If John Carpenter’s “The Thing” were competently remade in 2011, “Harbinger Down” is what we’d have. I imagine Alec Gillis’ monster feature will be placed alongside Carpenter’s masterpiece as a double feature for many years, and why shouldn’t it? It’s a strong and very entertaining tribute that can also work as a companion piece. “Harbinger Down” owes a lot of its material to John Carpenter, posing much of the same scenarios from the aforementioned film. There’s a group of workers stuck in the middle of a desolate wasteland, a creature hunting everyone down and taking different forms, and an inevitable fight for survival.
Thankfully Gillis’ film holds back just enough to become its own entity. “Harbinger Down” is set aboard the fishing ship the Harbinger where young Sadie and a group of scientists come on board to study whales’ migration patterns. Sadie’s grandfather Graff runs the tight ship that includes a roughneck group of sailors and fishermen. Things take a turn for the weird when Sadie discovers the frozen remains of a long lost Russian space vessel that crash landed at sea decades ago. What begins as an expedition to learn about its history transforms in to a battle for life when an alien being inside the ship thaws out and begins wreaking havoc within the bowels of the ship. “Harbinger Down” is a film that thrives on simplicity, staging its events in one location and getting good use out of its surroundings.
Director Gillis excels at implementing good old fashioned special effects, bringing to life a heinous and brutally disgusting monster for audiences. Gillis has every potential to be as derivative as possible, but thankfully the team of special effects artists construct a monster that’s as twisted and perverse as the thing, but also stands on its own as a sea born creation. The special effects are a marvel and Gillis brings the creature’s ability to transform in to various states of solids and beings with classic editing effects, seamless stop motion, and some wonderful puppetry that bring to life a brutally terrifying enemy that is merciless and intent on surviving amidst its human hosts. What helps the creature feel more alive is the very moody and horrific lighting and camera work that paints this ship as a tomb with solid blues and whites painting every corridor.
The performances by the cast are solid with Lance Henriksen bringing to life a very empathetic protagonist, along with Camille Balsamo who is really memorable as the inadvertent heroine of the film. She has brains, wit, and a surefire knack for survival, and the film soon boils down to how long she can stand against the monster that begins devising more and more clever tricks to keep itself alive. That said, much of the narrative takes a backseat midway in exchange for showing more of the creature effects and how it eventually evolves. There are also some shaky performances by the supporting cast that almost derail the narrative. In either case, “Harbinger Down” is a really solid and above average debut from Alec Gillis. If you can appreciate what he’s trying to accomplish as a John Carpenter’s “The Thing” and “Alien” nod, you will enjoy it as much as I did.