Studio: Vertical Entertainment
Director: Alec Gillis
Writer: Alec Gillis
Producer: Benjamin L. Brown, J. Douglas Scroggins III, Jennifer Tung, Tom Woodruff Jr., Alec Gillis
Stars: Lance Henriksen, Camille Balsamo, Reid Collums, Winston James Francis, Milla Bjorn, Giovonnie Samuels, Mike Estime, Edwin Bravo, Matt Winston
A crabbing ship carrying graduate students on a research study uncovers an alien organism in the Arctic Circle.
Alongside her professor Stephen and her classmate Ronelle, grad student Sadie books passage aboard a crab ship captained by her grandfather Graff to study whales in the Arctic. What they discover instead is a long-lost lunar lander that crashed in 1982 with an alien ooze onboard. Once that ooze is accidentally unleashed, the scientists and fisherman aboard the boat find themselves fighting a sentient parasite capable of transforming everyone exposed into terrifying mutations.
“Harbinger Down” sees FX maestro Alec Gillis taking his first turn as a feature film writer/director, with fellow creature creator Tom Woodruff Jr. tapped as a producing partner. Together, Gillis and Woodruff spun out of Stan Winston’s effects studio to spin up one of their own: Amalgamated Dynamics Incorporated, aka ADI.
With big studio Hollywood only leaping further away from mold-making and plaster-casting in favor of 21st-century technology, “Harbinger Down” is ADI’s cool callback to fondly-remembered creature features of an earlier era, when practical FX were king. It also doubles as a Mulligan to make up for the disappointing discarding of work created for 2011’s “The Thing.”
Gillis and Woodruff’s huge hook for raising Kickstarter cash was appealing to old school monster movie fans by billing itself as a celebration of animatronics and makeup FX. Having grown up in the horror heyday of the 1980s myself, it’s an idea easy to champion when computer-generated explosion extravaganzas have given so many moviegoers blockbuster burnout. Though if the limitations of latex and foam mean there is little left to do than recreate “The Thing,” “The Abyss,” “Event Horizon,” “Alien,” basically any movie about a potentially murderous or mutinous crew confined to an isolating interior while paranoia, predator, or parasite threatens from an inclement exterior, perhaps a reevaluation is in order regarding what is being fought so hard to preserve.
That statement isn’t intended to disrespect “Harbinger Down” for being the movie that it is, which is the one it wants to be. Nor is it meant to condescend to anyone with a firm position in the practical versus digital effects debate. It’s a sidetrack suggestion that there ought to be a discussion regarding the benefits of silicon versus silicone, and a question if closing eyes and crossing shoulders to refuse a fusion of the two doesn’t discount more imaginative possibilities.
On the production side of the project, “Harbinger Down” is ambitious for an effects-heavy thriller produced with a frugal checkbook. Gillis and Woodruff have the unenviable task of living up to their Academy Award-winning quality bar on a bank balance far less than what they are usually allotted. They manage to move mountains with a garden spade in that regard, putting monsters and hybrid humans onscreen to rival any that Rick Baker, Rob Bottin, or even ADI have brought to life.
As a San Fernando Valley resident writing this review in 100-degree heat, I also cannot help but amusedly thrust an upward thumb at ADI for filming the Arctic Circle in nearby Chatsworth. Something difficult to discount about “Harbinger Down” is the passion pulsing behind each frame to build believability on a budget. This project is a true labor of love, and that love comes across in both the production and in the performances.
The crewmembers aboard the crabbing vessel congregate conveniently in an introductory scene, referring to each other by name so the audience knows who is who, and exhibiting at least one individual trait to flesh out each character. In less than one minute we learn that Dock is the insult-slinging prank-player. “Big G” Guillaume grimaces and growls like a humanoid tree. Svet brandishes a knife and an accent, even uttering the clichéd archetypical Russian line of, “how do you say…?” The stereotypes are too in your face to ignore as such, but at least the characters have personality.
The hat tip for giving that personality to this predictably motley crew goes to the cast, putting up as much of an enthusiastic effort in front of the camera as Gillis and company are behind it. They are an easily likable group when the only true human villain, initially anyway, is Sadie’s supervising instructor. Actor Matt Winston pulls the trigger a little early on turning the professor into a contentiously conniving university academic, though he ends up with a Dr. Zachary Smith vibe befitting the characterization. Headliner Lance Henriksen doesn’t deliver his most impassioned performance as the grizzled seaman, though his presence always makes even a passable movie infinitely more appealing.
The challenge “Harbinger Down” has in front of it is coming up with a concept for a story that matches the concept for the creatures and the charisma of the cast. It’s déjà vu all over again when an alien lifeform infiltrates, friends turn into foes, humans mutate into monsters, and everyone antes up to be offed in a single file line. Add the snowy setting surrounding it all and a cocked eyebrow can’t help but ask, “isn’t this just like…?”
Recycled fiction is directly at odds with the goal of appealing to an audience who has undoubtedly seen every similar film being emulated. The misstep made is that “Harbinger Down” isn’t just influenced by the style of those previous movies, it is overpowered by their substance, being too similar to engrave a unique name for itself that demands to be noticed and remembered.
“Harbinger Down” already has its work cut out for it to be the most memorable sci-fi movie about aliens infecting human hosts and featuring Lance Henriksen. That the feel is so familiar is what turns enthusiasm for the promise of practical FX and a return to form for modern monster movies into disbelieving disappointment that there isn’t more to show for it.
“Harbinger Down” does however create a worthwhile springboard for Gillis and Woodruff to wet their collective feet in the world of crowdfunded indie horror. The film is well-made and well-acted, and its FX are as dynamite as expected. But its underachieving screenplay is a hurdle that no special effect, practical or digital, can jump without knocking over. Now that they are in the pool, let’s encourage ADI to wade deeper into the originality end when they swim their next lap.*
* Let’s also encourage the sound department to terminate the creaking metal door SFX that repeats so often, I yelled out loud at the screen in frustration for it to stop.
Review Score: 65