John’s Horror Corner: Harbinger Down (2015), the entertaining yet lackluster mutant monster lovechild of The Thing (1982) and Leviathan (1989).
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MY CALL: Did I care about the characters? Not at all. Was the creepy, dire atmosphere captured? No. Was it a fun tentacle monster movie? Yes. Was it more of a blatant rip-off than an homage to The Thing (1982)? Also yes. BUT IT”S FUN! MOVIES LIKE Harbinger Down: The Thing (1982), The Thing (2011), Leviathan (1989), Blood Glacier (2013; aka, The Station).
Back in our Trailer Talk Podcast Episode (the 3rd trailer we discuss in the episode) we reviewed why fans of practical special effects and tentacle monster movies should be excited about Harbinger Down. Before seeing the film, it appeared to have all the makings of an admirable callback to The Thing (1982)…along with the newer The Thing (2011) and Leviathan (1989). Instead this was more like a lackluster rehashing and–while I must admit I had A LOT OF FUN watching this flick–it failed in properly honoring anything of the aforementioned sacred horror canon. But again, it remains a solidly entertaining way to spend 90 minutes of a monster movie lover’s evening. Especially if you enjoy tentacle monsters and squishy effects.
The meager budget is evident from the opening sequence, featuring a space shape “CGI-crashing” through the Earth’s atmosphere. Not gonna’ lie…I wasn’t impressed. The film quality (to a trained eye anyway) offered further indications of financial constraints. Worse yet, as we are introduced to the characters I feel I am also being introduced to writer/director Alec Gillis’ first time writing. I’m really not impressed. But hold on just a second! We’re not here for CGI space ships, gorgeous film quality or Oscar-worthy scripts are we? No. We came here with the promise of creature effects. So while I felt obligated to warn of the aforementioned flaws, these are not the kinds of flaws that should deter monster movie overs from watching this kind of movie.
The story follows an academic troupe (two grad students and their professor) who join the crew of the Harbinger, an Alaskan crabbing boat in the Bering Sea. The scientists aim to study a pod of Beluga whales and how their biology has been affected by climate change. After recovering some Soviet space wreckage embedded in an iceberg, the scientists’ interest change. It seems that this Russian space crew was returning from a moon mission researching tardigrades (also known as water bears or Tardigrada; biology’s most extreme environment-tolerant microorganisms known).
As quickly as characters are introduced, they find reasons to be catty or confrontational–not a good sign for when things undoubtedly take a bad turn later. After recovering the contaminated wreckage, we get the news that radio and phone communication is down because of the approaching storm! Making the smartest decision in the entire movie, the Harbinger’s captain (Lance Henriksen; Aliens, AVP, The Pit and the Pendulum) orders that the wreckage be placed in the ship hold until they return to the mainland.
Much as in Species (1995) and Apollo 18 (2011), and much to the delight of horror fans, the astronauts were exposed and their remains are now thawing in the Harbinger’s ship hold; safely away from the crew. But of course, some scientists just can’t wait and sneak down there. Upon examination, the scientists and Harbinger crew are exposed to the tardigrades, which evidently mutate at an alarming rate, even hijacking and changing the DNA of those they infect.
First time writer/director Alec Gillis has had loads of experience with special effects: Aliens (1986), Leviathan (1989), Starship Troopers (1997), Evolution (2001), AVP: Aliens vs Predator (2004) and AVPR (2007) to name a few of his wins in terms of creature effects. The effects in this film may roll a few unconvinced eyes, but he did all right with the creature effects. The effects were abundant, often gross or somewhat disturbing, and quite squishy! Contrastingly, Gillis has had no experience with writing or directing, so we hear terms like “climate change” thrown around a dozen times among a sea of stale line delivery. We even endure a crooked nod to Jaws (1975) in the form of “we’re gonna’ need a bigger bucket.” But let’s focus on the good, shall we?
We see many call backs to the familiar. An infected victim’s bloody goo self-coagulates and moves around on its own like The Thing (1982; blood test scene), the scientists seem to be experts on all things science (an annoying trait among scientist characters across the genre), the monstrous infection lies latent in the infected for a time like The Thing (1982), we have a scene with a woman waste deep in dangerous water reminding us of Newt in Aliens (1986), a naked woman is monstrously modified like The Thing (2011), the monster combines with the sum of its victims and eventually assumes a semi-insectoid crustacean-like form (after absorbing two tons of crab) like in Leviathan (1989), and in the end (like in The Thing (1982)) we resort to refreezing the monster (and everyone infected) in the ice.
Yup. I’ve seen something like this before…
Overall, this movie is simultaneously disappointing and entertaining at the same time. It captured none of the urgency, care for the characters, creepy atmosphere or gravity of those films it clearly emulated. Steering clear of the dire fear of “who goes there?” we know almost right away that just about everyone is infected, and no effort is properly manifested to make us fear who is or isn’t infected. On the other hand, there were loads of satisfying tentacles and monster shots! I, for one, will not be buying this for my collection. However, I do not at all regret spending a few bucks to see it OnDemand/PPV.