The groundbreaking French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard is often attributed with the quote, “The best way to critique a movie is to make another movie.” Five years ago, the visual effects artisans at Amalgamated Dynamics, Inc. (a.k.a. StudioADI) were tasked with designing and constructing practical creature effects for Universal Pictures’ prequel to John Carpenter’s masterpiece of alien-infused body horror, The Thing. When studio execs took a gander at the nightmarish fusion of extraterrestrial menace and human suffering that many laborious hours of painstaking work had brought to life, they ordered the film’s release delayed nearly a year, so that the in-camera effects could be erased from existence and replaced with shiny new digital creations that lacked the love, imagination, and gallons of slime the Amalgamated Dynamics crew had devoted so much time and effort to making a reality.
The loss of Amalgamated’s lovingly crafted effects from the Thing prequel was more than a personal defeat for the talented team that made them possible; it was yet another disappointing reminder of how digital effects had helped to make the practical effects industry virtually extinct in the world of modern filmmaking. Not content to accept this latest deathblow without a fight, Amalgamated founders Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff, Jr.took to Kickstarter in 2013 to raise the necessary funds in order to make an old school practical effects monster movie, in the vein of the classic genre features they had plied their trade on separately, or as part of a team under their mentor, the late Stan Winston (one of many entertainment legends from my hometown of Richmond, Virginia). Gilis would write the screenplay and direct the film, with Woodruff serving as a producer, and together they would spearhead the effects team at StudioADI responsible for creating the in-camera creature effects. Digital effects would only be used to realize what couldn’t be accomplished on the set.
The long-awaited result of their labors, Harbinger Down, is now here for all to enjoy. The story begins on June 25th, 1982 (the U.S. theatrical release date for Carpenter’s The Thing, for those of you in the know), when a Soviet spacecraft’s reentry into Earth’s atmosphere doesn’t go exactly as planned. Thirty-three years later, college graduate students Sadie (Camille Balsamo) and Ronelle (Giovonnie Samuels), and their professor Stephen (Matt Winston) have boarded the crabbing ship Harbinger to track some beluga whales affixed with GPS devices in the Bering Sea. The ship’s Captain Graff (Lance Henriksen) just happens to be Sadie’s grandfather. One evening, Graff’s crew unearths a chunk of ice from the depths of the icy ocean that could possibly contain an important scientific find. Upon further study, the ice is revealed to be holding the frozen bodies of the unfortunate cosmonauts. Even worse is that the “corpsesicles” have hidden evils of their own.
Once the human remains are thawed, a horrible monster returns to life, and begins devouring its way through the students and the Harbinger’s blue collar crew, and assimilating them into its ever-increasing mass of fluorescent goo and razor-sharp tentacles. With only liquid nitrogen as a defense against this monster of unknown origin, Graff, Sadie, and their weary compatriots must unite to destroy it before it can reach the mainland, and proceed to take over the entire planet. Does the creature come from deep space? Are its origins of our own world? Can it be killed? Does the mysterious crewmember (Milla Bjorn) with the Russian accent, who is surprisingly skillful with a knife. have her own nefarious agenda?
Armed with a budget of $384,000 (and change), and a cast and crew dedicated to making the best movie they possibly could with the meager resources at their disposal, Harbinger Down could have been a failure in more ways than one. Gillis had only previous directed two episodes of the late-’90s television series Beyond Belief: Fact or Fiction, and his only other scripting credit was the comedic short film Mattress of Solitude. The budget was way less than even the makers of a Sharknado sequel had to work with. The DVD and Blu-ray sections of countless retailers and multiple online streaming networks, are packed to the gills with disposable sci-fi and horror features made for peanuts, with poor CGI effects and fading former stars putting in brief cameos, that will nevertheless ensure that only their face is front and center of the marketing campaign. Harbinger would require a unique hook to justify its existence lest its Kickstarter backers begin to regret their donations. That is where the monster comes in.
Gills and Woodruff’s past credits as visual effects creators include The Terminator, Aliens, Leviathan, Tremors, Death Becomes Her, and Starship Troopers, to name but a few of the more memorable features. If these two guys know anything, it’s how to make a monster that will put the fright in you, even if you consider yourself too cynical and self-aware for that to happen. Maestro Winston taught them well, and they continue to honor his memory with their imaginative creations for the big screen. They brought to Harbinger Down‘s behind-the-camera team the welcome services of the great Robert Skotak (Terminator 2: Judgment Day) as visual effects supervisor and Pat McClung (Ghostbusters) as a consultant. To a guy like me, who once was thrilled about the creeping horrors and rapturous fantasies of the cinema of my youth, those names carry as much significance as Beethoven, Magritte, and Jack Kirby.
Clearly Harbinger Down was intended to be a warm-hearted tribute to the inexpensive creature features of the ’70s and ’80s, and though its most obvious inspirations were The Thing and the original Alien, I could also spot little visual nods (perhaps unintentional) to classic schlock like The Deadly Spawn, TerrorVision, and the 1988 remake of The Blob. The production utilized many old school FX techniques, from stop-motion animation to miniatures, in lieu of falling down on letting a bank of pricey computers perform the bulk of the work. The monstrous threat at the center of the film is a creepy delight, a gelatinous and carnivorous horror with a massive maw of slime-dripping teeth, that snaps its victims up in the cold grip of its glowing tentacles, and yanks them screaming to their gruesome demise.
That is the kind of cinematic terror that we rarely see anymore. By creating the hideous effects live on the set, Gillis and his crew give their cast a genuine monster to react to, rather than expect them to generate authentic fright by gawking at a mark taped to a pole, meant to represent something that will be added in post-production, which helps their performances immeasurably.
Having worked with amazing directors who understand the value of withholding the money shot effects until they are absolutely needed, Gillis understands the effect that the creation of a mood and atmosphere can have on an audience. Until the gore-soaked third act, Harbinger works as a perfect example of “less is more.” Gillis keeps his creature concealed in the shadows, allowing us to see a piece of it at a time whenever it claims its prey, and then proceeds to pull out all of the stops for the finale. By then, the audience has earned a real show, and that’s exactly what Harbinger Down gives us.
Gillis goes out of his way to establish his cardboard cut-out characters as sympathetic individuals, and the Harbinger itself as a fantastic central location, with its endless supply of dark corridors and menacing compartments, where the creature could be hiding at any time. Even when I knew what was coming from a mile away, I have to admit that Harbinger still made me jump in my seat a time or two. Let me tell you my friends, I have really missed that sensation. Benjamin L. Brown handled both the cinematography and editing of Harbinger Down, and did a top-notch job on both fronts, giving the sets and monster great presence and texture, and keeping the action moving at a tight pace. Those 82 minutes pass by swiftly and things rarely lag.
Longtime feature animation composer Christopher Drake, a respected favorite for fans of DC Comics’ direct-to-video features, creates a music score dripping with tension, and helps sustain Gillis’ often overbearing mood of chilling dread, when the plot threatens to veer into predictable silliness. Drake’s fellow composers Joel McNeely (A Million Ways to Die in the West) and Thomas Andrew Gallegos assisted him in the music department, no doubt at a fraction of their usual working rate.
Gillis assembled a solid cast of acting newcomers for his feature-length directorial debut, and while there are few standouts among their ranks, there really isn’t a weak link either. Naturally the star of the show is the legendary Lance Henriksen, a consummate professional actor who brings plenty of grit, grace, and gravitas to every role he plays. Even when he’s lending his invaluable services to a piece of goofy schlock far beneath his talents, Henriksen never phones in a performance. Gillis compensates his leading man’s dedication to this film, by giving him some quietly affecting dramatic moments that are among Henriksen’s finest hours as an actor, a late scene where he reveals a heartbreaking scene to his granddaughter being the character highlight of Harbinger Down.
Camille Balsamo of the TNT series Murder in the First, handles her brainy grad student forced to transform into a monster-fighting warrior, in a matter of minutes. A character with intelligence and gusto, makes for a terrific heroine. Matt Winston, possibly best known as the pageant emcee from the 2006 indie hit Little Miss Sunshine, is an occasional hoot as Sadie’s glory-hogging dickhead of a professor. Winston James Francis is another standout as the Harbinger’s good-natured hulk Big G, while Milla Bjorn brings plenty of physical presence as the potentially deceitful Svet. The rest of the cast all perform their roles admirably.
Harbinger Down isn’t a perfect film, but it does for make for some crafty and fun throwback entertainment, while striking a blow for the practical effects industry that refuses to die no matter how hard Hollywood strives to write them off completely. The combined efforts of Alec Gillis, Tom Woodruff, Jr., and their dedicated cast and crew, result in a true labor of love for monster movie fans, that is infinitely more enjoyable than most films made for five hundred times their budget. This one comes with a hearty recommendation, but it is best viewed with the lights off and the doors locked tight. You never know what could be lurking in the shadows.