Image Entertainment // 2009 // 84 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Judge Paul Pritchard (Retired) // November 26th, 2010
"You can't do this; I'm a friend of nature!"
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, released way back in 1974 is, as comic book guy from The Simpsons might put it, the "Best. Horror Movie. Ever!" Containing barely a drop of blood, and shot for the price of a Big Mac, the film contains one of the most foreboding atmospheres ever captured on film. Its star, Gunnar Hansen, delivers a disturbing portrayal of Leatherface, the Ed Gein inspired, chainsaw wielding maniac who has no qualms about slaughtering young girls or their wheelchair bound, know-it-all brothers.
Following his role in Demon Lover (1977), Hansen quit acting to pursue a writing career. Though he returned to the screen in 1988, Hansen's career -- which could have easily followed a Robert Englund style trajectory -- has been rather subdued. Still, his name carries enough weight for the makers of Harpoon: Whale Watching Massacre to give him top billing (despite only making a cameo), while giving the actor a chance to return to his homeland. Should you care?
A group of tourists in sleepy Reykjavik get more than they bargained for, when they take a whale watching day trip. Once out on the open water, their ship breaks down and is boarded by a trio of psychopaths. The events of that day lead to the discovery of one of the most bizarre crimes in the annals of Icelandic history, The Reykjavik Whale Watching Massacre.
When you title your film Harpoon: Whale Watching Massacre you're obviously inviting comparisons to the granddaddy of horror movies, Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. To then go and cast Leatherface himself is only going to increase a viewer's expectations; expectations that Harpoon simply has no chance of living up to. That's not to say its a complete disaster, but rather a competent, uninspiring slasher film from Iceland (a country better known for collapsing banks, Bjork, and one of the top three places in the world to live).
The first thing that strikes you about Harpoon is how well directed it is...perhaps surprisingly so. Director Julius Kemp and writer Sjon Sigurdsson possess a good understanding of the genre, with a reasonably well-paced, darkly humorous film that (perhaps to its detriment) rarely strays too far from the conventions established by Hooper, Craven, and Carpenter, leaving it languishing with so many other recent horror homages.
Still, not wanting to be too negative, Harpoon contains moments that sparkle. The kills are gory and occasionally inventive, and that's the main reason people are going to pick up the film. There's a fantastic sequence where a victim is harpooned while trying to swim to safety. In fact, it probably stands out as the highlight of the feature and is most likely the reason it was re-titled Harpoon. Kemp nails the scene beautifully, as the airborne harpoon slowly descends towards its target while the killer stands on deck, suffering an agonizing wait to see if his aim is true. Unfortunately, there are a number of kills that feel a bit lazy, perhaps showing Kemp and Sigurdsson running out of ideas on how to kill off their large cast. A clumsy attempt at humor that ends in a mass impaling (a human shish kebab, if you will) doesn't quite hit home as well as it would like. The practical effects work employed in the film is impressive, particularly the makeup done for a burn victim that is all kinds of messed up.
With the exception of the villains, the characters amount to nothing more than a multi-cultural mishmash of stereotypes, and do little to earn the viewer's sympathy. There's an attempt to flesh out a select few characters with an unnecessary backstory, but this only results in scenes of dull exposition and a notable drop in pacing. Kemp is far more comfortable, and the movie more successful, when matters are simplified and we are left with the cat-and-mouse games. It's understandable that Sigurdsson would want to flesh the story out, but with clunky dialogue being the norm, it only weakens the overall impact. Perhaps Kemp was concerned the film would be dismissed had it purely played out as hunter vs. prey, but they would have been better off jettisoning the flab and releasing a leaner, meaner version.
As for the return of Gunnar Hansen, it's a case of blink and you'll miss him. His role as the ship's captain ends in a suitably bloody (if predictable) fashion, but gives the actor little to do. Fans of his most (in)famous role will no doubt be intrigued to see this latest feature, but in all honesty are best advised to give Harpoon a wide berth.
The screener copy of Harpoon sent for review featured a dull, flat 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. There's a distinct lack of sharpness, with an overall noisy image and dark scenes in particular being on the muddy side. The Dolby 5.1 audio suffers from occasionally indistinguishable dialogue, and lacks much range. Zero extras were included on the screener, though the retail disc reportedly contains a behind-the-scenes feature.
Overly indebted to or enamored by The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and its ilk, but lacking its ability to generate a foreboding atmosphere, Harpoon does too little to distinguish itself from an otherwise overcrowded field. Due to its impact and status, there will always be those wanting to recreate the magic of Hooper's Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but even the inclusion of Gunnar Hansen can't elevate Harpoon to the level of more recent pretenders to the thrown (e.g. the Ozploitation splatter-fest Storm Warning).
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Image Entertainment
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 84 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Unrated
* Official Site
* DVD Verdict interview with Gunnar Hansen