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Wednesday, August 26, 2009


Got about eight-and-a-half hours to kill? If you're like me, that's roughly the amount of time you'll have to stay glued to the TV set so you can watch all four discs of HARPER'S ISLAND: THE DVD EDITION in one marathon, butt-numbing session. (Plus time for meals, bathroom breaks, and walking the dog, of course.) The set-up is simple, but what happens over the next 13 episodes is a deviously compelling maze of murder, mystery, and deception that's as addictive as glazed donuts.

It begins as a festive wedding party gathers on a yacht that's headed for an island off the coast of Seattle. Trish Wellington (Katie Cassidy) and Henry Dunn (Christopher Gorham) are the happy couple headed for the altar, while Henry's childhood friend Abby Mills (Elaine Cassidy, THE OTHERS) is uncertain about returning to her hometown and seeing her estranged father, Sheriff Charlie Mills (Jim Beaver), after seven years. Things just haven't been the same between them since a deranged serial killer murdered Abby's mother and Charlie sent the young girl away to live in L.A.

Once everyone settles into the rustic Candlewick Inn and gets the party started, people start dying one by one in horrible ways. The murders bear an uncanny resemblance to the work of that serial killer, John Wakefield, who was supposedly shot to death by Sheriff Mills after his original rampage. Is Wakefield still alive, or is a copycat continuing what he started? Either way, the guest list for Trish and Henry's wedding is dwindling rapidly, and by the time everyone figures out what's going on it's too late to do anything about it besides run, hide, scream, and get murdered.

The generous running time gives us a chance to get to know and care about the characters and become involved in their sometimes soap opera-like interactions before the carnage goes into full swing. While Trish and Henry are crazy about each other, Trish's millionaire father Thomas Wellington (Richard Burgi) considers Henry beneath his daughter and has hired her old boyfriend to come seduce her away from him. Meanwhile, his wife Katherine (Claudette Mink) is having an S & M-tinged affair with his daughter's husband, Richard (David Lewis). Foppish Britisher Cal Vandeusen (Adam Campbell) and hunky fratboy "Sully" Sullivan (Matt Barr) vie for the affections of beautiful blonde Chloe (Cameron Richardson). And Trish's niece, Madison (impressively played by 12-year-old Cassandra Sawtell) is one seriously weird little girl who seems to know that something bad is going on before anyone else does.

Abby, meanwhile, tentatively renews her relationship with an old flame, Jimmy (C.J. Thomason), who may be more of a bad boy than anyone realizes. She also discovers that her father has a continuing obsession with the Wakefield case when she stumbles upon his attic office festooned with files, clippings, and crime scene photographs. All of this is just the tip of the iceberg--bad intentions, sinister omens, and criminal schemes lurk beneath the surface, and it doesn't take long for people to start suspecting each other of all kinds of unsavory things.
With its quaint, autumnal seaside village setting and its victims being dispatched "ten little indians" style, the show reminded me somewhat of that old reality series, "Murder in Smalltown X", in which contestants were plunged into nightmarish scenarios and "murdered" one by one in lieu of being voted off. It also begins to resemble one of those spooky videogame adventures when the characters start tracking the killer through underground passages that take them from one level of mystery and fear to the next, following blood trails and other clues while danger lurks around each dark corner. And, of course, the Agatha Christie influence is there as well.

Most of all, HARPER'S ISLAND is like a lavishly-produced 80s slasher flick extended into a nail-biting cliffhanger serial. It fulfills its promise to kill off at least one major character per chapter, in appropriately shocking and gruesome ways. One guy falls through a wooden footbridge and gets the lower half of his body amputated while he's hanging there. Another is swooped up by a rope snare and beheaded. Right off the bat in episode one we see the first missing wedding guest wrapped around the yacht's propellor shaft and headed for choppy waters.

While the murders themselves are only as violent as network TV will currently allow, they're handled well enough to convey sufficient horror while the aftermath is often quite graphic. Over the course of this series the killer (or killers) racks up a body count that would make Jason Voorhees green with envy. You never know who's going to be next--nobody's off-limits, and there's a good chance that no matter who your favorite character is, he or she will get the axe (or the shotgun, or the harpoon, or that big blade that's used to behead whales) sooner or later.

My favorite moment occurs right there during the wedding rehearsal, when one of the participants suddenly develops a splitting headache. With this overt act, after the first few episodes of buildup, the cat-and-mouse game between the killer and his would-be victims really begins in earnest. What follows is scene after scene of gripping tension and suspense punctuated by some extremely brutal murders. The matter of whether they're being stalked by Wakefield himself or a copycat killer is heightened by the growing suspicion that one of their group is actually in cahoots with him, and may even be his errant offspring.

Only in the last few episodes does this saga occasionally feel a bit thinly-stretched, with a final sequence that's uncomfortably contrived. You may also begin to wonder after awhile where in the heck all the other inhabitants of the island have gotten off to, since the main characters seem to be the only people in town once the shooting and explosions and screaming get underway. But I was having too good a time to quibble over minor details.

The DVD image is 16 x 9 with Dolby Digital 5.1 surround and stereo surround. Close-captions are available for the hearing-impaired. Episode titles are amusingly sound effects-oriented, with cast and producer commentaries for "Whap", "Sploosh", "Splash", and "Sigh." Other bonuses include deleted scenes, on-air promos, 90 minutes of webisodes from, and four featurettes: "Casting Harper's Island", "One By One: The Making of Harper's Island", "Guess Who?", and "The Grim Reaper."

The cast is very good playing their stereotypical roles, especially the winsome Elaine Cassidy as Abby, around whom the entire story revolves. Series creator Ari Schlossberg and the other writers have put together a real corker of a murder-mystery-horror-thriller that is full of giddy fun and surprises. Watching HARPER'S ISLAND one episode at a time with a whole week in between must've been torture for its original TV viewers--I can't imagine not being able to consume the whole heady concoction all at once.

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