|Harper’s Island (2009)
|Christopher Gorham, Elaine Cassidy, Matt Barr, Gina Holden, Katie Cassidy, Jim Beaver, C.J. Thomason, Adam Campbell, Cameron Richardson, Ben Cotton, Richard Burgi and many more.
“We stay here and we are screwed” – Sully
Serial killer John Wakefield went on a killing spree on Harper’s Island, a small isle off the coast of Washington State, and murdered a number of people before being killed by the island sheriff Charlie Mills (Jim Beaver). The sheriff’s wife was among the casualties and he consequently sent his daughter, Abby (Elaine Cassidy), to live with family in L.A.
Seven years later a grand wedding is about to take place on the island. Abby’s best friend Henry Dunn (Christopher Gorham) is about to marry Trish Wellington (Katie Cassidy). It’s a sort of fairytale romance as Trish comes from a wealthy family headed by Thomas (Richard Burgi) and Henry was among the staff for the family years before. Abby returns to the island to celebrate the event and rekindles a past relationship with island local Jimmy (C.J. Thomason).
A lot of people are in attendance; Henry’s and Trish’s family and friends are all staying at a hotel on the island and the wedding is just a few days off. Grisly killings start up again and the guests manage to unlock deep secrets of the island and of Wakefield as the days go by.
“Harper’s Island” was a 13 episode series shown on CBS in 2009 that didn’t get too much viewing and was subsequently cancelled after it’s maiden season. Thankfully the storyline was fully wrapped so what we have is essentially a roughly 520 minute murder/mystery/slasher fest featuring over two dozen suspects and a multitude of killings. While the mystery angle is fairly stretched credibility wise it’s no less outrageous than what we horror aficionados have come to cherish and hold dear in our cult- and terror flicks. Conceived of by Ari Schlossberg (writer of 2005’s “Hide and Seek” starring Robert De Niro), the series is an unabashed love letter to mysteries ala Agatha Christie’s “Ten Little Indians” with a healthy dose of horror and slasher elements.
A lot of characters are introduced early on and it takes a bit of time to properly place them. At least one victim left me scratching my head as to why nobody noticed she was gone when she was dispatched of but on the whole the bunch is well accounted for and relations are clear. With a running time in the vicinity of 9 hours we do get a fair bit of exposure on a number of characters and this is where some decent writing gets spotlighted on “Harper’s Island”. There is a subplot involving some of Henry’s friends and a bag of money that I thought was a bit too contrived but relations between the guys did add some layers to their characters so in the end it was an OK bit of distraction. There’s also some domestic drama in the Wellington family and some characters there get to assert themselves well. The main mystery is, in a lot of ways, very well handled with ties to the island’s horrific past contrasting eerily with the present
The kills are fairly imaginative and gruesome and I was pleasantly surprised as I thought they’d be more watered down. The pacing is decent and there’s enough material here to properly fill in the 13 episode program. A bit of suspension of disbelief is required here as some kills are fairly out-there and difficult to accept they could be done without raising any suspicion but it’s nothing too extravagant in that matter. Things really start cooking after episode 5 and by that point it is known by the guests that they are, in fact, in danger and the tension escalates and reaches manic heights once this becomes a deadly game of survival for the rest. Despite all the mayhem taking place exclusively on the island there’s a multitude of settings for each episode and it admirably keeps momentum going. After episode 9 it’s more or less a breathlessly paced thrill ride until the final reveal that, while not entirely unpredictable, wraps things up neatly and leaves the series on a good, and final, note.
None of this would have as much impact if it weren’t for decent characters and thankfully there are few of them on “Harper’s Island”. Henry is well played by Gorham and he immediately registers with the viewer as a good co-lead. Abby is decently played by Elaine Cassidy but her character can get pretty annoying at times but then the writing pulls her in all sorts of directions so it’s maybe not that surprising. Cassidy also has the most screen time so a lot is required of her. Trish, while ably played by Katie Cassidy, is a bit of a vacuum ‘till late in the game when she gets to assert a bit of character. Jimmy is a really clichéd character that comes off the worst in the writing department and Thomason is seriously bland in the role. Beaver comes off well as the Sheriff and his motivations are nicely ambiguous and unpredictable.
Adam Campbell and Cameron Richardson are extremely appealing as Cal and Chloe, an odd couple of sorts that start out as fairly one-note but gradually evolve into major players and lovable characters. Matt Barr also shines as Sully, a childhood friend of Henry who seems to be a bit of a jerk from the outset but gradually reveals himself to be quite a character. Ben Cotton is also very good as Shane, island local and best friend with Jimmy. He’s the stereotypical type of the local who doesn’t like outsiders but Cotton makes the most out of his part, delivers pithy lines effectively and Shane is simply a very believable character in words and action. Burgi is, as always, a welcome presence and the underrated actor elevates every episode he’s in.
On the whole “Harper’s Island” was remarkably successful in what it set out to do. Some very good horror/slasher series have come since but this was a relatively fresh spin on a well worn formula and it’s a shame it didn’t get more viewing initially. A series like this can’t afford to lull too much, become too repetitive, slack off in the writing department, coast on one-note characters, be generic in it’s kill scenes, telegraph it’s plot points etc. and “Harper’s Island” stays fresh, suspenseful, intriguing, eventful and, most importantly, entertaining throughout it’s 13 episode run.