Friday, 20 October 2017

October Nightmares III #20: Harper's Island (2009) - Slay We Go Again **200th Review**

"One by One.."

Back in the meh days of Gordon Brown's New Labour, 2009, I reviewed a 13-part miniseries called Harper's Island. But this was in the days before I discovered the creative boon of substance abuse, and thus it's always awful to go back to my old reviews; they're so full of pep and terrible writing it's as though they were written by the first Yorkshire Terrier to ever own a dictionary. This is my Return to Castle Wolfenstein.

I also realised that, for a journey through horror TV, this feature has been fairly light on the Slasher. Harper's Island was such a unique concept that it's genuinely worth revisiting. So that's excuse enough to retread one of my old reviews. For my 200th review no less.

Harper's Island is a Slasher which unfolds over 13 episodes, with each episode promising that one of the hapless stereotypes would be bumped off. Sometimes it would kill off several characters at once, so desperate is this murderous wittle show to win our undulating affection. Think of Harper's Island as the setup from And Then There Were None (minus the Ten Little Niggers rhyme), combined with the gritty bloodlust of Friday the 13th.

The concept was simple: line the characters all up, and knock 'em down. Hard. And though it ran for only a single season, its legacy paved the way for melodramatic, convoluted murder-thrillers the likes of Revenge. Harper's Island also showed the Slasher could work on TV, so we probably have it to thank for Slasher, Scream, and, because they share creators, American Horror Story. Gee, thanks Ryan Murphy.

Abby (Elaine Cassidy) returns to her childhood haunt of Harper's Island, for the wedding of her friend, Henry (Christopher Gorham), and spoilt bitch Trish (Katie Cassidy); confronting her childhood demons and a community still revealing from a series of brutal murders seven years prior. Quite why anyone would want to get married in a serial killer's old stomping grounds is never fully explained but perhaps it's some avant-garde comment on the dry, sexless institution of marriage.

Whatever the reason, a serial killer (whose murders resemble the previous killer's) attacks and the group must survive and find out the truth: did Gilligan ever get off that island? Sorry, wrong island themed show.

Obviously the setup is there to provide a reason for why this range of characters, all of whom conveniently represent a slasher stereotype, have converged on this island; an island which is practically daring its resident serial killer to come back, like a cop tempting fate to put a cap in his ass whenever he mentions he's only a year away from retirement. No stone is left unturned in the search for flimsy stereotypes.

Principal character archetypes are: the Virgin (not the DnD type), the Girlfriend/Bride, the Black Guy (who doesn't die first, but that subversion is the cliché these days); the jock, the hard bastard, the black sheep, the nerd, the girl who is into freaky shit, and so on - there's over a dozen of these fuckers, and something like twenty-five characters overall when you take the background characters into consideration. It's like a game of Cluedo designed for a hillbilly-sized family.

It's certainly an inelegant set-up, but that's what I like about it - when has there ever been a Slasher which didn't rely on contrivance and moon-logic to work? The worst one I ever saw was about a serial killer who dies in the electric chair and becomes electricity. Shocker, I think it was called. Harper's Island is an authentic Slasher, devoting as much time to the characters' dramas and flaws as it does to their wickedly inventive deaths. The Killer can never just stab someone in the knob; instead he/she has to set up some elaborate Rube Goldberg esque device like he/she's the love child of Kevin McAllister and Rambo. Not a young Kevin, obviously.

I don't know why I'm maintaining this air of mystery regarding the killer's identity considering that it's an eight-year-old show, and it's rather obvious who it is. There was a violent killer who did all those murders seven years previously, after all. A killer who had an affinity for murdering the family members of the current crop of victims, and is responsible, in a large part, for the pervasive paranoia and strained relationships. A killer who also died in mysterious circumstances. The fact the characters constantly discuss him and the still-raw impact of the events seven years ago, should tip you off. Especially when they're all like "well it was terrible, but he could never come back. That'd be crazy - what is this a Slasher film?"

But anyone worth their salt who knows their Slashers will know that the killer rarely works alone. It'd be too easy for it just to be a returned Wakefield (Callum Keith Rennie) as the sole baddie. After all, it's an established rule that in a Slasher if you're related to a serial killer you become one too. It's in the genes apparently, and works a bit like peerage in the United Kingdom. So it comes as no surprise that Mr Angry, Henry, who resembles a creepier Brian Cox (with his lego hair cut, pallid skin, and boring jumper) and has an obsession with the Final Girl Abby and her mighty powers of virginity (sorry, only works for women), turns out to be the accomplice.

This final revelation was the sticking point for me the first time around. But upon revisiting this show I realise that there was no other way that, as a Slasher, it could have ended.  Maybe I've mellowed in the intervening years, or maybe it's because the majority of shows for the past eight years have had shitter endings. I'm never forgiving Dexter's showrunners for turning him into a lumberjack. Harper's Island accomplishes all it needs to in 13 episodes, and the ending serves as an utterly unambiguous finisher for the story - killing off the show before it ended up as a six season monstrosity in which Season Five goes to space (Season Six would be the ghetto).

But the ending is pretty infamous, so I'll recount it here. Henry's plan is to fake a relationship, life, and eventually wedding, for seven years just so he can re-immerse former flame Abby in the same trauma surrounding her mother's death in the hopes that, once everyone she knows is dead, she'll literally have no choice but to fuck him. But again we must apply moon-logic. And this was set when social media was in its infancy, so I guess cyberstalking Abby and having a wank over her profile photos was out of the question.

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