Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Harbinger Down (2015)

Life is unfair. Sometimes no matter how hard you try, or how good your intentions are, you will fail. A football coach can walk into a locker room and give a motivational speech that rivals that of Al Pacino in Any Given Sunday, telling his players that as long as you have heart and determination you will prevail; his team can all rally together, high-fiving a fist pumping as they run out onto the field ready for anything. Unfortunately, if they don't know how to throw or catch a football and wear their cleats on the wrong feet, they will still lose by 50 and embarrass themselves.

That is the story of Harbinger Down.

I suppose it would be best to start out with an explanation of how this movie came to be, seeing as the process of getting this movie made is far more interesting than what they ultimately released: In 2011, the prequel The Thing was released in theaters to lukewarm reviews. I enjoyed is well enough, but I thought it was basically mediocre at best. Part of the reason for this was the complete overuse of sub par CGI to create the creature effects. After the films release, a behind-the-scenes video surfaced of practical creature effects that were originally made for the film. These effects looked far better than anything featured in the final release of the movie, even in their unfinished state. Mindbogglingly, the studio chose to not use these shots and instead covered them up with post-production CGI or removed them completely. This of course pissed off many fans of the original John Carpenter film from 1982, as that film features what many believe, myself included, to be the best practical effects ever put on screen, even to this day. So people wondered what happened to all those unused creature effects, and the special effects team that created them, ADI, had a plan. They decided to start a Kickstarter campaign to raise money to produce their own film using what they had created. Genre fans loved the idea of this and backed the campaign by raising almost four hundred thousand dollars. So finally, after having their work thrown out by Universal Studios, they had enough funding to move forward with their own vision, and Harbinger Down went into production.

The problems with this movie are apparent and abundant, but the first one I talk about has to be the script. To call this movie a ripoff would be a disservice to the word "ripoff". It follows the plot of John Carpenter's The Thing so closely that I can literally imagine the writers reading that film's Wikipedia page and just erasing certain words and replacing them another. Just take out "research station" and replace it with "fishing vessel", erase "alien spaceship" and add in "Russian satellite". The basic story is that there is a alien organism on a crab boat that spreads like a disease and mutates the host once infected, and it can take the form of whatever it has absorbed. If you've seen The Thing, you know this story, it just adds in a Russian spy for good measure. The movie even starts with almost the exact same shot, establishing to beginning of the story. I'm sure much of this was done on purpose, since the movie is a kind of homage to that film, but it's very distracting nonetheless.
Besides the rehashed storyline, the movie is brought down by a combination of several very common problems that low budget horror releases suffer from, and one very bizarre fatal flaw. The first thing that jumps out at you is the painfully bad acting that is on display. Several of the actors seem as if they were just random people who wandered onto the set and decided to try and make a movie. Our lead actress may be the worst of all, delivering every line like a Miss America contestant trying to bullshit her way through a question about foreign policy. The only exception is Lance Henrikson, who has made a living at this stage in his career making glorified cameos in 15-20 shitty horror movies a year. 

Although the acting is almost universally terrible, it's hard to really fault the actors, as they are given almost no good material to work with. The writing is all over the place, and the dialogue is cringe worthy across the board. The writers don't seem to know how to make us care about any of the characters. One instance that stuck out to me was a scene where a man is locked in a cage because something suspects him of being infected. She is getting ready to burn him alive, and he is begging for his life, because at that point he had shown no signs of being infected. So instead of letting her torch him and have the audience react to an innocent man being burned alive, they have him morph into his creature-like state right before she decides to roast him. Not only does this ruin the surprise of him actually being an alien, but it takes all the punch out of the situation. I understand that he in fact was infected, but just waiting a few extra seconds to let the audience THINK that he actually was normal would have added a ton of emotional weight to the scene. This is just one example, but I felt this way throughout many scenes in this movie, that it was trying to do the right thing, but it managed to fuck it up ever so slightly.

Bad writing and acting aside, the real meat of this movie is the special effects work. All could be forgiven as long as the creature designs, animatronics, and practical effects delivered. This brings us to the most baffling, and in turn, fascinating, aspect of the movie: You can not see the effects. Honestly, that is the simplest way to put it. Every shot in the movie that features any kind of monster is shot in either fast-motion, blurred beyond recognition, or in such low light that it can not be distinguished. How did this happen? The entire reason for the movie's existence was to show off these creature effects, and in the final product that seems like the last thing they wanted to do. It's almost as if the director, Alec Gillis, didn't think very highly of his own special effects work, and decided to hide it from the audience, but that contradicts the entire reason for the movie being made in the first place. I suppose I could just lay the blame on incompetent directing, but I honestly thought the rest of the movie was shot just fine. It had a slick look to it, especially considering the small budget, and there were several well framed shots throughout, particularly during the final scenes. It felt like I was watching the movie on Blu-ray and then out of nowhere it switches to footage taken on a cell phone 10 years ago. Whatever the reason, this had me scratching my head, and it was a complete missed opportunity to redeem the film.

I think it's pretty obvious that I walked away from Harbinger Down extremely disappointed, but I would like to make one thing clear; I wanted to love this movie. The movie turned out bad, yes, but there were many reason for this that were frankly out of their control. They didn't have the means to hire the right people to make this movie great, even though they clearly wanted it to be. I was rooting for this movie. At it's core, this movie represents everything that I enjoy about that genre. Unlike most major releases nowadays, I believe that this movie was made for all the right reasons and the filmmakers hearts were in the right place when they decided to take on the task of trying to independently produce something for creativity's sake. They tried to make a movie funded by the actual people who enjoy these types of movies, but it just wasn't enough. The sad reality is that in order to fulfill your vision, you have to deal with out of touch executives that probably haven't watched a full movie in years. These are the same people who decided to throw out all of the hard work that was put in by these artists on the 2011 The Thing and turn it all into a DVD bonus feature. These are the people that make the decisions that should be made by creative people, and the audience suffers. At the end of the day, I did not enjoy Harbinger Down, but I do respect it. It's a great reminder that nowadays in filmmaking you have to decide between going it alone and risking failure, or accepting your fate of being brutally assimilated into the Hollywood machine.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

King Cobra (1999)

Back when video stores still existed, the method I used for picking out my rentals was pretty basic: was there something badass on the cover? This was a pretty unpredictable system even back then, and it would be basically useless today. But in the late 90's, it still could sometimes work, this was before today when half the time you're lucky if whatever photoshopped creature on the cover even appeared in the movie at all. So when I saw the giant Cobra on the cover of this VHS tape, I took a chance on it. Using this blind method, over the years, I watched a lot of movies I hated, I discovered a few that ended up being some of my all time favorites, and I saw a couple that were memorable just because of how stupid they were. King Cobra falls into the last category.

King Cobra the story of a deranged, misguided group of scientists who, in their attempt to make some kind of vaccine, instead make a horrible, chemically altered abomination that is a horrific mutation of what it was meant to be:

Oddly, the movie opts to abandon this plot line and instead follows some giant snake that escapes from the same lab. 

The majority of the running time for this movie is plotted like a poor man's JAWS, only with a cobra. The creature escapes to a small town and slowly people start getting killed. An autopsy reveals that one of the victims was killed with massive amounts of venom from a poisonous snake. So the townspeople understandably start getting scared of what might be out in the woods. Of course, since this movie is clearly ripping off JAWS, there has to be some kind of event that brings droves of people into the town for the creature to kill. Well, this particular town is known for its yearly beer festival, and the residents urge the mayor to call it off, due to possibility of a goddamn 30 foot cobra in the woods. Remember the scene in JAWS where the mayor refuses to close the beaches because he says it would cripple the economy of the town? Well, the mayor's reasoning in this movie isn't quite as sound. His reasoning was something along the lines of "Everyone will be hammered anyways, so who gives a shit?". And of course, no ripoff would be complete without also bringing in an "expert hunter" that specializes in snakes to come in and help them capture the animal, but more on that later. 


Drunk mayors aside, the plot is pretty basic. What makes the movie better than other similar ones of the era is the fact that the snake design is practical and not CGI, which starting getting extremely popular during the time this was made. It was made by the Chiodo brothers, which are the same guys that did Critters and Killer Klowns From Outer Space, among many others from the 80's and 90's. It's not there best work, but it easily looks better than say, for example, Python, which was released a year later, done completely in CGI, and looked like complete shit and has aged even worse. I find it sad the movies that used animatronics and puppetry 20 or 30 years ago still look good (even bad low budget horror movies from 1999), and CGI ages terribly basically across the board, outside of Jurrasic Park, and a few other rare exceptions, and yet computer animation has become the standard for almost all horror movies made today. A fun activity is to pick out a movie you loved as a kid that featured computer generated effects, and then cry when you realize just how terrible it looks today. A shitty movie called King Cobra probably looks better.

As I mentioned before, the movie introduces a snake expert that helps hunt the cobra and hopefully capture it. This is the other aspect of the film that was quite entertaining to me, because the snake hunter is played by Pat Morita, aka Mr. Miyagi from The Karate Kid. Do you remember when Mr. Miyagi kicked the leader of the Cobra Kai's ass? That scene was awesome, but at the time, I couldn't get the thought out of my head that it would have been even more awesome if he just fought an actual cobra instead. Luckily, the casting director felt the same way. Unfortunately they miss a huge opportunity by having the snake get drop kicked in the face by a character other than Pat Morita. That had to have known that they were screwing with the audience. You have a movie with Pat Morita fighting a giant snake, someone uses kung-fu on the fucking thing, and it NOT Mr. Miyagi?! Anyways, his character ends up being pretty annoying by the end, but it was still a cool visual to see him squaring off with a giant snake, even though they don't properly pay it off (like with a drop kick).

This movie isn't great but it's certainly better than a lot of the similar titles that were released at the time. The use of practical effects again elevate an otherwise forgettable horror movie to a pretty enjoyable one. Like I said about Project: Metalbeast, it's a good movie to put on while you drink some beers with friends. It keeps up the pace and there are some genuinely goofy moments that will have you laughing your ass off. Now that I've seen the King Cobra fight Mr. Miyagi, I'd love to see him take on some other celebrities, like The Rock, that would be awesome. Or wait, even better, he can fight The Rock as The Scorpion King, the character he played in the 2002 big-budget blockbuster! I loved that movie as a kid!