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Wednesday, August 12, 2015

HARBINGER DOWN -- Movie Review by Porfle

"Some things should stay frozen," says one of the Harbinger's crew after they recover a crashed Soviet spacecraft in the frozen Arctic and discover that there's something alien--and alive--still on board. 

The sci-fi/horror thriller HARBINGER DOWN (2015) is the brainchild of writer/director Alec Gillis, co-owner of Amalgamated Dynamics (ADI), the FX group behind the original practical effects for the 2011 remake-prequel to John Carpenter's 80s classic THE THING.  As can be seen in a popular YouTube video, ADI's extensive work was deleted from the film and replaced with digital effects by studio execs who thought the old-school stuff looked "too 80s" and thus unsuitable for modern CGI-hungry audiences.

Gillis, wanting to prove them wrong, then put HARBINGER DOWN together and packed it with practical effects, with not even a hint of CGI.  The result is an attempt by a who's who of PFX artists (including Tom Woodruff, Jr. of THE TERMINATOR and the ALIEN series) to recreate the kind of stuff animatronics artist Rob Bottin (THE HOWLING, TOTAL RECALL, SE7EN) and crew achieved on John Carpenter's THE THING, not to mention other pre-CGI creature classics such as ALIENS, David Cronenberg's THE FLY, and a host of other favorites from the era.

The result is a mixed bag with Gillis and company doing their best with what they have.  While some of the effects are impressive, there's unfortunately nothing as awesome as what we see in the THING remake video because this movie has a much tighter effects budget. 

The most striking thing about Carpenter's THE THING is how the undulating tentacled creatures retained certain humanoid elements that made the whole thing that much more horrible, while here the alien lifeforms are mostly amorphous shapes squirming all over the place.  The occasional recognizable human body parts add a more horrific touch (I especially liked the pair of legs running around topped by a roiling mass of intestines, and another crawling blob with a recognizable human head) but for the most part we get a lot of big, purple spaghetti creatures. 

The film's opening is similar to THE THING with a crippled spaceship entering Earth's atmosphere, but this time it's a Soviet craft which is barbecued on reentry with one unlucky cosmonaut and a cargo of green alien goo.  Years later, the crabbing vessel Harbinger picks up three passengers, a teacher and two students studying the effects of "climate change" on Beluga whales.  One student, Sadie (Camille Balsamo), is the granddaughter of ship's captain Graff (the venerable Lance Henriksen), and it is she who spots the downed spacecraft under the water's icy surface.

The object is brought aboard, after which it's not hard to figure out what happens when the globs of pulsating alien protoplasm thaw out and start slithering about, engulfing various crewmembers into hideous makeshift orifices and digesting them.  This time there's no assimilation and mimicking of their human hosts, but simple attack-and-devour stuff by creature creations that are fun but, as previously noted, not all that imaginative or stunningly rendered.

With a simple plot similar to the THING remakes and the original THE THING (FROM ANOTHER WORLD) along with shades of ALIEN and older monster flicks like IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE, HARBINGER DOWN is the classic 50s sci-fi/monster-type yarn that's fun and mildly exciting without being especially memorable. 

Gillis' direction is okay (save for the occasional Shaky-Cam) yet lacking the finesse of a John Carpenter in building tension and suspense, and the shocks aren't as sharply-staged as one might wish.  The film does establish a satisfying atmosphere of cold and isolation for its budget, with some nice model work of the ship and its environs and some well-done interiors.

The crew are a colorful group of people such as Svet, the Russian babe with a king-sized chip on her shoulder (Milla Bjorn), comically paranoid Dock (Michael Estime, "Everybody Hates Chris"), and Big G (Winston James Francis), the extra-large guy with the extra-corny sense of humor.  Henriksen--who gets the corniest line when he recalls the most famous quip from JAWS--is wonderfully grizzled and able to convey a wealth of emotion with just a look and a grunt. 

As Dr. Stephen, the head of the scientific trio, Matt Winston (A.I., THE CORE) is exquisitely vain, petty, and supercilious as he grows increasingly desperate to retain control of the expedition and get all the credit for their find.  Camille Balsamo (THE PAPERBOY, "Murder in the First"), on the other hand, is instantly likable as Sadie and makes a fine heroine. 

HARBINGER DOWN is the result of a bunch of ace practical effects wizards saying "Okay, this is how it's done without slathering on a bunch of cartoony CGI."  As such, it's a good low-key monster movie, but I wish the filmmakers had been able to spend enough time and money on those PFX to make them not just passably entertaining, but astounding.

DVD release date: Sept. 1, 2015

Theatrical Release in select cities:

Available on VOD on these platforms: iTunes, Google Play, Amazon, Vudu and Xbox and on cable and satellite providers, including:
Dish Digital/Sling TV
Time Warner


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