Part of CBS’s summer lineup, Harper’s Island was the latest from producer Jon Turteltaub (Jericho) and despite fair critical acclaim the series didn’t perform nearly as well as hoped. Still, it was the first time a pure horror series had been broadcast in network TV in…well, ever. The series synopsis wasn’t terrible original to those who are fans of the horror genre, but to have it sprawled out over a thirteen episode arc was definitely a novel idea. No longer were the on screen deaths meaningless, as we were given time to bond with the characters before they were hacked to bits. And hacked to bits they were—the series robust and large cast dwindled down within the very first episode and continued straight on throughout. Although the finale disappointed many who followed it (and the low number torpedoed the chances of this series coming back again next summer for another round), the series nevertheless gave those who watched it quite the thrill ride.
HARPER’S ISLAND is about a group of family and friends who travel to a secluded island off the coast of Seattle for a destination wedding. This island is famous for a streak of unsolved murders from seven years ago. In every episode, someone is killed and every person is a suspect, from the wedding party to the island locals. By the end of the 13 episodes, all questions will be answered, the killer will be revealed and only a few will survive.
I should note that one thing Harper’s Island was never meant to be was a series. It was always meant to be a mini-series; a straight one shot and then be done with it. However midway through the season, reviews were so positive there were tiny rumblings that it may continue with an entirely new cast…but, alas. No such luck. Which is also a shame and a relief after watching this mini-series…both feelings of which I’ll tackle in this review. For now let me say that Turteltaub once again delivers a gripping theory, much like Jericho, only it was one that, again like Jericho fell firmly apart in its final hours. Not a huge surprise, as the scenarios of both have ticking clocks on them and they can only go on for so long before the end result is something that runs out of steam. I liken this show, then, to something like Prison Break; only, unlike that show, this one ended after one season (rightfully so) rather than continue on again and again before the concept wore so thin it was no longer what it once started out as.
But, thankfully, Harper’s Island did end after its first season and after settling down and watching all thirteen episodes in one go (with breaks inbetween discs, at least, anyway), I can safely say that the series definitely boarded safely in the beginning, peaked in the middle, and then derailed at the end. It’s a mash up between Friday the 13th, Halloween (the Rob Zombie variants), and Dexter. In many ways it’s a lot more like Dexter at the end, only the serial killer isn’t someone you root for; rather it’s someone you end up hating…which is really how the general feeling towards serial killers should go, but still.
The strength of this series is within how everything in it is tied back to something. Even the most random deaths (save one…that one friend dying in the woods seemed entirely pointless) is explained and despite the “What a twist!” type ending really not making a whole lot of sense in the grand scheme of things, the whole of the season eventually sits comfortably on the conscience for the most part. I could pick it apart (and I will, just scroll down some I’m sure you’ll find something) completely and leave a rotting corpse behind, but truth be told I did really enjoy watching this series up until its final episodes—which is a testament to its writing and how well it played on the horror movie clichés and expounded upon them to make them work in this environment.
My issue with slasher film is they’ve always been mindless. Here, we’re given nine hours to not only live in the monsters world but also have ample time for a setup. Misleading clues are dwelled on for an episode or two before being explained away, whereas in a film we’re barely able to digest it before something else is revealed. For that reason alone this show had a lot of interesting sequences; in addition the cast was pretty fantastic, especially for what amounted to a relative bunch of unknowns (aside from a pair of people from Point Pleasant and another pair from Supernatural [which are two of the only horror themed shows I can even recall in recent memory]…and of course the killer]), which made the “who’s the real baddy!” harder to figure out.
But…in the same instance that mislead was killed for me from the start. See…I watch a lot of TV. I’d just come off rewatching Californication’s second season and a month or two long binge of Battlestar Galactica. So when Callum Keith Rennie was revealed in archive photos of the islands history, I immediately knew something was up. Sure enough my mass of watched television shows proved to be a disadvantage, as Rennie eventually showed up…some eight or nine episodes after the first photo of him appeared, mind you, but he was there. I hate when these situations happen because it can ruin a good show for me, such is the case here.
But to be honest his appearance wasn’t what killed the series for me. Nor was it even the real lack of “jump” moments or scary situations in general. Apparently I’ve become quite inoculated to horror shows as I didn’t really find the dismemberments or other ghastly and “freaky” bits all that scary. From the outset it sounded like this show was going to scare me in extraordinary ways but aside from a freaky little girl (whose freakiness quickly wore off about halfway into the series…for some inexplicable reason), there wasn’t much going on to rattle my nerves. That was strike one against the mini-series as a whole, but the other strikes came at the massively wanked up ending.
The Sixth Sense style twists can be awesome when they’re done in subtle and interesting ways like Shyamalan sometimes pulls off, but the eventual two-villain “reveal” at the end was bogus. I admit I was thrown and didn’t see the second villain coming (or at least not as the person it turned out to be), but that’s mainly because there was no precursor or setup to make us think otherwise. His interactions with everyone in the family were perfectly fine and nothing ever seemed amiss. You say that could just be fantastic writing but…no. When you gestate this entire series in one days time, you can quickly see all the little tears and holes in the story and plot.
But, those last two or three episodes aside, this really was a solid series to experience. I can’t say that I’d do it again, however; the final conclusion ruined any chance of ever rewatching the series. I’ve become a bigger and bigger fan of the horror genre as of late and I have to say that while this got most things about the genre right, it also fell pretty to so many of its errors as well. It’s a precarious genre and one that even the most seasoned of directors get. Still, it did pick up on one of its staples: plenty of pretty faces to focus on for the duration of the series, with so many women in lingerie prancing around in the first couple of episodes I thought this show had nothing else on its mind. Really, it’s got all the same naughty bits of a horror film contained within it as well…just toned down to TV-14 reality.
Overall this series is worth a Rental, simply because it is undeniably a fun ride for the first ¾ of it. I don’t know if there could have ever been a really satisfying conclusion to a story where we become acquainted with such a vast cast over the course of nine hours and really, even complaining about its downfalls seems petty when you look at the big picture. But the sad fact is that as clever as this series was at the start, once that shiny axe thing fell from the ceiling of the church, things started to go downhill. Although we did get some cool Dawn of the Dead style holding up in buildings going on, which is always fun. In any case if you like the genre, you really can’t go too wrong with this outing—just set yourself up for disappointment (and a simultaneous case of predictability and unpredictability) and you should be fine.
When this set initially arrived marked as “The DVD Edition,” I questioned what was going on. Then I found out that this wasn’t, in fact, an actual series and was actually just a mini-series and things made more sense. Packaged in freaky and dilapidated style packaging (in what looks like an old, old still of the island splattered with all kinds of blood and general deterioration) with a reflective foil/embossed slipcover, the four disc set arrives in a standard Amaray width viva-multi pak case. Disc art is bland and grey, but a double sided jacket details the disc contents, as well as an impressive twelve character headshot on the opposite side, showing off the main cast of the series. Although Harry Hamlin is in there, despite being in the series for only one episode…strange.
Video and audio is what you’d expect from a modern show and the DVD shows off fine levels of detail and a solid DD5.1 mix that brings the creepier sequences to life in great detail. I’ve no complaints about the technical presentation, although the audio did seem a bit distant to me at times; I had to crank it up rather high for some of the dialogue, it was so quiet. Other times (and episodes) were fine, however, so it’s not something that occurs consistently enough to worry about. Also an annoying aside, there was no play all feature for any of the discs. Which was kind of misleading, since the packaging even states that you could “Watch them one by one or all at once!”
Extras are quite plentiful on this set and start right off with the pilot. Included by disc:
“Whap” Commentary by Jeffrey Bell, Ari Schlossberg, & Dan Shotz
CBS Network On-Air Promos
“Sploosh” Commentary by Karim Zreik, Dean Chekvala, & Matt Barr
Harper’s Globe Webisodes
“Splash” Commentary by Dan Shotz, Cameron Richardson, & Matt Barr
“Sigh” Commentary by Jeffrey Bell, Dan Shotz & Christopher Gorham
Casting Harper’s Island
One by One: The Making Of
The Grim Reaper
There’s a lot of good chatter to be heard on the commentaries and one thing I forgot to note about the show was that each episodes title seemed to correspond to how people were killed in each. Very interesting concept and definitely something I enjoyed. Of course in watching these extras I was reminded how ultimately useless that fortune teller was; she kind of wigged out and nothing ever became of her. Strange business.
In any case the extras are solid enough that if you enjoyed the series this is Recommended. They definitely didn’t just squeeze this set out and ignore the fanbase, which is nice. But at the same time I honestly can’t see watching this show more than once. But if you enjoyed it then this is definitely an nice set to have on the shelf.
Harper’s Island: The DVD Edition arrives on DVD on September 8th.