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One of the more fun aspects of being a fright fan is seeing
distinctly American horror subgenres digested and regurgitated by international
directors. From classy French slasher fare to Norwegian zombie havoc—familiar
tropes flavored with unique cultural inflections can make for some exciting
cinema. Now, we have an Icelandic take on survival horror, shot in English and
cumbersomely titled HARPOON: WHALE WATCHING MASSACRE (out this week on DVD and
Blu-ray from Image Entertainment).
Rather than another backwoods hillbilly clan terrorizing a
deserted rural setting, HARPOON (previously titled REYKJAVIK WHALE WATCHING
MASSACRE) takes a nautical approach. It confines the action to two atmospheric
old fishing hulks, the deranged family in question having honed their
bloodletting skills on the whaling docks of Reykjavik rather than cattle farms
HARPOON begins on familiar waters, with scattered scenes of
partiers enjoying themselves at a nightclub while an awesomely terrible band
clamors away in the background. One of these clubgoers is Annette, who is
scheduled to leave town on a whale-watching tour early the next morning. Hung
over and barely managing to catch the boat before it leaves, Annette is soon
standing helplessly aside as the ship’s captain is badly injured in an
accident. The tourists are then left stranded at sea—at least, until a fishing
vessel arrives and offers to lead the group to dubious safety…
Throughout HARPOON, there is an underlying anger about
foreign pressures resulting in the loss of a traditional Icelandic industry,
namely the commercial harvest of whales. Our murderous family claims to be
descended from a long line of whalers, and there is a sly moment in which they
hack up an environmentally minded victim who pleads, “You can’t do this… I’m a
friend of nature!” There’s also a great scene with some misguided granola twits
sitting around and decrying the practice of whale watching, reasoning that whales
“don’t enjoy being stared at.”
Also working in HARPOON’s favor is the doomed tour group
itself, featuring a refreshing range of ages and nationalities instead of the
stock assortment of teens with whom we’re usually presented in an affair like
this one. The filmmakers take the time to throw some unexpected character
twists among them along the way, although the killer clan (a bloodthirsty
mother barking orders, a quietly threatening brute and a simpering, whiny
pervert) are interchangeable with most other survival-horror villains. The
movie does deserve credit for dispensing with the now-tired routine of the
family pretending they’re harmless eccentrics until deciding to pounce; here,
they get down to bloody business within seconds of encountering the tourists.
The ill-fated tour captain is played by Gunnar Hansen of THE TEXAS CHAINSAW
MASSACRE fame—who, with his Santa-esque beard and physical proportions, must
now be awarded the title of cuddliest horror icon. Hansen is top-billed on the
disc packaging, but it would be stretching to describe his appearance as
anything more than an extended cameo. Still, the casting is a nice tip of the
saw to HARPOON’s predatory predecessors.
Unfortunately, just as HARPOON has imported some good
aspects of its U.S. inspirations, it also manages to reel in many of the bad.
Characters make those bafflingly numbskull decisions that have viewers slapping
their foreheads (turning your back on a KO’ed baddie is one thing, but leaving
his loaded gun lying next to him?). The pacing lags badly in the first third;
too much time is devoted to people who aren’t half as interesting as the
filmmakers think they are, and the audience is left ticking away the long
minutes until the action ramps up. Toward the climax, director Julius Kemp makes
an ambitious mistake and oversteps his limited budget with a laughable sequence
involving a life raft and an animatronic killer whale.
The Blu-ray’s 2.35:1 transfer has been cruel to HARPOON,
which is left looking grainy and underlit in hi-def. All three discs (the
Blu-ray and R and unrated DVDs) include a trailer and a forgettable short
featurette in which some standard behind-the-scenes antics are interspersed
with new Hansen interview snippets. In the end, HARPOON manages to be a
serviceable thriller, but with many missteps counteracting its innovations.
What’s Icelandic for “mediocre”?
DVD/ Blu-ray Reviews
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