The Horror Honeys: Sci-Friday ~ The ‘Thing’ from the Sea

Sci-Friday ~ The ‘Thing’ from the Sea

A Sci-Fi Honey Review by Katie

Harbinger Down (2015)

Movie special effects: we all have our opinions on what works and what doesn’t, which films utilize them the best, and what types are the most effective. Some audiences prefer the good ol’ Ray Harryhausen days when handcrafted practical effects reigned supreme, using mainly stop-motion animation, models, puppetry, and miniatures to enrich the fantastical cinematic landscape. For the rest of us, we recognize the modern-day popularization of computer-generated effects as a necessary evil that can either diminish or enhance our enjoyment of a film, particularly when it comes to the effects-heavy genre of sci-fi. The story behind the making of Harbinger Down, a 2015 indie mashup of Alien and The Thing, perfectly encapsulates the struggle that visual effects artists of a bygone era face in the wake of the digital revolution. The resulting movie may be a sinking ship for today’s blasé audiences, but it’s also an important treatise for filmmakers who advocate for the increasingly obsolete art of practical effects.

The titular Harbinger is a crabbing boat, helmed by barnacle-voiced Graff (sci-fi Hall-of-Famer Lance Henriksen), whose granddaughter Sadie (Camille Balsamo) has come aboard to study the effects of climate change on beluga whale migration (just go with it). Things get weird when the ship’s crew finds a frozen Soviet-era cosmonaut inside of a glacier (again, just go with it), and the parasite-riddled corpsicle spreads an infection that systematically mutates and massacres all unsuspecting seafarers on board. The mutations include sprouting tentacle-like appendages, shapeshifting, and surviving harsh environmental conditions – all of which sound very familiar for any horror fans that have seen a certain frigid John Carpenter film from 1982.

Learn your lesson: if you find something in ice, leave it there.
If you haven’t figured it out already, Harbinger Down is indeed just The Thing on a boat – with a little bit of Alien and Jaws thrown in for good measure (at one point Henriksen even grumbles, “you’re gonna need a bigger bucket”). However, there’s a reason that this film bears more than a passing resemblance to Carpenter’s practical effects-driven ‘monsterpiece’ of horror cinema. Harbinger writer/director Alec Gillis, former apprentice of SFX master Stan Winston, was hired by the team behind the 2011 prequel to The Thing to create the film’s creature effects using a the practical methods that the ’82 version is known for. Gillis was (understandably) upset to discover that most of his work in the finished product had been digitally manipulated, smoothed-over, or replaced entirely by glossy CGI – in other words, completely destroying the stylistic link between Carpenter’s film and the 2011 prequel. Fans of Gillis and other practical FX aficionados responded by crowdfunding nearly the entirety of Harbinger Down, thereby allowing Gillis and his team to showcase some of the effects we would have seen in The Thing. Take THAT, all you CGI-loving Hollywood bigshots!

Although CGI makes less of a mess!
In the battle of practical-effects David vs. CG-Goliath, however, Harbinger Down does not easily spell a ‘win’ for Gillis and his team of FX puppet masters. While the film’s creature effects demonstrate an impressive level of talent and ingenuity, the rest of Harbinger Down is middling at best, fraught with a threadbare plot and painfully stilted acting that’s more in step with a SyFy original than a formidable creature feature. Even Henriksen, who spews tough-guy lines like “I’ll bite your goddamn nose off” with ease, has more than a dozen credited roles to his name in 2016 alone – and sadly, it shows. He can still be fun to watch, but the amusement is diminished when you can immediately tell which of the ship’s crew on board with him will be the first and last to fall prey to the infection.

With Gilligan / the Skipper too…
If the filmmakers behind Harbinger Down had put as much time and effort into developing their story and honing a chilling atmosphere as they did their visual effects, the film might have a better shot at being a new monster classic. Still, it serves as an important discourse for those in the industry of practical FX to assert their continued relevance, especially after Gillis had been so unjustly burned by a studio system that doesn’t appreciate the craft. CGI may be more commonplace in modern-day moviemaking, but the most impressive films that utilize special effects strike a meticulous balance between real-world and virtual applications. Most horror fans, especially fans of Carpenter’s The Thing, highly value some good old-fashioned homemade viscera in their monster movies; plaster molds, puppetry, and buckets of sticky red corn syrup is still a decent recipe for a scary good time.

Sci-Fi Honey Rating: Three sea-Things out of five

Harbinger Down is available via Netflix Instant, iTunes, Amazon Instant Video, YouTube VOD, Vudu, Google Play, & DVD

Have you watched this Thing-esque horror film?
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