Quick Hit: Striving for great practical effects on a limited budget is hard.
One of the best things about many of the horror movies that I love is their use of practical effects to create an image that is absolutely icky. I think most of the best monsters are, at minimum, a mixture of practical effects. There’s something so solid about a monster that’s… well, solid. One of the brightest stars of the practical effect world is 1982’s The Thing (really a lot of eighties horror, but I digress). It’s clear that Harbinger Down was striving to emulate that, and for that, I admire it. However, it doesn’t seem to have done as much with its budget as it could have.
Graff (the immortal Lance Henriksen) is out on his boat, the Harbinger. He’s got his granddaughter with him, because she’s in college and wants to check out some whales. There’s also some other sciency people, including a very annoying professor and a group of Russians – which I guess kind of makes sense, because they’re in the Bering Sea. When they find a frozen Russian Space capsule, they begin to bicker about what to do about the body and the strange substance inside. Luckily for them, the strange substance finds them.
I enjoyed the beginning of this one. The premise, though shaky on paper, comes across remarkably well on-screen. I think that has a little something to do with the location, which is on a boat in the middle of a frozen wasteland – usually a good choice to limit your character’s range of location (exception – It Follows). What’s upsetting is that some decent characterization, like of Graff and his relationship with his granddaughter, get swallowed up by the rest of the attempted characterization of the rest of the crew. It shouldn’t really matter that much, we know they are going to be monster fodder, but normally this characterization at least feels smooth (see Alien: Covenant). Here we get forced to have a bunch of interactions with a Russian whose defining characteristic is that he’s large.
I also was stoked when I saw that they were using practical effects. Most smaller-budget movies move away from them, just for sustainability’s sake. What’s unfortunate is that Harbinger proves exactly why so many choose to do so. Whether it’s the deaths and attacks coming off more like gags in a subpar film, or the cutaways from the creature so that we never really see what is happening, it actually leaves you longing for a crappy CGI’d creature to pop up and ruin someone’s day. I especially didn’t enjoy the fact that the camera shook purposefully every time we were meant to kind of see the creature. I get that you want to hide the practical effect’s flaws… but don’t think the audience is stupid either.
The acting in this one is predictably flawed, besides Henriksen who seems tailor-made for this role. But some of this is also due to the fact that the writer(s) didn’t really give them much to work with overall. As previously stated, how can you really act “Big”? (on second thought, the Mountain on Game of Thrones does this pretty well).
All in all, there will probably be few people that fall in love with Harbinger Down. But if you’re hoping for a return to practical effects, you might as well watch one of the first steps in the road. I’m giving it a “D+”.
For more on this film, check out IMDB.
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