Network TV and horror have definitely had a rocky relationship over the years. While borderline stuff like The Twilight Zone and Buffy the Vampire Slayer has enjoyed great success, pure horror has had a rough time. Shows like Kolchak the Night Stalker, American Gothic, and Brimstone all tend to fizzle before they’ve had a real chance, regardless of how good they may or may not be. Mystery whodunit series have always tended to perform better (although suburbia just couldn’t handle the surrealism of Twin Peaks, sadly), so it’s smart that Harper’s Island, a recent 13-episode serial, decided to mix the two together. In fact, it’s odd that it’s never been done before. Stretch the slasher formula over a series of episodes, with a promise of a new corpse in every one, and it’s likely you’ll keep the audience coming back. But, is Harper’s Island the type of retreat that’s worth coming back for?
It’s wedding time for Henry Dunn and Trish Wellington, and they’re inviting all of their family and friends for a weeklong retreat to Harper’s Island where they’ll be tying the knot. Henry grew up there and Trish’s father basically owns half of the place, so it’s an ideal spot. Well, it is if you ignore the fact that seven years earlier a mass murderer named John Wakefield went on a rampage there. He blew up the marina and killed six people, stringing them up in trees for all to see before the local sheriff shot him dead. One of the people Wakefield slaughtered was the sheriff’s wife, and their daughter, Abby, is reluctantly returning to the island for the first time since the incident to celebrate Henry’s, who is her best friend, big day.
Once Abby steps foot on the island however, she can’t shake the feeling that things still aren’t right. It doesn’t help matters that someone calls her cell playing a song that she associates with the past tragedy or that she finds a newspaper clipping of the Wakefield story stuck to a mirror in her hotel room. It also seems a little off that some of the people there for the wedding begin to disappear; but we know better, they haven’t just gone off and vanished. They’re dead. Once everyone realizes the island’s soil is still soaked with blood, everyone is a suspect. Could it be JD, Henry’s unstable brother who’s gone off his meds? Could it be Trish’s father, who will stop at nothing to get this wedding canceled, going so far as to secretly invite Trish’s ex-boyfriend in an attempt to sway her away from Henry? Is it that weird disfigured guy that keeps lurking in the woods? Or could John Wakefield still be alive?
Like most horror flicks, Harper’s Island starts off slow and builds increasingly over time, leading to an ideally satisfying climax. As a 13-episode series that amounts to a little over 9 hours total, that build just takes a little longer. There’s no denying that the first few episodes of the show, dead bodies and all, drags its feet. We meet the characters, a lot that feel superfluous (but will surprisingly build substance as the show moves on, if they live that is), and the little seeds of the overall mystery are planted here and there. To be honest, the opening episodes feel like nothing more than a soap opera with a handful of collateral damage. But then, when the first significant character expires (rather violently), the show gets its nails into you and refuses to let go. Well, that is until the final episode, but I’ll touch on that a bit later.
One of the most striking things about Harper’s Island is the surprising amount of violence and gore for a primetime network television show. Maybe it’s just been so long since I’ve seen something like this on one of the “Big Three”, but I was quite shocked to see such visceral bloodletting. You’ll be treated to everything from multiple severed heads, bodies sliced clean in half, craniums dissipating into brain-matter after shotgun blasts, and some nasty gut-skewering. It’s all rather PG-13 in the grand scheme of things, but seeing a primetime show that’s not shy to go for the jugular is nicely refreshing. It’s also cool to see that the creators have no bones about turning things on their head once in a while. For instance, while the person may not mean much to the average Joe, the character that meets their maker in the first episode is probably the most recognizable actor to TV junkies (my mom would have been disappointed!), proving right from the get-go that those behind the scenes aren’t afraid to off your favorite personality to keep you on your toes. It’s sort of akin to Drew Barrymore being slashed in the first 10 minutes of Scream, albeit on a much more minor scale.
Just because the show sets itself apart in this nasty respect doesn’t mean it’s all going to be different; you didn’t forget we’re dealing with a slasher, did you? Yes, Harper’s Island falls right into all of the same pitfalls and clichés you’ve come to expect from the genre: character’s doing the dumbest things in the face of danger, constantly splitting up, not pulling the trigger when they should have, the false scares; they’re all here for your consumption. But let’s be honest: after 30 years of this formula, you either have to turn the other cheek and go along for the ride or just turn your back on the genre altogether. The show also has a bit of a problem smoothing over all of the red herrings it tosses out there. There’s a couple that point the finger at someone, one in particular that makes someone look quite evil, and of course we find out these little indignities were used only to throw us off the scent of the real killer. Yet, we never find out what the person’s motivation was to do that terrible thing in the first place. These instances are all the more glaring when taking into account that some stuff going on is so meticulously planned.
And now, I suppose I’ll touch on that little cliffhanger I left you salivating over a couple paragraphs back: the final episode. If you know what’s good for you, and want Harper’s Island to leave a good taste in your mouth, just stop it all about 15 minutes before the ending of episode 12 (and then maybe watch the last 2 minutes of the final episode where a video is shown of all involved conveying well-wishes to the happy couple; it’s quite effective). Up to this point, everything is just fine, makes perfect sense, and doesn’t feel crowbarred in. But thanks to films like The Sixth Sense, the writers just can’t leave well enough alone. This is especially true when thinking of slashers, going all the way back to the mid-90s. It seems like there always has to be a twist. The maniac can’t JUST be a maniac anymore, or he has to have an accomplice that’s been hanging around all along. There has to be some “ah-ha!” moment wedged into the final act, and astonishingly no one in Hollywood has seemed to notice yet that 9 times out of 10 the stuff just doesn’t work. It’s particularly true with Harper’s Island; what we get before this twist is perfect. The maniac is evil, he has the perfect motivation, it’s fleshed out, it WORKS. But then the monkey wrench is tossed into the gears, and we’re left with only 45 minutes to map it all out to try and make some semblance, some justification for it. Sadly, there is none, other than an attempt by the writers to surprise the audience, and unless they thought said audience were born yesterday, stuff like this no longer creates eye-widened reactions…it’s just mind-numbingly frustrating.
That said, the actual process to get to this point, all the stuff you’ll experience before you feel like banging your head into the wall (dumb character moves aside), is damn good. You could very well let the final episode ruin your entire opinion of the show, as Harper’s Island is a finite series, more like a movie than a TV show, where the ending was in sight from the very beginning and should have been executed better, but if you can overlook it (and the pseudo-ending that comes before is pretty satisfying), there’s a lot to like about the show, especially if you’re a fan of the slasher genre. Even if it may not be perfect, Harper’s Island is a fun time-waster, especially for the fact that we’re not served up with this type of series on network TV very often and a successful run on DVD could mean more stuff like it in the future.
Harper’s Island comes to DVD in a 4-disc set courtesy of Paramount. The first two discs contain four episodes each, while the second two contain two and three episodes respectively. The bulk of the extras that aren’t deleted scenes are on the last two discs. The episodes are presented in their original 1.78:1 widescreen format and are anamorphically enhanced. Even though I’d generally say four 40+ minute episodes packed onto one disc is a little too much, they actually look pretty damn solid. Upconverted to 1080p on a 37” HDTV, they look really good, with nice color reproduction, crisp textures, and no artifacts to speak of. The 5.1 Dolby Digital audio is very good, with lots of directionality and immersion. Dialogue sounds nice and clear, and for those without a surround system, a 2.0 Dolby Digital track has also been included.
Extras that span all four discs include commentary on select episodes from the cast and crew as well as deleted scenes for various episodes. While some of these scenes were smartly cut, there’s a handful that I actually would have liked to have seen spliced into the episodes for this DVD release. They actually flesh out a couple of characters a bit better, and explain a few niggling hang-ups I had with people disappearing in the first few episodes. The third disc has all 16 parts of the Harper’s Globe web series which tells the tail of an intern working for the local newspaper that’s assigned to digitize all of their content as well as upload videos to their website. As (un)luck would have it, there’s also a freak uploading cryptic Blair Witch-esque videos to the site as well, and once she notices them she finds out the danger written about in the papers may not be over. The whole thing runs a little over an hour, and it’s not particularly good (going on for long periods with not much happening), but those that find themselves really into the main series may appreciate it more.
The fourth disc houses four extras: a 20-minute featurette on casting the series, a 30-minute making of piece, and two short diversions entitled “The Grim Reaper” and “Guess Who?” These two bits provide the most amusing entertainment, as they show the cast attempting to figure out who the killer is and also wondering when their time on the show will be up. The writers kept them in the dark until the final episode, so no one knew when they’d die or who was killing them. The latter two featurettes mentioned aren’t slouches either, as they provide some nice insight on creating the series (the making of is broken down episode-by-episode) and the interviews with the cast, right after takes and in the midst of shooting, really gives a sense of the enthusiasm from all involved. If you’re already a fan of the show and want to revisit the island all over again, this DVD edition will definitely serve you well.
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