25 victims. 1? killer and not one brain among them all.
Harper’s Island is a 2009 attempt at creating a cinematic Frankenstein’s Monster. A complex melange of different genres including murder mystery, suspense, horror and evening soap opera. The result is a lumbering, impressive and sometimes comical faceplant of a series that never quite decides what it wants to be when it grows up.
The show starts with a group of people boarding a ferryboat on their way to a destination wedding on Harper’s Island off the coast of Oregon. Local boy Henry Dunn is marrying the wealthy and beautiful Trish Wellington.
Henry’s best friend, Abbie Mills is only here to see the wedding. She has quite a bit of history with Harper’s Island and you can immediately tell she has some serious issues with the whole thing.
Also included in the boat ride o’ death are various relatives and pals of Henry and Trish. This is the evening soap side of the show and will overlap the murder mystery part for the first few episodes.
The groom’s friends notice one of the guests is absent, but leave anyway, expecting him to catch up. What they don’t know is that he is already there, tied to one of the boats prop skegs, Naturally when those big props start to turn, we have our first victim.
Things then shift to the island, where serial John Wakefield slaughtered 6 women, including Abbie’s mother, 7 years ago, before being “killed” by Abbie’s father, Sheriff Charlie Mills. The tree that he hung their bodies from is still present and gives her a nasty shock when she sees it. (Why anybody would want to hold a wedding in such a place is beyond me.)
The next few episodes are filled with wedding plans, practical jokes, drama and drunken hookups with the occasional murder or suicide to keep things interesting. This is the transition to the mystery side of things.
As a mystery this one is a bit of a dud. The show heroically attempts to throw you off the scent by hurling red herrings like the Swedish Chef from the Muppets show, multiple people are questioned, arrested and generally clash with the Sheriff as the bodies start to pile up.
Problem is the show’s writers can’t help but bang on the serial killer Macguffin. Every other character drops the Wakefield name like they were selling it and it quickly becomes obvious that it will be a matter of when, not if, he appears. Also, while simply watching and not even heavily analyzing the show, I had my suspicions as to who the real antagonist was by episode 7 and was positive about his identity and motivation by episode 10, very disappointing for a murder mystery.
Another issue is the transition from drama to murder mystery, while at least 1 person has been killed every episode, even at episode 6, characters are still clinging to the upcoming wedding and pretending nothing is amiss. Any sane person would be ready to swim for it if multiple suicides and homicides were going on. Even better, the entire island is strewn with deadly traps including deadfalls, snares and pits. Yet no one seems to have any problems crashing through the forest like a herd of buffalo.
The slasher side of things works a bit better, by episodes 8-9, things are moving at a much better pace. The problem at this point is that some of slasher film’s least attractive tropes start to appear. Normally logical characters split up and start running into the woods like idiots. Characters illogically put themselves into situations where they can be pinned by the antagonist. Proficient shots miss the hulking killer with shotguns at point blank range, repeatedly. The slasher shows a Michael Myers level of supernatural toughness that jars badly with the semi-realistic murder mystery feel of the middle section of the show. Needless to say, all the rules from Scream start to apply by episode 6 making it that much easier to predict where the show is going.
While all of these issues are business as usual in the slasher genre, even expected. They clash badly with the measured, investigative feel of the earlier show.
Visually the show is stunning, filmed in lovely Canada, like most proper American TV productions of recent vintage. The director makes full use of the lush forest and dark landscapes of Bowen Island BC.
The actors in the production are decent to good. With several developing believable, even likeable characters when given an opportunity. The problem is that there are so many of them and quite a few resemble other performers, Elaine Cassidy and Katie Cassidy (confusingly not related) are especially similar as Abby and Trish. While you quickly figure out who’s who, it can bring you out of the zone for a few seconds until you figure it out. The sheer number of the cast also makes it hard to keep track of things, especially at the start, before the herd starts to thin.
The show’s plot is stretched over a 13 episode half season mini-series, which makes it as near anorexic as some of the characters in the show. What would be a passable 2 or 4 hour mini-series is stretched over 8.5 hours, forcing in a large amount of flab and filler. This defuses a lot of possible tension, especially early in the series. This also makes for a lot of wasted scenes and long takes that badly need an editor.
Verdict 2 Gavels out of 5 Interesting attempt at blending several different genres. Unfortunately the fundamental differences between these genres make Harper’s Island a confusing mishmash of ideas that never quite work correctly. Decent performances by some of the cast and moments of suspense do redeem it somewhat. Unfortunately the substantial time investment of 8.5 hours and 13 episodes make it difficult to recommend. The show simply takes too long to get going for the payoff to be worth it.