Both movies under review here have something in common: they take an old school approach to special effects, forsaking CGI for practical make up and/or prosthetic effects. It’s an approach that had its heyday in the Eighties and early Nineties, but recently aficionados of this kind of “low-tech” way of movie making have made movies that celebrate all things rubbery, slimy and blood-drenched. Here are two such movies that employ rubber tubing and gruesome make up to splendidly gory effect.
Harbinger Down (2015) / D: Alec Gillis / 82m
Cast: Lance Henriksen, Camille Balsamo, Matt Winston, Reid Collums, Winston James Francis, Milla Bjorn, Giovonnie Samuels
On a crabbing trip to the Bering Sea, the ship Harbinger and its captain, Graff (Henriksen), play host to a group of research students looking into how global warming is affecting a pod of Beluga whales. Among the students is Graff’s granddaughter, Sadie (Balsamo). When she spots something in the ice, the crew haul it aboard. It turns out to be a Soviet space capsule with an astronaut remarkably well preserved inside. The capsule also contains tardigrades, micro-animals that can withstand extremes of temperature and the vacuum of space. Sadie does some tests on the tardigrades and discovers that they’ve been exposed to some sort of radiation and are now capable of mutating into any living form they come into contact with.
When the research group’s leader, Stephen (Winston) attempts to claim the capsule and its contents as space salvage, the astronaut’s disappearance further inflames his desire to receive the credit for its discovery. But as Sadie has surmised, the tardigrades are assimilating their new human hosts, and all thoughts of salvage rights and personal glory are abandoned when the first of them falls victim to the tardigrades’ capability for mutating. As one by one the research group and the crew fall victim to the creature that is growing on board the ship, loyalties are tested, secrets are revealed, and a desperate fight for survival ensues.
When the makers of The Thing (2011) decided to overlay CGI effects on the already filmed practical effects that represented the titular organism, the company that created those practical effects, ADI, decided that they would provide audiences with the chance to see their original designs and effects in another movie altogether. The result is Harbinger Down, and while their efforts are to be applauded, the finished product isn’t as impressive or persuasive as they may have hoped. Part of the reason for this can be laid at the door of the budget (part of which was funded by Kickstarter contributions), but mostly it’s down to Alec Gillis’s poorly constructed screenplay and sloppy direction. He may be a whiz when it comes to creating suitably fantastic and icky creatures, but away from his usual environment, the cracks soon show and once they do, the movie never recovers.
Considering that this is strictly speaking a reworking of both the 1982 and 2011 versions of The Thing, and Gillis is such an aforementioned whiz at the creature side of things, it’s dismaying to report that this particular incarnation is saddled with some really awkward dialogue (of the George Lucas variety*), characters that scream deliberate stereotype, situations that lack any tension or drama, performances that give new meaning to the term “barely adequate”, and worst of all, creature effects that are often shot in half light or obscured by rapid editing, leaving them on nodding terms with the words “unimpressive” and “dull”. It’s a shallow exercise in showing viewers how it should be done, and as hubristic a movie as you’re likely to see all year.
Rating: 3/10 – with long stretches that challenge the viewer to remain interested, Harbinger Down improves when Henriksen is on screen but flounders everywhere else; some Kickstarter investors may want to think about asking for their money back before it’s too late.
Charlie’s Farm (2014) / D: Chris Sun / 93m
Cast: Tara Reid, Nathan Jones, Allira Jaques, Bill Moseley, Kane Hodder, Dean Kirkright, Sam Coward, Genna Chanelle Hayes, David Beamish, Trudi Ross, Robert J. Mussett
Four friends – couple Natasha (Reid) and Jason (Kirkright), and singles Mick aka Donkey (Coward) and Melanie (Jaques) – agree to take a trip into the Outback in search of Charlie’s Farm, the site of several gruesome murders that were carried out by the Wilsons (Moseley, Ross) over thirty years ago. Legend has it that even though the Wilsons were killed by the local townsfolk, their retarded son Charlie got away and hasn’t been seen since… and may be the cause of a recent spate of disappearances involving backpackers and people curious enough to visit the farm and check out its tarnished history. When the group need directions they ask in a local bar but are told in no uncertain terms not to go to Charlie’s farm; Jason, who wants to go more than anyone else, eventually talks to his friend Tony (Hodder) who tells him the same thing before telling him where they need to head to.
When they finally reach the farm they’re unsurprised to find it’s rundown and uninhabited. They’re joined by another couple, Alyssa (Hayes) and Gordon (Beamish). They all spend the night, which proves uneventful, though Melanie thinks she saw someone when she woke briefly, but she can’t be sure if she was dreaming or not. Planning to leave the next day, Jason suggests they all split up into twos and explore the surrounding farmland. Alyssa and Gordon investigate an old equipment shed, Mick and Melanie end up taking a dip in the river, while Jason and Natasha’s roaming takes them, eventually, to the same equipment shed. It’s Alyssa and Gordon who are the first to discover that the legend is real, and that Charlie (Jones) is still alive, only now he’s a seven-foot brute of a killing machine, and intent on picking everyone off one by one.
An Aussie slasher movie in the mould of Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon and Hatchet (both 2006, and both featuring Kane Hodder), Charlie’s Farm builds its basic premise from the ground up by introducing its main characters and the murderously insane Wilsons in the movie’s slow-paced first half, and then allows itself to cut loose with some brutally effective killings courtesy of Charlie and various sharp implements (though he’s not afraid to get his hands dirty either). But while those movies had a rude, somewhat grimy atmosphere about them, Chris Sun’s third feature is yet another example – sadly – of how imitation doesn’t yield the same results, and rather than providing solid entertainment, adds yet one more disappointment to the list of cheap and nasty horror movies that get released each year.
The movie isn’t helped by many of the same things that hamper Harbinger Down, namely some awful dialogue, performances that are barely adequate (Kirkright is the worst offender), and situations that lack tension or drama (or both). Sun’s script also goes off on too many tangents, such as the bed that Alyssa and Gordon argue about, Melanie’s being unaware of many things that everyone else knows about (“Who’s Charles Manson?”), and the clumsy, laughable way in which Hodder is shoehorned into proceedings, and just so he can try and box his way to defeating Charlie (yes, you read that right: by boxing). Thankfully, the killings are much better than the rest of the movie and are genuinely impressive, with one character having their jaw ripped off, while another suffers death by penis (not a phrase you see too often in any movie review, let alone a horror movie review).
Rating: 4/10 – derivative and long-winded during the first hour, Charlie’s Farm pulls out all the stops for its kill scenes, and shows what Sun can do when he’s not trying to present ordinary people in an extraordinary situation; however, it lacks an ending, and while nihilism in horror movies isn’t exactly unheard of, this particular example smacks of its writer/director running out of ideas at the eighty-five minute mark.