do that here, nor does the script squander him. He's a strong character with something approaching substance, especially compared to the pieces of furniture he's surrounded by. He also gets the film's one genuinely emotional moment. The lass who plays Sadie isn't bad, either. Close-but-no-cigar to the chap who plays her professor, who handles himself well right up until he goes HAM on the acting, in every sense. Also special mention to the 'not at all suspicious' Russian woman with the most terrifying eyes I've ever seen on a  human who isn't infected by killer goo:


But, sadly, this is all outweighed by the aforementioned derivation. Nothing wrong with being influenced by or tipping your hat to a cult favourite like THE THING (I'm pretty sure there are a few background nods in this film, including a Chess Wizard computer) unless...

Unless you're creating a facsimile. HARBINGER DOWN might look atmospheric in screenshots, and the occasional exterior shots in the film of the boat surrounded by ice, but that's all there is. Ridiculous scenes (a far-too-violent cabin fight between Creepy Eyes and the resident giant) and contrivances (why did Russia wait thirty years to recover their space junk IF THE BEACON WAS ACTIVE? AND why did they send an agent on a ship that COINCIDENTALLY happened to pass it? AND...oh it goes on and on) do more to sink this ship than any mutant creature ever could. Especially galling are the brief flashes of originality, such as the change wrought upon the first human victim, or the refreshingly diverse cast.

I wanted to like HARBINGER DOWN. More than that: I wanted to admire it, for professing an open love for a cult horror film and a reliance on practical fx over CGI (though I'm pretty sure there's a fair splash of these). Its DNA is ultimately too similar to its inspiration, and other 'horror on a boat' films (most notably the Jamie Lee Curtis film VIRUS) so that, despite the filmmaker's best intentions, HARBINGER DOWN is more throwaway than throwback.

And now some music:

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