Now available on DVD
Directed by: Jon Turteltaub (and others)
Harper’s Island is your favorite junk food. It is familiar and unsurprising and not good for you, but you keep coming back to it for the very same reasons. You like how it tastes, you know what you are going to get, and the fact that it’s not good for you is part of the pleasure. Sometimes you just want to indulge a little bit.
Back in April of this year, when CBS originally aired Harper’s Island, I decided to give it a shot. I didn’t expect much, mainly because network television is not exactly known for producing stellar horror these days. After watching the first two episodes, I threw in the towel. It’s not that I thought it was a terrible show; at the time it just didn’t strike me as something I needed to make time for.
I should have stuck with it. Maybe the lack of commercials and the ability to watch it at my own pace made a difference, or maybe I quit too early the first time around. Whatever the reasons, this time I found myself totally absorbed by the fourth episode. Harper’s Island is a fairly predictable but violent, twisted and morbidly fun ride. Kudos to creator Ari Schlossberg (Hide and Seek) and the writing staff for concocting a mostly engrossing nine-hour slasher. It’s a shame the show couldn’t find the audience it deserved.
Poor boy Henry (Christopher Gorham) and rich girl Trish (Katie Cassidy) are getting married. They have decided to tie the knot on Harper’s Island, located 37 miles off the coast of Seattle. Friends and family have gathered for the occasion, including Henry’s childhood best friend Abby (Elaine Cassidy), who has not been to the island since a tragedy took place nearly a decade earlier. Seven years ago a man named John Wakefield slaughtered six people on the island, including Abby’s mother. Her father, Sheriff Mills (Jim Beaver), shot and killed him before sending Abby away to try and recover from it.
Seven years later, the island is grateful for the joyous event. It hasn’t been easy for the locals and they appreciate the distraction. Of course, they won’t be grateful for long. Someone is killing again. One by one, they are picking people off. Is it John Wakefield, or a copycat killer? Or could it be neither of those?
What marks Harper’s Island as a good show is the fact that when an episode ended I couldn’t wait to get to the next one. Once it finds solid ground right around episode four, Harper’s Island is a whole lot of fun, until it crashes and burns a little near the conclusion. For the majority of its midsection, the mystery is real and well-established. It is hard to imagine someone being able to figure out what is really going on outside of a wild and lucky guess. While any seasoned horror fan will realize that most of the potential suspects are obvious red herrings, it is still fun to play guess the killer and watch as people are picked off one at a time.
Speaking of people getting picked off, horror fans will be both pleasantly surprised and pleased by the carnage on hand. Victims are cut in half, decapitated, shot, burned, impaled, stabbed and hung. Sometimes I was astonished by how much is actually shown. This is no PG-13, Prom Night remake violence here. This show is proudly bloody.
The location is a big plus and the ideal setting for a show like this. Stunning but also isolated and imposing, especially at night, it offers plenty of locations for people to hide or be killed without witnesses. The Candlewick Inn, where most of the action takes place, is also a great setting. It is appropriately large and offers cool features like underground tunnels.
Unfortunately, it was too good to last. The show stumbles near the end and certainly has its share of flaws (most of which are easy to overlook). It takes everyone way too long to figure out that people are being murdered. Characters do really stupid things like walk around at night alone despite knowing a killer is on the loose. Who is killed and the order in which it happens offers few surprises. Henry’s friends and their pseudo-macho blather are quite annoying. Also, island residents sort of come and go as needed. For an early bar scene, there are dozens of them, plus the inn has a large staff. Later on, when it needs to be just the main group running for their lives, no one is around.
Later episodes drag a little as well. One has characters walk through tunnels for nearly the entire running time. It feels like padding and 10 episodes probably would have been perfect for the material. The resolution is also a letdown. It can’t compete with the excellent build up.
None of the flaws can prevent Harper’s Island from being a satisfying viewing experience. Better than most of what passes for theatrical horror these days, it should please any fan of the genre. We get great kills, spooky locations, a genuine sense of dread, and lead characters to at least mildly care about. It doesn’t redefine the genre, but it doesn’t try to. Definitely worth giving a chance.