There’s nothing that makes a horror fan wetter than the words “practical effects” (yup, coming out guns blazing in this review). In a time of dull, lifeless ADR oversaturation, the art of blowing up a prosthetic heads full of gooey physical liquids has become a thing of the past. But Amalgamated Dynamics Inc., the team behind such creature films as Starship Troopers, Tremors and numerous Alien entries, are just a few of the modern-day heroes who believe monster movies should rely on extensive practical make-up/animatronics – and they want to do things their way. That’s why they took to Kickstarter with an entirely practical homage to The Thing called Harbinger Down, smashing past its $350K goal in the name of all that’s squishy, horrific, and disgusting.
Harbinger Down is the brainchild of veteran effects wizard Alec Gillis, who served as writer and director on this 80s-themed passion project. Taking place aboard a crabbing vessel stranded in the Bering Sea, we meet a mix of grad students and fishermen who all find themselves in the same biological danger.
Sadie (Camille Balsamo) hitches a ride on her grandfather Graff’s (Lance Henriksen) freighter, the Harbinger, to study the effects of global warming on a pod of Orca whales – but instead finds a Russian spacecraft floating amidst the icebergs. She brings the hunk of frozen metal aboard, thaws it out, and unintentionally unleashes a crazy Soviet experiment that can mutate cells and take over the human body. Armed with only a few tanks of nitrogen, the crew must band together and fight off the morphing invader before it consumes them all.
Like I said, Harbinger Down is an old-school throwback to everything that makes The Thing a longstanding sci-fi classic. An isolated location, freezing temperatures, a cell-invading organism, people transforming in ways they shouldn’t – Gillis takes many, MANY cues from The Book Of Carpenter. This beast feels pretty much like The Thing At Sea, which makes sense since it became a reality thanks to fan backlash that ensued after ADI released working footage of all the scrapped creature effects they crafted for 2011’s CGI-dominated remake of The Thing. The Thing comparison is relevant for sure, which is a true compliment to Alec Gillis and his team – but a film is more than just some flying tentacles.
All of Gillis’ technical expertise can’t prevent Harbinger Down from feeling like a first-time feature (note: not the same as amateur), which is a bit more rough around the edges than we’d like. The locations are metallically detailed, and transport our minds to the claustrophobic, iron tomb that is Graff’s cramped fishing vessel, but a blurry knack for cinematography sullies some of the film’s more exciting moments. As monsters lurch or make quick movements, the camera shifts between numerous points of view in an effort to catch the action, yet must be angled perfectly so we can’t catch a glimpse of the puppeteers or mechanical wiring that’s creating all the creature magic. It’s a necessary trick, but Gillis’ Director of Photography, Benjamin L. Brown, falls victim to chaotic action sequences that struggle to convey the events on screen.
Case and point – during a pivotal monster attack, the group finds itself in a tussle with one of the beastie’s suction-cup-like mouth extensions (that just traveled through a pipe). In the flurry of camera whips, I completely missed which female character (the spunky African American, or the stone-faced Russian badass) had just been gobbled up and yanked into the tube. It actually took me three separate rewinds just to solve the mystery. Again, such camerawork is a necessary evil when masking practical constraints, but Harbinger Down sloppily attempts to rely on editing in an effort to keep designs completely practical.
The gore is on point though, and the having a veteran like Lance Hendrickson thrown in the mix makes everything more entertaining. He actually threatens to bite someone’s “goddamn nose” off as a means of intimidation, and dammit if it’s not a perfectly delivered genre line. Matt Winston also adds a certain bombastic charm as a professor with ulterior motives, who of course finds his more animated personality playing right into a gruesome, flashy demise. These are the fun moments of Harbinger Down, as we watch a crew member reemerge from the shadows as a grotesque figure with a fleshy face mask, ready to nomz some human meat with a mouth where the top of its head should be. Bodies fly, gore splatters, and miniatures are used to bring a tremendous production value to a film that’s ten times smaller than it seems.
Yet, there’s a lack of sincerity to Gillis’ debut. As an effects man, he’s aces – along with the entire ADI team. As a storyteller, some more polishing needs to be done. There’s no real chemistry amongst the cast, deaths come and go without any lingering recognition, and the wicked seafaring events seem to fast forward during dynamic tension-building scenes until there’s a mutated freak on screen. Harbinger Down teases what could be an icy Hell, and while the practical effects impress as expected, we’re left wanting so much more from the voyage as a whole.
Harbinger Down brings the monstrous goods as expect, yet struggles to tell a coherent story that's worth the practical effects success.