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Wednesday, September 16, 2009
  DVD Review: Harper's Island

Harper’s Island is a shining example of an absolutely brilliant idea completely botched in the execution. The premise – a self-contained, 13-episode murder mystery in which dozens of characters are killed off one at a time – is a phenomenal idea. But the people behind Harper’s Island seem to have little or no understanding of the mechanics of the slasher movies they’re attempting to emulate (albeit for network television, so they’re unfortunately starting with one hand tied behind their proverbial backs), and virtually no ability to properly build tension beyond superficial jump scares. Harper’s Island was an intensely frustrating viewing experience because of all the things the show does wrong, while a great idea filled with promise is sitting right there waiting to be properly executed.

Harper’s Island follows a wedding on a secluded island off the coast of Washington state that was the scene of a brutal series of murders seven years earlier. Naturally, the main character, Abby (Elaine Cassidy), has a very personal connection to the previous murders – her dad is the local sheriff and her mom was one of the victims – and has spent the past seven years in Los Angeles trying to forget her gruesome past. She returns to Harper’s Island for the wedding of her best friend, Henry (Christopher Gorham of Ugly Betty fame) and his wealthy heiress fiancée, Trish (Katie Cassidy, no relation), and finds herself, along with the rest of the wedding party, the targets of a new series of murders that echo the prior slayings. It’s a great premise – a wedding party of 25-plus characters getting picked off one by one as the viewer tries to figure out which one is the killer – and I was actually quite interested to sit down and watch Harper’s Island. So where does it all go wrong?

It actually starts off quite poorly. The first few episodes have an overheated, primetime-soap vibe (it somehow manages to simultaneously be over-the-top silly and totally straight-faced) that’s not even campy or fun, just bad. The first few hours are mostly devoted to introducing the paper-thin, clichéd characters, like Henry’s gang of buddies, straight out of central casting for a crappy beer commercial, or the effete, wussy British boyfriend of the token flirt/skank, or Trish’s evil, scenery-chewing, father (who would totally twirl his mustache in every scene if he had one), who seems like he stepped out of another, far more fun show. The producers seem to be shooting for Scream, but they hit somewhere closer to The Young and the Restless with graphic murders.

Fans of horror movies know that creative kills are one of the most integral parts of an enjoyable slasher experience, but the kills in Harper’s Island are just sort of stock, and nowhere near as clever or fun as the producers seem to think they are. Granted, the fun in slasher movies is usually largely because the films are so graphic, and they can’t really do graphic on a show that ran in primetime on CBS. But there’s also a sense of fun to slasher movies that Harper’s Island totally lacks. Slasher movies, even ones with a “whodunit” angle, like the Scream saga (chunks of which the producers lift wholesale, and the nautical-themed killer was already done in the mediocre I Know What You Did Last Summer franchise), are typically fun to watch, but for some reason Harper’s Island opts for a gritty, realistic sense of dread, and it simply doesn’t work. To make a slasher movie seem dark, you have to go really dark, into Halloween territory (either the John Carpenter original or the Rob Zombie remake, pick one), and that’s (a) far too oppressive a tone to maintain for 13 episodes, and (b) even less possible to pull off on network television. So Harper’s Island falls into the awkward middle of trying to pull off a dark, serious vibe (but still mixes in awkward, tacked-on comedy bits in a transparent effort to lighten things up) along with wacky kills, that, because of the aforementioned tone, just come across as overly elaborate and silly.

Yet for all my complaining about Harper’s Island – I made this weird sort of half-groan, half-sigh about 500 times while watching the show, usually at the latest dumb plot twist – I can’t pretend it didn’t get its hooks into me at least somewhat. I won’t spoil anything, but something happens around the fifth episode that changes the direction of the show; basically it’s the point at which all the characters come to understand that they’re being stalked by a killer (up until then people were being picked off without the others knowing), and from there the show gains a bit of momentum. Most whodunits can maintain at least some viewer interest, if based in nothing more than curiosity to find out what happens next and who the killer is, and Harper’s Island is no different. (I actually ended up correctly predicting the killer’s identity in about the second episode, not because I’m a genius but rather because I’ve seen enough movies to see through all the little red herrings the producers and writers tried to use, but I still wanted to find out if I was right and see what the explanation for his/her motives would be. I was ultimately unimpressed.) But I ended up tearing through Harper’s Island’s 13 episodes (about 9 hours of television in all) in a couple of days, and more than once I did the thing where I ended up watching two or three episodes in a sitting than I planned to, even if I was scoffing loudly most of the time.

Overall Harper’s Island is a failure, albeit an ambitious one. I usually have a soft spot for movies and shows that bite off more than they can chew, but in this case the pitfalls the show falls into are totally avoidable. There’s no reason beyond the producers’ lack of understanding of the genre they were attempting to play in that Harper’s Island shouldn’t have worked much, much better. It tries to be too many things at once – a primetime soap, a murder mystery, a long-form slasher movie – that it can’t make up its mind what it’s trying to be. Add to that the fact that anyone who’s seen the Scream movies will see just about all the twists coming a mile away, and I have to classify Harper’s Island as a disappointing failure.



As much as the show Harper’s Island didn’t work, I can’t fault the people behind the DVD edition for skimping on extras. There’s deleted scenes and commentary from the producers and writers on four of the episodes (including the first and last), which is sort of interesting if only because they largely seem to think they were successful in their endeavor – though I caught at least one semi-bitter crack about how frustrated they were by the constraints of working in network TV – as well as featurettes on the casting and production. There’s also a cute bit in which the cast members are questioned on the set about who they think the killer will be revealed to be (the writers kept them all in the dark as much as possible), and another segment called ‘The Grim Reaper,’ about the producer who had the task of informing each of the actors that their character was being killed off, and the lengths some actors went to to avoid him. It’s a fairly solid DVD set, it’s just a shame the show it’s built around isn’t better.

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