For a sci-fi horror movie set on a frost-covered trawler in the middle of the icy Bering Sea, Harbinger Down positively oozes warmth. A warm respect for its genre. A warm regard for its audience. And a blazing passion for its mission – to prove that old-school practical filmmaking techniques are alive and kicking in this brave new digital world.
An unashamedly nostalgic riff on classic creature features from the late ’70s and early ’80s – notably Alien and John Carpenter’s The Thing – Harbinger Down follows the fortunes of three university researchers who hitch a ride on the crabbing ship Harbinger. Their investigations into global warming are sidelined by the discovery of a crashed Soviet-era spaceship filled with frozen tardigrades – creepy little bugs with a propensity for messing with the DNA of any hapless human who gets in their way. What will happen when the nasty critters thaw out? I’ll give you one guess.
Tried and tested the narrative may be, but in the confident hands of writer/director Alec Gillis the film successfully ticks all its homage boxes without straying into the unwelcome territory of pastiche. Indeed, one of its strongest assets is the sharpness of its script, which provides the appealing ensemble cast with ample opportunities to establish their characters within the confines of the movie’s tight 80-minute running time. Relationships are neatly defined, exposition is dealt with swiftly and efficiently, and the script bubbles with wit. Best line: “We’re going to need a bigger bucket.”
Cast stand-outs are genre favourite Lance Henriksen as the grizzled Captain Graff, effortlessly commanding the screen whenever he steps into shot, and Matt Winston as university professor and career asshole Stephen, who excels in the scene in which his character is duped into trying to psychoanalyse the towering Big G (Winston James Francis). Francis also plays well against Milla Bjorn, playing the sultry, kick-ass Svet.
Winston’s presence in Harbinger Down – not to mention his character’s eventual fate – is a clue to the movie’s origins. He’s the actor son of the late Stan Winston, legendary creator of movie monsters for films from Aliens to Jurassic Park and beyond. The part played by Matt Winston in Harbinger Down is therefore an affectionate nod the film’s illustrious pedigree (and excellent casting to boot).
The old-school heritage goes deeper. Funded via a successful Kickstarter campaign, the project is a direct response by Alec Gillis and his business partner Tom Woodruff Jr (both of whom spent the early part of their careers at Stan Winston Studio) to the challenges faced in recent years by their own effects company, Amalgamated Dynamics, Inc. Most noteworthy among these challenges was the ditching of much of their practical effects work in favour of digital replacements in the 2011 prequel The Thing – an experience described by Gillis and Woodruff as “heartbreaking”.
As the crowdfunding campaign proved, enormous enthusiasm exists for the kinds of mechanical effects that are the speciality of ADI, a company which built its reputation servicing exactly the kinds of films to which Harbinger Down so effectively pays homage – films like Aliens, Predator and Tremors. With a ready-made audience of monster fans, Gillis and his team have smartly delivered exactly what they promised in their Kickstarter manifesto – an energetic rollercoaster ride fuelled in equal parts by nostalgia and methylcellulose slime.
So how well do all those rubber monsters hold up in this enlightened age? Pretty well, as it happens. Taking their cues from Rob Bottin’s shapeshifting alien of John Carpenter’s The Thing, the ADI crew serve up a beastly smörgåsbord overflowing with thrashing tentacles and flagellating physiognomies. One nice touch is the way in which some iterations of the alien infestation glow from within, presumably signalling the tardigrade’s absorption of DNA from certain species of deep-sea fish. In addition, Svet’s final incarnation as a mutant eating machine is particularly unsettling. The occasionally confused choreography is more than compensated for by the sheer gusto brought by the creature operators to their performances.
Credit must go to production designer Kyle Michael Wilson and cinematographer Benjamin L. Brown for creating the convincing illusion that the cast is not confined to a series of cramped studio sets, but has indeed been set adrift on an icy ocean. The illusion is enhanced by yet more practical magic, in the form of atmospheric miniature effects showing in long shot the Harbinger besieged by the Arctic ice; these latter come courtesy of another team whose filmmaking credentials stretch all the way back to the last century – Robert and Dennis Skotak.
Sometimes, films surprise you. The surprise with Harbinger Down is not that it makes good on its promise to deliver old-school thrills and spills, but that it does so with such freshness and humour. Forget genre homage. Forget practical effects. This is a solid directorial debut from a writer/director with bags of talent and loads still to offer.
Oh, and there are rubber monsters too. Did I mention that?
Harbinger Down and me
In the interests of full disclosure, I should probably tell you that I was one of the legion of movie fans who backed the Harbinger Down Kickstarter campaign. Does that mean this review is biased? Well, as a small-scale investor and generally interested party, I can’t claim to have an entirely objective view. All the same, I’ve tried to make this review fair and honest. The fact is that this is a smart, entertaining movie that’s charmingly clear about its agenda, a film which I personally watched with a smile on my face and a warm fuzzy breed of nostalgia in my tummy.
At least, I think it’s nostalgia. I’m fairly sure it isn’t a colony of tardigrades. Wait a second, was that rash there before? Uh … just excuse me a second …
Harbinger Down photographs copyright © 2015 by Harbinger Down LP.