Thursday, October 27, 2016

Harper’s Island (2009)

In this thirteen part limited run TV series, a bunch of out-of-towners with a history with the place descend on small Harper’s Island for the wedding of rich girl Trish Wellington (Katie Cassidy) and poor boy Henry Dunn (Christopher Gorham), because everyone involved had such a beautiful time there once. The fun mostly happened before a brutal series of murders committed by one John Wakefield on the island seven years ago, mind you.

The memories of these murders make the return for former local and our designated heroine Abby Mills (Elaine Cassidy) particularly difficult, since one of the victims Wakefield hung from what I must assume was his favourite tree was her mother. Still, Abby might just find the opportunity to hook up with her old love Jimmy (C.J. Thomason) and rebuild the relationship with her Dad Charlie (Jim Beaver) who is also the local sheriff and the guy who shot Wakefield and let him drop off a cliff. Well, she’ll do that, and try to survive the ensuing madness when people start to disappear (or, as we the audience know, get violently killed by a mysterious assailant and fan of death traps).

The CBS (but looking, feeling and featuring a cast that makes it look like a CW project) series Harper’s Island – with the sometimes excellent Jeffrey Bell as show runner - is the ungodly mixture of soap opera, “Ten Little Whatever” style whodunit and slasher you didn’t know you needed in your life. It’s not the ironic kind of slasher most TV attempts at the slasher form are either: while there’s a perfectly appropriate macabre sense of humour running through the show that’s best exemplified by episode titles like “Whap” or my personal favourite “Thrack, Splat, Sizzle” which do indeed onomatopoetically hint at (some of the) murders occurring in the episode, the show is playing things without the safety of ironic distance, so the slasher parts are indeed slasher parts and not parts about the slasher genre or the series’ assumed superiority over it.

Harper’s Island is also clever enough to realize that you can’t blow up the slasher format to a TV show without adding extra genre ingredients to it, so we get the Agatha Christie style whodunit – though one unable to construct red herrings that’ll confuse anyone but its literally terminally stupid characters – and the soap operatics. The last bit turns out to be a bit of a challenge in the first five episodes or so, at least for me, who really does not care about the plotline explaining how Rich Girl’s Dad (Richard Burgi) doesn’t want her to marry her fiancée and has taken his dear time to do anything about it, as well as other subplots I vaguely remember from Dallas. Particularly since the cast isn’t exactly full of interesting and likeable characters, for rather a lot of them are your standard soap opera types, and the melodramatic parts of the writing mostly work well only in the episodes Bell writes. On the plus side, if there’s a character you’re annoyed by, there’s more than just a good chance you’ll see him or her find a gruesome end, for even if the show is only marginally gory, the body count is insanely high and the death methods are created with a loving sense for detail and – probably evil – fun. And, hey, at least the victims aren’t slasher stereotypes.

Once the show gets going, and despite its heavy reliance on standard clichés, it becomes rather a lot of fun, showing the appropriate ruthlessness towards most of its characters, and really pulls off so many twists and fun little set pieces I can’t imagine anyone who likes even one of the genres involved won’t have fun with it.

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