The crabbing ship Harbinger is in the frozen far north, the Bering Sea, crewed by a rough band of misfits and hosting a group of graduate students doing research on Orca migration patterns when it recovers wreckage from a secret Soviet space mission. With a dead cosmonaut inside. And the creature that killed it.
The ship is captained by scroungy old sea dog Graff (Lance Henriksen) and the group of grad students is led by his granddaughter Sadie (Camille Balsamo), though the senior researcher on the ship is Stephen (Matt Winston). The crew includes hulking “Big G” (Winston James Francis) and the Russian with an anger management issue Svet (Milla Bjorn).
The real star of the movie is the shape-shifting tentacled creature that at times looks like something out of Alien, other times like the titular creature from The Blob and by the final climactic scenes like a really angry Portuguese man o’ war. And unlike almost every other modern sci-fi or horror film, the creature isn’t made out of bits and bytes but actual animatronics, models and physical effects.
The crew and cast are all experienced hands in the film business, and most of them have been involved in classic horror films like Alien, The Thing or sci-fi action films like Predator, Jurassic Park, and Starship Troopers. In fact, Harbinger Down was funded through a Kickstarter campaign where writer/director Alec Gillis shared his belief in the greater effect of physical horror rather than CG effects. It struck a chord and the film landed 3,066 backers who collectively pledged almost $385,000 to help bring the project to life.
Gillis then converted a warehouse in Los Angeles to the interior sets needed for the dark, dirty ship. He shares some of the challenges in the production notes: “Using a combination of re-purposed set flats and found objects (set dressing came from an airplane graveyard in the Mojave) I worked with the set builders to create the ultra-convincing interior environment of the crabbing ship, Harbinger.” Some in-camera illusions were simple but effective: for cold weather vapor breath the actors inhaled non-nicotine vegetable oil E-cigarettes, giving the illusion of an arctic environment. In old school fashion, Gillis eschewed green screens and built the actors actual environments in which to immerse themselves, which translates into better performances.”
Simple as it may be, it’s the simplicity of the dark, oppressive ship trapped in the icy waters of the Bering Sea, the crew having to figure out what’s attacking them and how to defend themselves even as it keeps changing shape and circumventing their traps that makes this a great film for horror aficionados. Don’t expect anything amazing in the genre, however. Harbinger Down is a fun retro sci-fi/horror film in the spirit of The Thing, with a bit of Alien and The Blob thrown in for good effect but there’s nothing really stand-out about the movie, the characters are mostly cliché, the Russian subplot is cartoonish and there’s not much story that hasn’t been shown on screen before.
Still, In an age of computer-overlaid and computer synthesized special effects that can make up half the running time and 90% of the budget of a major release, the Kickstarter-funded Harbinger Down is a throwback to an earlier era of movies with no CG at all. And it’s fun. What else can you ask for?