- Posted by John Squires
- On August 12, 2015
- 0 Comments
Universal dropped the ball big time with their 2011 prequel to The Thing, which essentially played out like a CGI-laden remake of John Carpenter’s masterpiece. The bummer was that incredible practical effects were created for the film, and initially promised to fans, but the studio decided to nix them in favor of bad digital graphics. The special effects company issues their response with Harbinger Down.
Written and directed by makeup effects artist Alec Gillis, Harbinger Down centers on the crew of the fishing trawler Harbinger, comprised of both crabbers and graduate students tracking and studying killer whales. When they comes across something strange buried deep in the Alaskan waters, they haplessly bring the block of ice aboard the ship, and a shape-shifting monster soon emerges from its chilly prison.
To say that Alec Gillis’ heart was in the right place with this one would frankly be an understatement, as he and fellow artist Tom Woodruff Jr. literally conceived Harbinger Down as a way to showcase the practical effects that Universal robbed from us back in 2011. It’s a really inspiring genesis for a horror film, and it’s even cooler when you realize that their anti-CGI film was crowd-funded by horror fans.
Per Wikipedia, Harbinger Down became the most successful sci-fi/horror project in Kickstarter history back in 2013, as fans pooled together an impressive $384,000. The smash-hit success of the fundraiser proved that genre fans are as tired of CGI as the artists who are losing jobs because of it, and the team of Gillis and Woodruff ensured that the film would hearken back to the days of 80s monster movies.
And in some ways they lived up to that promise, as there’s a certain quality to Harbinger Down that feels refreshingly old-school. I suppose it doesn’t hurt that 80s genre icon Lance Henriksen plays the lead role of ship captain Graff, or that he’s flanked by a crew of colorful characters that wouldn’t be out of place in movies like The Thing and Alien, and the effects are indeed true to the decade the film pays tribute to.
Alas, everything about Harbinger Down sounds better on paper than it is in execution. Though one can’t claim that Gillis and Woodruff lied about the effects being practical, those looking for memorable moments of carnage will be disappointed to find that most of the good stuff is hidden in darkness and often only briefly glimpsed. Worse yet, none of the effects work is very inspired or visually striking.
It’s hard to say what went wrong, as Gillis and Woodruff are two of the best makeup effects artists in the business today, but it seems to me that their hands were tied by an incredibly low budget. Aside from one memorable creature seen towards the end of the movie, Harbinger Down‘s monster effects are surprisingly unexciting and decidedly low-budget, and the same can be said for the movie as a whole.
Harbinger Down makes a pretty good case for effects artists sticking to what they’re good at, as it very much plays out like, well, a movie made by an effects artist. With one-dimensional characters, a poorly written plot, and a notably low-budget aesthetic, this creature feature has much more in common with Syfy’s output than the monster movies of the 80s, regardless of its welcome lack of digital chaos.
True, horror fans likely aren’t coming into Harbinger Down looking for plot or character development, but the problem is that the effects just aren’t cool enough – or frequently on screen enough – to distract from how dull and amateur it all is. Gillis’ script attempts to imbue the film with tense paranoia, ala The Thing, though the writing and acting just aren’t good enough to ever make any of it work.
Ultimately, Harbinger Down fails as both an entertaining movie and a showcase of memorable special effects, amounting to little more than just another low-budget creature feature starring Lance Henriksen. And it’s hard to not be disappointed about that, as Alec Gillis’ feature directorial debut seemed primed and ready to deliver the sort of monster movie we haven’t seen in quite some time.
But again, all hearts were in the right places with this one, and if there’s anything about Harbinger Down that’s worth commending, it’s the independent spirit embodied by its very existence. Here’s hoping practical effects continue to be given platforms to shine, even if the big studios wish to pretend they no longer exist.