You may not know the name Alec Gillis, but if you’re a serious movie nut then you’re definitely familiar with his work. In a nutshell, Mr. Gillis (along with longtime collaborator Tom Woodruff Jr.) provided the creatures for films like Aliens, Tremors, Leviathan, Death Becomes Her, Starship Troopers, and dozens of others. (Their excellent work on Alien vs. Predator is pretty much the only reason to see that movie.) Between creepy make-up and practical monsters, Gillis is one of the best FX artists in the business. So after 30+ years in the business, Gillis decided (with some assistance from a successful Kickstarter campaign) to head off and direct his own monster movie.
The result is Harbinger Down, a simplistic but engaging monster movie about a massive fishing trawler that’s rolling across the icy Bering Sea. On board we have the suitably grizzled captain (Lance Henriksen, low-key and as cool as ever), his colorful crew of malcontents, and a handful of nerds on a university expedition. All of the characters get a few moments of basic development before (you guessed it) something mysterious is discovered deep below the water’s surface. Turns out it’s a failed Russian space probe, which is pretty creepy, but once the damn thing thaws out and a microscopic bio-hazard escapes, that’s when things go from creepy to full-bore nasty.
As one would logically expect from a b-movie of this variety, the monster promptly locates some food, grows to inordinate size, and shows off some decidedly unpleasant attributes. (This thing can turn itself from liquid to solid; good luck trying to survive something like that on a rickety old fishing boat.) And that’s when pretty much everyone starts getting eaten: the snooty college professor, the wise-ass deck hand, the tough-talking Russian gal, the good-natured hulk, the plucky know-it-all, etc. Basically all of the broad monster movie archetypes we’ve come to expect from flicks like Deepstar Six, Deep Rising, and the aforementioned Leviathan. It’s not like we’re here for multi-dimensional characters or deep metaphorical subtext, folks.
We’re here for gooey, gory, frequent sequences in which unpleasant / unlucky characters get trapped in a rusty hallway and get chomped, stomped, and absorbed by a horrific creature with tentacles, tendrils, and endless rows of very sharp teeth. By that measure, Harbinger Down delivers. It also moves pretty quick and offers a few little character beats you might not see coming; Christopher Drake’s Horner-y / Goldsmith-y score also adds a nice bit of energy to the proceedings.
Both Gillis and Woodruff (on board as a producer here) have been pleased to point out that all of their creature effects were done in camera, which means practically, which means latex, foam, and sticky syrup instead of digital animation of any kind. So while we’ve all seen this story before, — and while the flick may suffer from a handful of typical low-budget maladies — it’s still a lot of fun to settle in with an earnest, unironic, old-school “monster on a boat” movie that doesn’t skimp on the impressively splattery monster effects.