October Horrorshow: Harbinger Down

Back in 2011, Amalgamated Dynamics, Inc., got screwed. ADI, an Academy Award winning practical effects company, had worked hard on the remake/prequel of The Thing. But, sometime during post-production, the decision was made to replace all of ADI’s work with CGI. The resulting effects were poorly received, and with good reason. They don’t look good. They’re the type of effects that make film buffs pine for the time before CGI was a thing, when makeup and puppetry were king in horror flicks. My biggest issue with the CGI is that it is clearly CGI. It never manages to cross over into believability. It looks like a cartoon is intruding into a live action movie.

The rejection of ADI’s work is a bit legendary in the horror universe. It certainly stung ADI, because they decided to retaliate, in sorts, by launching a Kickstarter project to fund a monster flick featuring their practical effects, with CGI limited to a supporting role. Their goal was to produce a film akin to Alien and the 1982 Thing (which ADI tried to pay homage to with their work on the 2011 version). They got the funding they needed, a paltry 350 grand, and set to work.

Any viewer of Harbinger Down, written and directed by ADI co-founder Alec Gillis, should be aware that the movie is more of a demo reel for ADI than it is a well-constructed film. The whole idea was to show the world that the producers of The Thing fucked up, and to restore whatever damage was done to ADI’s reputation by having their work overlaid with bad CGI. In that, it is a success. Although the creature designs in Harbinger Down could be better, how those designs are worked is where ADI shines. The effects look like real objects in a real setting, and show a professional quality that far outstrips the rest of the film. An apt comparison would be if one of those bad SyFy movies had great effects. There was just so little in the way of resources in this movie that, other than the effects, it shows. Again, that was kind of the point.

But there is a story in this film, and even some people to speak the lines.

Harbinger Down tells the story of a crew of crab fishermen and some research scientists who discover a downed Soviet-era spacecraft that has been frozen in Arctic ice for the last thirty years. They bring it onboard and thaw it out, hoping to discover something of either monetary, or scientific, value in the wreckage. When they do so, they inadvertently release a secret Soviet biological experiment — genetically enhanced tardigrades that bond together to form larger organisms. They attack and absorb other life forms, taking on some of their characteristics…kind of (the film goes back and forth on how much it rips off The Thing). Mostly, though, the monster’s job is just to look gross and show off ADI’s skills.

The monster, sometimes split into more than one creature, infects and/or kills the crew one by one in classic form. The amount of films that have a small cast being winnowed down in an isolated environment is many, and Harbinger Down can now be added to that list. Despite this being a well-worn trope of horror cinema (born of necessity, I think — so many of these types of flicks would collapse if they took place in the real, open world that we all inhabit), I never seem to grow tired of it. Neither do filmmakers, for that matter. But the scariest part of this flick came early, when it appeared it was going to be found footage. It was a frightening few minutes as I watched a shaky camera pan back and forth between a pair of the cast, and I worried that ADI had decided to obscure its effects with the kind of quick pan camera work and dark lighting one gets with found footage. Never fear, though, as that would have been a poor way for ADI to display their work. I don’t know the reason for such misdirection, but I couldn’t have been happier when the camera phone was replaced by something mounted on a tripod.

Harbinger Down is a shameless ripoff of John Carpenter’s version of The Thing, and it’s not all that good. However, that doesn’t matter. This film exists in service of its effects. There is no other reason for it to be. There is a fair amount of CGI to be seen, but most of it had nothing to do with the creature effects, and was necessary for establishing location. The CGI is also woefully cheap. Perhaps purposefully. The practical effects are well done, but I don’t think they’re enough to persuade any creatively devoid studio exec to start cutting checks to people who work with latex rather than pixels. If there’s one thing I do want to see, it’s the work print of the 2011 Thing, which has all of ADI’s work still intact. That will be an artifact, with lots of green screen and other garbage still visible, I’m sure.

But Harbinger Down hardly rates any better. Rather, this is a desperate shot in a losing war. Someday even the cheapest CGI will be better than what a company like ADI can produce. But we are not there yet, and there is still much work that a company like ADI can do.