Judge Kent Dixon still thinks Gilligan's Island was way scarier!
One by one.
Dropped into the 2009 TV season in April, Harper's Island ran for just over three months and a tight 13 episodes. Part murder mystery, part slasher film, with just a dash of reality TV, this baker's dozen delivers some fairly familiar conventions in a shiny new package.
Facts of the Case
Preparing for their wedding, Henry Dunn (Christopher Goram, Ugly Betty) and his fiancée Trish Wellington (Katie Cassidy, Supernatural) invite their closest friends and family to the idyllic Harper's Island for a wedding celebration vacation. Among the guests is Henry's childhood best friend Abby Mills (Elaine Cassidy, Fingersmith) who has returned to the island against her best instincts. Little do some of the guests know that the island was the scene of a brutal series of murders and Abby's mother was among the victims. But that's all in the past…isn't it?
Spoiler warning: If you haven't seen any episodes of Harper's Island and aren't familiar with the premise or plot, stop reading now and come back when you've seen the show. The last thing I want to do is spoil the series for anyone and I will be talking about the plot and characters as if anyone reading my review has already seen the show.
Now that we have that out of the way, on with the mayhem!
One of the most darkly amusing things about the show is how the writers titled each episode to reflect the sound or sounds viewers heard as each episode's new victim met their demise. All 13 episodes of Harper's Island are included, spread across four discs as follows:
Harper's Island certainly isn't the first TV show to take things to a creepier place. You could easily argue that The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits and Dark Shadows went there first and more contemporary series like Tales From the Crypt and Fear Itself added a healthy (or usually unhealthy) dose of gore and slasher-film sensibilities to the mix. Harper's Island is a strange beast indeed, mixing conventions like a crazed boogeyman and victims getting picked off when they venture out alone, with an almost reality-TV approach to the scripts that allows viewers more latitude to grow to like and hate the characters.
The series plays out in two acts, with the first five episodes focusing largely on character and relationship development, before the remaining eight episodes put the characters in serious jeopardy. The writers also do an excellent job of setting up the audience by delivering red herrings; just when you think you've identified the killer, they're added to the body count and you're back to square one. I was correct in my early guess that the childhood sweethearts would survive, but I didn't peg Henry Dunn as Wakefield's accomplice, nor did I guess the father/son connection between the two. Considering the show was limited to just 13 episodes and includes 25 speaking roles, it was no small feat to keep killing the characters off without resorting to a multiple homicide at some point. Even as the bodies pile up, the show maintains its solid scares and keeps the mystery intact without degenerating into an all-out bloodbath.
Norman Bates, Michael Meyers, Jason Voorhees, Freddy Kruger, Hannibal Lecter, Jigsaw. A central villain or killer has been a convention of the horror genre for a long time. For some reason, it's far more horrific and disturbing for the audience if evil is embodied in an individual who can outwit and outlast the protagonists, often outplaying them to boot; set that on an island, and you've got Survivor-style horror. Establishing the mystery and legend of Harper's Island early on, the writers create their own boogeyman in the person of John Wakefield, the man who committed the original murders. When Wakefield finally reappears in the flesh, actor Callum Keith Rennie (Battlestar Galactica) embodies the role with a cold and singular-minded brutality that quickly elevates him to the level of his big scream (sorry!) counterparts.
From an actor's perspective, it must have been cool to know that even if you weren't part of the core cast, you'd still get your own custom-made Harper's Island death scene to end your contract; and if you were really lucky, you might even turn out to be the killer. One of the recurring themes in the cast interviews that are found in the extra features is that no one knew exactly when they were being killed off and leaving the show until they received a friendly but somewhat ominous call from one of the producers to tell them their time had come.
Before I talk about the audio and video aspects of this release, I want to assure you that I am in no way related to any of the producers, nor do I work for either CBS or Paramount in any capacity, so I don't have a vested interest in anything I am about to say. Harper's Island looks amazing on DVD! There is an impressive level of detail, color quality and contrast throughout the entire presentation and I've honestly seen hi-def releases that didn't look this good. You often find that while an SD video presentation may be solid in some areas, there are usually weak points that rear their heads from time to time, but that is not the case here. In an atmospherically-charged production like this, the audio mix plays a pivotal role in the overall presentation and the 5.1 mix is more than up to the task, complementing the impressive video presentation nicely. Paramount has also included a 2.0 surround mix on an alternate track, but the full surround mix is without question the way to go.
Considering the show finished its run in early August and the DVD release was announced shortly after, most fans (me included) likely expected few if any extra features to be included with this release. As you work your way through the extras, you'll quickly realize that a decent amount of thought went into the extra features, which can be rare for a big-budget Hollywood release, let alone a 13 episode compressed series. The bulk of the extra features come in four featurettes found on disc four: "Casting Harper's Island" takes an engaging 20 minute look at the challenge of casting 25 speaking roles that had to work together in a finely-tuned ensemble; "One By One: The Making of Harper's Island" spends 20 minutes on behind-the-scenes and production tidbits covered on an episode-by-episode basis; "Guess Who?" takes a whimsical survey of cast and crew members to get their impressions on the identity of the Harper's Island killer; and finally, "The Grim Reaper" talks about co-executive producer Karim Zreik's unfortunate job of informing the cast when it was time for their character to be killed off.
Audio commentaries with the producers and/or actors are included for the key episodes "Whap," "Sploosh," "Splash," and "Sigh." Fans of the series and film or TV buffs in general are likely to enjoy the commentaries as they offer a nice assortment of behind-the-scenes info without ever sounding forced or fake. A social web series called "Harper's Globe" launched on March 18, 2009 and featured 16 weekly webisodes of a parallel story that also took place on Harper's Island with the same timeline as the series. All 16 episodes are included on disc three, but I can honestly say you'd be better off investing your time flossing your teeth than watching these, as the acting, plot and overall concept are just that poor. Deleted or extended scenes are also included for "Whap," "Crackle," Ka-Blam" and "Bang" on disc one; "Thrack, Splat, Sizzle" on disc two; and "Gasp" on disc four.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I can honestly say that I have no significant reservations or negative feelings about Harper's Island, unless of course you count the fact that plans for an ongoing series or similar concept have been completely shelved for the time being. It never ceases to amaze me that great concepts can die in their infancy while mainstream drivel continues to be green-lit by nearly every major studio, but after all, ratings are king. Including "the DVD Edition" in the title also seems like a weird choice, versus "the Complete Series" or something along those lines, unless they plan to release the series on an entirely different format like VHS or laserdisc…ahem.
Harper's Island was a fresh and original series that blended genres, delivered a nice helping of thrills and chills, and offered solid writing, acting, and production value over its short 13-episode run. Providing the thought of an episode-by-episode killing spree doesn't turn you off, if you haven't seen the show yet, give Harper's Island a spin and you just might discover a new guilty pleasure. For fans of the series, you should make plans to hit your local big box retailer before they close tonight.
CBS should be given some community service time for prematurely abandoning a cool concept, but the series itself is free to go conditional on good behavior. Yeah, like that's gonna happen!
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