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Old 08-26-2009, 02:58 AM
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Harper's Island




Reviewer: Rhett
Review Date: August 25, 2009

Released by: Paramount/CBS
Release date: 9/9/2009
MSRP: $42.99
Region 1, NTSC
Progressive Scan
Widescreen 1.78:1 | 16x9: Yes
2009



inline ImageWhodunit television as we know it today was probably conceived when pop culture the world over wondered just who shot J.R. on popular nighttime soap Dallas. After that cliffhanger, they coddled the mystery for another four episodes, leaving people guessing, in suspense and just generally frantic to figure out how it would all come together. It took about ten years, but Twin Peaks finally took that Dallas plot thread and pushed it to the center, where the entire series was solely about discovering who wrapped young Laura Palmer in plastic. Of course with David Lynch behind it it ended up becoming so much more and less all at the same time, but regardless of how surreal it got, fans still demanded an answer. Special Agent Cooper’s appraisal of pie certainly had its followers, but quickly pop culture tired of Twin Peaks when it strayed away from the formula that brought it first into the mainstream.

inline ImageWhile there were certainly shows since inspired by the Twin Peaks mold, like Push, Nevada, it proved more to be a creative one-off than the lasting genre that showed so much promise in the Dallas days. Along came Harper’s Island earlier this year to change all that, though, with the simple premise of a murder an episode as a killer stalks an island wedding party. No season cliffhangers, just a slasher whodunit spread lightly over 13 episodes. The formula seemed to work for TV, but how does it transition to home video. Does it become the most long-winded slasher in history with redundant recaps from episode to episode, or does the guaranteed quota of grisly deaths it still translate to good entertainment? Let the island lighthouse shine light on the truth!

The Story

inline ImageWhere would you have your dream wedding? Maui? Paris? Thailand? How about a small island community with a history of mass murder? Yeah, didn’t think so, but apparently Trish Wellington (Katie Cassidy, remake queen from When a Stranger Calls, Black Xmas, and A Nightmare on Elm Street) and her nice guy fiancée Henry Dunn (Christopher Gorham) thought Harper’s Island the perfect place to tie the knot. She’s rich, he’s not, and with that comes a disapproving father, a jealous ex-boyfriend, some wonky locals and a bunch of frat boys and sorority babes bent on having a good time. Yet, like Woodsboro in Scream, the devastating mass murder has far from washed from the island shores.

inline ImageSeven years ago, ex-con John Wakefield (Callum Keith Rennie, eXistenZ, Memento) murdered six people out of sexual jealousy. Included in the batch was the mother of Henry’s best friend, Abby (Elaine Cassidy, Felicia's Journey). This means that no matter how happy Abby should be for Best Friend Henry’s wedding, she will instead lemon face pout like Neve Campbell throughout Scream. Since the murders everyone had apparently went on with their lives, rejoining at the island only now for the wedding. With the rendezvous old memories come to the fore, with Abby and Henry remembering their little love trysts as kids, and some vicious killer remembering that murder comes with the territory at Harper’s Island.

inline ImageAs the cast of victims rises so too do the suspects as each person gets it, one by one, by a shadowed killer. Impalement by chandelier, roasting by furnace, evisceration by boat propeller, plunge from a bridge and hung from a tree, the twentysomethings looking tie one on while tying the knot are about to get wound in to the grave. Father’s will emerge and deceive, daughters will die and sisters will kiss brothers while old legends come back to life. Who’s the killer, who’s left and who’s next?

inline ImageHarper’s Island is the show that ABC always wanted Twin Peaks to be back when they picked it up in ’92. A whodunit they actually care to answer, with sex and murder by the episode. It has some twists and turns along the way but never treads into any high brow diversions. Like a slasher, you know what to expect and as long as the murders keep coming at a steady rate there aren’t many complaints. Many of the kills are either elaborately constructed or surprisingly grisly for television, certainly pushing the boundaries of network television. It usually cuts before any major grue, or at least cuts to a wide shot, but there is plenty of blood thrown about and fun to be had.

inline ImageInitially, the story seems pretty hackneyed and blaise, with way too many superfluous characters. Knowing all those punks would eventually be turned into victims makes some of the trite TV talk bearable, and once the series gets into its final episodes the intensity really picks up. It’s interesting to watch a slasher done over nine hours - the chase scene ends up being four episodes and then the requisite traumatic childhood flashback another one to its own. While the twists and turns in the story may not be original – it’s a shuffled deck of clichés, the format sort of is, and it’s comforting in its consistency of delivering slash by the hour.

inline ImageThe big budget allotted to Harper’s Island allows the series to utilize some effective set pieces and locations, gore scenes and steadicam shots. The acting is all on the good end of television, too, with a few actors that have certainly been around in horror. The one thing it doesn’t have over all the zero-grade, low-budget slashers before it though, is that madcap sense that nothing is off limits. In The Burning or Sledgehammer or even Prom Night, the stories would often jut out into the craziest of directions, giving the killer complex psychological perversions and the deaths a feral intensity. Being from the studio, though, Harper’s Island always feels calculated and never dares to take any risks. When the killer is revealed and the mystery is solved, there’s not that unrelenting fear that Madman Marz is still lurking, or that the psychological effects of The Prowler will remain. Everything is wrapped up with a nice, sentimental bow, even vindicating the killer should any couch potato feel even the faintest tinge of guilt.

inline ImageHarper’s Island has its moments, and accolades must be given to the overall premise. It’s a fun transfusion of the slasher from the big screen to the small. Yet, the clichéd and calculated approach to plot development and scare construction still leaves much to be desired. If anything, Harper’s Island will stand as an intermittently entertaining reminder that network television still can’t do horror. Hell, cable is still way more hit than miss. When there are advertisers to appease and demographics to target, there’s no way horror can dig deep and make an impact. It can entertain, but just as quickly it can be forgotten. And for Harper’s Island, the tide’s already rising.

Image Quality

inline ImageOn average there is over 3-hours of video per each of the four discs, and that unfortunately takes its toll on the video side of the presentation. Harper’s Island is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widscreen, as it was broadcast, but has been highly compressed for this DVD release. The average bitrate clocks in at around 3.5 Mbps, well below the norm of 6. There aren’t as many compression artifacts as there should be from that compression rate, but still the overall image is very lacking in sharpness and detail because of the space constraints. Colors don’t exactly pop off the screen either, although it’s tough to gauge whether that’s due to the transfer or the fact that the series was mostly shot during cold, overcast days. The visuals are nice and clean but just not very flattering on the whole.

Sound

inline ImageThe sound on Harper’s Island is better, with a pretty deep 5.1 Dolby Digital mix in addition to a surround option. There are a few directional effects, particularly when knives are swung or traps executed, and overall the LFE had a decent presence. Dialogue is clear and mixed well with the other audible elements. Overall a strong mix to turn up for that late night ambiance.



Supplemental Material

inline ImageIt may not look like much with all four single-sided discs stuffed in a regular alpha case, but Harper’s Island is pretty packed with extras. There is around three hours of exclusive video footage, from deleted scenes to featurettes and even a full season web series. With commentaries, commercials and more, this is a robust release. First thing, the commentaries. There are four commentaries total, and each with a different assortment of cast and crew. They are always in positive PR mode, so everything they say about the series is self-congratulatory, which can get fairly annoying. At the same time, though, they really do dissect the episodes and offer up good insight on how all the elements come together to construct scares and story. Not enough time is spent on the actual behind-the-scenes process itself, since again it’s mostly fluff, but at least there’s a good featurette for that.

inline ImageThe next big extra is a 30-minute making-of that really does a good job encapsulating the entire production of the series. It is handily broken into segments by episode, so it can morph and elaborate on the specific challenges that faced each new week of filming. All aspects of production, from acting to death effects and wardrobe and directing are all covered. All the interviews with cast and crew are captured in real-time on the set, so there’s a greater level of immediacy and honesty to what the crew is saying. It would have been nice to see the writing and editing process, too though, since the nature of a show like this is to be both very secretive but also to have a pretty planned out scope to how things are going to unfold. It would have been interesting to explore that balance. Still, very well made and more revealing than the glossy commentaries.

inline ImageMore interesting than entertaining is the viral web series, Harper’s Globe. Designed to be a sort of online teaser for the eventual television show, Globe follows a young intern commissioned to digitize the island’s old newspapers and to try and boost community interaction by uploading personal videos to the Globe’s website. It starts off simple enough, with the host detailing trite observations about life, love and travel. So she uploads these bits for character development and exposition while another person by the alias “Dangerous Wreck” conveniently uploads dark Blair Witch-esque videos of murder, torture and just genuine mayhem. Eventually the host sees them and starts to get scared, but basically she continues on video blogging throughout and only near the finale is she forced to really fight her way to survive. There are 16 episodes in total, and most run about 6-minutes. The resolve is moderately entertaining, but it’s mostly just boring filler throughout. This series was done by the same people who were behind the whole “lonelygirl15” YouTube phenomenon from a few years back. Lightning doesn’t strike twice here, but it’s nice they included this hour and some bit of original content.

inline ImageThe next featurette is “Casting Harper’s Island” which explores, well, yeah. In 20-minutes it basically goes through the 25 strong cast list and talks about how the characters were conceived, what they were looking for in casting and ultimately how the cast was hired. Some were chosen by physical audition, some merely by tape, and a few even by reputation alone. The majority of cast members have their audition tapes included in this piece as well, so it really gives a nice look into how actors tackle the whole audition process. Like the making-of, this is a meaty and entertaining extra.

The short and amusing “The Grim Reaper” talks about the executive producer and how he’s the one who has to inform each cast member when it’s their time to die. Since the scripts were kept under wraps throughout, none of the actors ever knew when they were dying until a day or two before. This helped with performance and with keeping the mystery, but also made it tough for the actors to line up future gigs and to plan their lives. In a way it was like a weird little game for the actors themselves, and that irony is captured in this fun short.

Building on the truth behind the previous extra, “Guess Who?” is another short piece that this time asks the cast and crew who they think the actual killer is. There are many guesses and eventually as the filming goes on they start to figure it out, so if you haven’t watched the finale yet, don’t watch this!

inline ImageThe set is rounded off with a bunch of deleted scenes that are grouped with each respective episode. There is usually one or two an segment, and they are mostly bulkier dialogue scenes that have been trimmed down or altogether omitted. There are a few naughties on there too, like a sex scene between the to be marrieds. Lastly, there are some effective promos included on the first disc. Each one is quite different than the last, and they definitely did their job, since the show opened up to big ratings (10 million viewers) before quickly dropping off to around 3.5 for the rest of the run.


Final Thoughts

inline ImageHarper’s Island is an enjoyable slasher mini-series experiment with a series-long bodycount that puts any single Friday the 13th to shame. Granted, it has an extra 7 ½ hours over any Jason flick, but still the murders are well thought out and occasionally quite brutal, especially for network television. The biggest flaw is that it is from national television, so the characters are cliché, the stories pandering and the overall resolve too safe to leave any residual impact. Still, Paramount has done a fine job populating this island with a bunch of different and interesting extras – a robust 6 or so hours worth. The video suffers from all the episodes and extras crammed onto each disc, but the 5.1 sound is at least pretty good. If the idea of a serial slasher sounds swell, then take a trip out to Harper’s. Otherwise, a journey to Twin Peaks or even The Forest will leave a greater impact.

Rating

.
Series - C+

Image Quality - C

Sound - B+

Supplements - B+





Technical Info.
  • Color
  • Running time - 9 hours 1 minute
  • Not Rated
  • 1 Disc
  • Chapter Stops
  • English Dolby Digital 5.1
  • English Dolby Surround 2.0

Supplements
  • Audio commentaries by cast and crew on 4 episodes
  • CBS Network On-Air promos
  • Harper's Globe web series (16 episodes)
  • Deleted scenes
  • "Casting Harper's Island" featurette
  • "One by One: The Making of Harper's Island" featurette
  • "Guess Who?" featurette
  • "The Grim Reaper" featurette

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Old 08-26-2009, 11:52 PM
Don't Monkey With Me!
This could have been a GREAT show!! I loved it until the last few episodes and HATED the conclusion.
 
 
Old 08-27-2009, 10:50 PM
Pay the price!
Thanks for the review. I really enjoyed this and can see it being a fun serial to re-visit every so often.
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