"We're both so messed up. I don't know which one of us is worse."
- Duane Bradley, Basket Case

Monday, January 11, 2010

Harper's Island: It's Safer On the Mainland

Without a doubt, the slasher is my favorite, most-cherished sub-genre in horror. I hold these films near and dear to my heart, whether it be popular entries like Friday the 13th or The Burning, or lesser-known gems such as Slaughter High. As fun as these movies are, a common (and most of the time, warranted) criticism against slashers is often the lack of any substantial plot or character development. It could be argued with strong conviction that the majority of these films churned out in the 1980s certainly miss those marks.

Not that I'm one to complain - most horror fans, including myself, usually aren't looking for anything more than a madman violently dispatching promiscuous teenagers, and welcome it with open arms. But what happens when you take the standard slasher formula, address the above criticisms, do it exceptionally well and expand the run-time from 90 minutes to 13 hours? You get Harper's Island.

The story in a nutshell: seven years ago, John Wakefield brutally murdered six people on Harper's Island, a small isle of the coast of Washington. One of the victims was the mother of Abby Mills, a local girl whose father also happens to be sheriff of the island. Shortly after the incident, Abby's dad supposedly kills Wakefield and forces Abby to move to California, where she remains up until the wedding for childhood friends Henry and Trish beckons her back home.

Upon Abby's arrival, old wounds are reopened as she confronts her father and deals with the tragedy from her past. To make matters much, much worse, people in the wedding party start mysteriously disappearing - permanently. Has John Wakefield somehow returned from the grave? Or is there a copycat killer adding to the legend and continuing his reign of terror?

I must admit, Harper's Island immediately won me over by the end of the first episode. For such a large cast (roughly 25 actors or so, including the awesome Harry Hamlin and Richard Burgi), the show does a fantastic job in establishing the characters and their relationships with each other. The ensemble consists of friends, enemies and even lovers having kinky affairs - all social circles are represented here.

At first you might be led to believe everyone is just a typical stereotype, and you'd be correct - the final girl, flirt, outsider, jock, nerd, etc. all are featured from the get-go. But where a movie only has an hour and a half to introduce a group of kids and start killing them off, television provides us the luxury of getting to know (almost) everyone from episode to episode before they are offed.

This really raises the stakes of the series, in my opinion. Once emotionally invested in the people, it actually leaves a lasting impression when they are murdered. Plus, with the exception of Abby, who I never felt was in any real danger, literally anybody could be killed at any moment. In one of the last episodes, the deaths of two main characters (involving a bridge) are genuinely disturbing; realizing they wouldn't escape the island and seeing them taken out in such a cold fashion definitely took the wind out of my sails.

Which brings me to my next point - the gore factor. Good Lord, I don't know how CBS got away with some of the stuff they showed. It's almost comical to think that in 2009, a TV show on basic cable is far bloody than, say, Friday the 13th Part 7: A New Blood. There is a ridiculously high body count; you get stabbings, burnings, shotgun blasts, hangings, numerous impalements, decapitations and a body bifurcation! As a fun side note, the title of each episode is the sound of a character getting slaughtered: "Ka-Blam," "Snap" and my favorite, "Sploosh." Seriously, if I was in grade school and casually flipped to Channel 4 when this was airing, I would have loved it - and also been scarred for life.

Harper's Island also maintains a high level of suspense from week to week. The first few episodes allow the viewer to soak in the atmosphere, before roughly the fifth or sixth hour, when all hell breaks loose. Again, the flexibility with a television series allows the setting to change quite often, so one episode could deal primarily in the woods, while others might take place predominantly in underground tunnels or the local tavern. This keeps the show fresh and prevents it from becoming what could have easily become a repetitive endeavor. Perhaps the producers could have shaved an episode or two off, but for a simple premise it never truly feels drawn out and the tension remains high throughout the proceedings.

As for the mystery behind the killer, Harper's Island manages to keep the audience guessing for most of the series as to who the actual culprit is. There are quite a few red herrings - some more glaringly obvious than others - and the writers also throw a few twists and turns to throw suspicion off from one person to the next. The build-up pays off, however; not only did the reveal surprise me, but thankfully the motives also made sense within the context of the show.

Harper's Island manages to take what horror fans love most about slasher movies and improves upon them, not only with elaborate, messy kills, but also an exciting story and characters that are easily identifable. It's a shame there won't be a Harper's Island 2 on the horizon, as the series' end doesn't lend itself to a sequel. But as a self-contained story, the show is an extremely satisfying guilty pleasure, one that I'll happily revisit again one day.


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