Let’s face facts here, the 2011 version of The Thing was a failure in a multitude of ways that I’ve already wittered on about but of course the biggest tragedy was that the practical effects were mostly hidden or not used at all. In response to this travesty the company behind those effects, Amalgamated Dynamics, launched a kickstarter campaign to right those wrongs and make an all practical monster movie as a proper spiritual follow up to John Carpenter’s classic. Unfortunately whilst The Thing of 2011 had a budget of 38 million dollars, Director Alec Gillis and co look like they raised a couple of bucks and the loan of a dry ice machine.
Judging by the Internet community’s response Harbinger Down has not received a warm welcome. Personally I don’t know what they were expecting. Within its own limited means I think the film does pretty well. Yes it is cheap as chips but perhaps people have forgotten that the origins of creature features is not from lavish studio productions where money is thrown at them but from the B movies of old where monsters looked rubbery and actors were wooden. That’s not an excuse for bad film making but it is a reason why cheesy monster movies like Harbinger Down can exist. If you want a great horror movie which has fantastic monsters but good acting but no money then you have to go down the route of something like Spring where you can concentrate on the fine details. However if you want to have a story involving crab ships, space crashes, giant monsters, a larger cast and huge explosions but with the same amount of money as Spring then Harbinger Down is what you will get. And thank god for that.
We begin with basically the beginning of The Thing as a spaceship crashes down to Earth, freezing the cosmonaut on board as he’s being harassed by something slimy. Skipping forward to the present day we meet the crew of the Harbinger, a crabbing boat doing its thing in the Arctic ocean. There is a good attempt to create distinctive individual characters on board the boat, almost certainly a reaction to 2011 The Thing‘s white men with beards syndrome (I say this as a white man with a beard). There’s a good mix of characters, an obvious final girl, an evil science professor and a slightly embarrassing comedy black dude, but more unusual characters are the Russian tough lady who tries to get in touch with her gentler side and a Andre The Giant sized chap called Big G played by a fellow called Winston James Francis. Obviously this humongous gentleman has mostly been cast as a thug type character in most of his previous roles and while he certainly does his fair share of looking menacing and punching people, he’s also a pretty rounded character and almost gets a girl… Well before he has to punch her in the face and blow her up for being a hideous alien monster.
The real star of the film though is Lance Hendrickson who adds class to anything he is in. It is often said that actors like Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing would always bring their all to whatever load of old toss they were cast in and nowadays it does seem that there just aren’t that many character actors who will always be amazing and act with total integrity in whatever crazy nonsense they are in. However Hendrickson is such an actor, with that gravelly voice and world weary eyes he plays the salty old sea dog of a captain with gravitas but also warmth – he cares for and protects his crew and granddaughter (the final girl played by Camille Basimo) and despite the silliness that ensues he is always totally believable. What a guy.
Looking at his IMDb credits, Lance Hendrickson is a man who has 205 titles to his name with another 17 upcoming. Now I have now seen a great deal of these but I don’t doubt for a second that he’s good in all of them. It’s fantastic that he is held in such high regard that he is constantly in work (or will just say yes to anything maybe but why not, I’ve worked on Beverley Hills Chihuahua for god’s sake). However his biggest film is still Aliens and that was twenty nine years ago. Isn’t it about time Hendrickson starred in a Tarantino film and got the recognition he deserves? Maybe THAT is a kick starter campaign we need to get behind: Mr Tatantino, we will give you a million bucks if you put Hendrickson in your next film. Okay we only raised $359.27 will that do?”
Anyway, Harbinger Down is really all about the monsters and they are weird old bunch. There is no attempt to disguise their Thing origins – they’re all tentacles and giant funny mouths. Gillis’s dedication to his practical effects is admiral: there are speeded up monsters, miniature monsters, even stop mention monsters and at no point is there any sign of cg. However whilst cg creatures can suffer from over exposure, like for example in Mama where we are subjected to the cg ghost thing for so much screen time it becomes boring, here the practical effects are so hidden in the dark and with quick cutaways that it is often difficult to say what exactly you are looking at. Maybe that is the point of a Thing-type creature, it is made up of so many limbs and body parts it is meant to be too alien to read. However creatures in John Carpenter’s The Thing were, despite their weirdness, very easy to understand and comprehend. It is almost certainly a budgetary thing though, despite Amalgamated Dynamics being behind the film it isn’t like they could just throw all their resources at it, it would bankrupt the company if they did so. There is one pretty cool monster which has one of the characters heads as its lower jaw which is both goofy and horrific.
Whatever the case, the creatures on display here still have so much more charm and danger to them than anything in the 2011 film, and those are things that no amount of money can buy.