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Tuesday, November 23, 2010


After the success of DIE HARD came a slew of action flicks billing themselves as "DIE HARD on a plane", "DIE HARD on a bus", etc.  (The story goes that some brainiac eventually came up with the bright idea of doing "DIE HARD in a building.")  In the same vein, you might describe the Icelandic splatterfest HARPOON: WHALE WATCHING MASSACRE (2009) as "THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE on a whaling ship."  With a little THE HILLS HAVE EYES, MOTHER'S DAY, and whatever else you can think of thrown into the mix.  If you think that sounds just about dumb enough to be fun, I'd agree with you.

Even "Leatherface" is here, although this time Gunnar Hansen isn't one of the crazies.  He plays the captain of a small fishing vessel in Iceland who augments his dwindling income by taking tourists out on the ocean to gawk at whales.  His current customers are a real mixed bunch and it doesn't take long for us to start picking out who we like and who we wouldn't mind seeing harpooned. 

Right off the bat, my pick for "final girl" was Annette (Pihla Viitala), a pretty but shy blonde who'd rather eyeball large fish than party.  Her bad day begins early when Gunnar's helper tries to rape her in his cabin.  The emotionally-fragile Marie-Anne (Miranda Hennessy), whose fiance' was recently killed just before their wedding, is so lost in her own world she doesn't even try to help Annette when she walks in on the assault.  Leon (Terence Anderson) is a handsome young black guy who attracts Marie-Anne's attention and looks like our best bet for a hero.  There's also a trio of bitchy older women and an Asian couple consisting of a misogynist husband, a terminally submissive wife, and their timid servant Endo (Nae).

A playfully drunk Frenchman named Jean Francois (Aymen Hamdouchi) heads the expedition straight south when he inadvertently incapacitates Captain Gunnar.  When the first mate abandons ship in a motorboat, the helpless tourists are stranded on the high seas until they're taken aboard a decrepit whaling ship populated by a family of inbreds you'd expect to see roaming around the backwoods stalking city folk.  Big, bearded Tryggvi (Helgi Björnsson), peabrained hunchback Siggi (Stefán Jónsson), and cackling crone Mamma (Guðrún Gísladóttir) start sizing up their "catch" the moment they're brought onboard, and it isn't long before the bloody slaughter is under way.

Júlíus Kemp's direction is workmanlike and the photography, while a bit cheapish-looking, has a nice documentary feel to it.  The splatter effects are meat-and-potatoes stuff for the most part but there are a few moments that display some wit and style, such as a rather impressive flying-hatchet decapitation and an unusual three-way configuration involving a killer with a harpoon, two simultaneously-speared victims, and an explosive kamikaze finish.  Flare guns, sniper rifles, shotguns, and even a killer whale (definitely not Shamu) also figure into the action at various times.

While the situation is rather absurd and the bad guys a tad over-the-top, I thought the performances of most of the beleaguered main characters were realistic enough to keep things genuinely suspenseful.  Some of the dialogue is dumb but in a tongue-in-cheek way--in fact, the film's humorous touches are often so dry that (according to Wikipedia) producers eventually replaced the tagline "The first Icelandic thriller" with the disclaimer "Should only be seen if you have a sense of humor" in the ads.  I had no problem with the film's tone, and found the more outlandish elements well balanced by an underlying sense of tragedy which, at times, was slightly reminiscent of EDEN LAKE.  On the whole, however, HARPOON simply struck me as dark but lighthearted fun from beginning to end.

The DVD from Image Entertainment, which contains the unrated version of the film, is in 2.35:1 widescreen with Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound.  There are no subtitles.  Extras consist of a trailer and a "making of" featurette hosted by Gunnar Hansen. 

With an interesting premise, unusual locations, and a variety of kills, HARPOON: WHALE WATCHING MASSACRE serves up a generous helping of potential victims to be dispatched in fine style by a suitably grotesque bunch of crazies.  (And in case you're wondering, yes--that big ol' deck-mounted whale harpoon does come into play.)  The question of who lives and who dies yields some surprising answers and kept me guessing right up to the fadeout.  While some will undoubtedly consider it a dreary misfire, I found this lively, unassuming little splatter flick to be unexpectedly entertaining.

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