What I’m Watching: Harbinger Down

“Alien Covenant” is on the way and I’m very excited to see it. Above all, I just like any chance I get to see a studio-backed, well-produced creature feature.

These types of films are a rarity nowadays. Any movie of this kind is most often rushed onto video or the Sci-Fi Channel (…SyFy, fine!). This leads to terrible stories, awful acting and special effects that look like they were rendered with a Nintendo GameCube.

Some moviegoers are now yearning for a motion picture that brings the best parts of classics such as John Carpenter’s “The Thing” or Ridley Scott’s “Alien.” In response to that, effects company Studio ADI set out to helm a practical effects-driven creature film a little over two years ago. While the intent was for sure to display creepy, gooey props, the end result is a decent watch.

“Harbinger Down” starts along the Bering Strait off the coast of Alaska, where a team of college scientists tag along with a crab fishing crew to study whale behavior. During their travels, they encounter something in a nearby iceberg. It’s brought aboard and revealed to be a crashed Russian moon lander, frozen since the early 1980s. This lander happens to contain a deadly alien parasite that made the lone cosmonaut its home and now has a hankering for people.

The film’s story pays homage to others of its kind, most notably Carpenter’s “The Thing.” From the isolated location to the dwindling head count, it flows much like an old school monster movie, only in modern surroundings. Granted, that means there is nothing new here, but it serves its purpose and the story is directed at a brisk and interesting pace.

Most of the actors do a good job with the respective horror archetypes they are assigned. The cherry on top of the group is Lance Henriksen playing the boat captain, Graff. A veteran of the genre in films like “Aliens” and “Pumpkinhead,” he has the best performance in the film with his gruff voice putting you in the right mindset of being among gritty, hard-edged victims.

However, there are a couple performances that aren’t up to snuff. One in particular, the best friend/assistant, doesn’t fit in with this roster. In addition to one or two others, their performance can be distracting and have you wishing death on their character.

But the reason you come is for the monster scenes. The film is based around in-camera techniques that don’t include drastic computer work. And the effects are real good.

The puppetry, animatronics and scale models are pulled off in a convincing and brutal way. It’s a gratifying sight to see a tentacle wrap around somebody and rip them in half to a bloody result. While there is some minor CGI, it only serves to enhance or aid the practical effects.

The overall filming is not too shabby either. There are some decent camera shots and atmospheric lighting that maintain the feeling of isolation and tight spacing. When considering this was mostly made by people that don’t write or direct a whole lot, it’s commendable to see they took influence from the legends they worked with over the years.

With that said, the effects can sometimes be hard to make out. It mainly comes from how the editing sometimes tries to make the creatures look more visceral by shaking the frame and the like. It’s a 50-50 payoff with some shots looking good and others having you wish they weren’t done that way.

“Harbinger Down” is no masterpiece but it’s a good, easy watch for fans of monster horror. Studio ADI did a decent job not only making an adequate creature film but reminding audiences how much better a set of silicone jaws looks over one made by computer. If you dig ‘80s horror and practical special effects, grab a beer and boot up Netflix with a group of people. Rock the boat and get bloody.

-Nick McCann