Director/Screenplay – Alec Gillis, Producers – Camille Balsamo, Benjamin L. Brown, Alec Gillis, J. Douglas Scroggins III, Jennifer Tung & Tom Woodruff, Jr., Photography – Benjamin L. Brown, Music – Christopher Drake, Visual Effects Supervisor – Robert Skotak, Visual Effects – Asobi Productions (Supervisor – Calder Greenwood), Eric Geisler Productions & 4ward Productions, Special Effects – Generation Effects (Supervisor – Frank Willis Balzer), Creature Effects – Alec Gillis & Tom Woodruff, Jr., Production Design – Kyle M. Wilson. Production Company – StudioADI/Gillis-Woodruff/Dark Dunes Productions.
Lance Henriksen (Captain Graff), Camille Balsamo (Sadie), Matt Winston (Dr Stephen Lichty), Reid Collums (Bowman), Winston James Francis (Big G), Milla Bjorn (Svet), Mike Estime (Dock), Giovonnie Samuels (Ronelle), Edwin Bravo (Atka), Kraig Sturtz (Roland)
Sadie is part of a university research team on an expedition to track tagged whales. They have agreed to use Harbinger, the crab fishing boat of her grandfather Graff. They board in Alaska, setting off up into the Arctic. While following the whales, they encounter an unusual object and bring it on board. This turn out to be an old Soviet space capsule that came down in 1982. As they place it in the hold to thaw it out, arguments ensue between the project head Stephen, who insists it be properly reported for historical significance, and Graff who claims salvage rights. However, when the body of the cosmonaut in the capsule thaws out, it is revealed to have died by unusual means. A goo oozes out and begins to attack them. They discover that this was developed from failed Soviet experiments to produce a cosmonaut resistant to radiation and that, having spent three decades on the ocean absorbing genetic matter from myriad lifeforms, it has become a monstrously shapechanging creature that is hungry to devour everything aboard.
Harbinger Down was the directorial debut of Alec Gillis. Gillis is better known as a makeup and creature effects artist. He began working under Stan Winston and has credits on classic works such as The Terminator (1984), Aliens (1986) and Predator (1987), before branching out to form his own studio Amalgamated Dynamics with partner Tom Woodruff, Jr. Under the Amalgamated Dynamics banner, Gillis and Woodruff have performed work on films such as Tremors (1990), Death Becomes Her (1992), Mortal Kombat (1995), Skyline (2010), Ender’s Game (2013) and various of the Alien and X-Men sequels, among others.
The two were hired to perform effects work on the remake of The Thing (2011) but were upset by the producers’ decision to replace much of their work with CGI. As a result, Gillis went away and decided to conduct his own homage to John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) with Harbinger Down, raising funding via a Kickstarter campaign. There was the determination made to produce all the creature effects here by physical means. Harbinger Down also incidentally came out the same year as Gillis’s Amalgamated Dynamics partner Tom Woodruff, Jr made his directorial debut with Fire City: End of Days/Fire City: The Interpreter of Signs (2015).
Gillis is operating with a modest budget, nevertheless manages to produce a film that captures the essence of Carpenter’s The Thing far more so than any other challenger to date. The set-up also reminds of Virus (1999), another invading monster film set aboard a fishing trawler, which also had its resident menace derived from the Soviet space program. Incidentally, the menace here turns out for once not to be alien in nature but an ordinary human mutation. That said, the plot of Harbinger Down follows the standard monster movie formula in regular ways where Gillis does an effective job of containing the action in a single locale while having the cast progressively picked off one by one.
Largely the film has been constructed around a series of phantasmagoric makeup effects set-pieces, just like The Thing was. These are expectedly out of this world – people devoured by writhing tentacular masses and giant sets of jaws; hybrid creatures and, in particular, one scene where Matt Winston bends over a table and his back erupts with huge tubes that begin jetting pink liquid everywhere. Alec Gillis has a fine ability to not only stage the effects scenes well but do a perfectly competent job of staging the jumps and suspense – there being a particularly tense scene where Camille Balsamo must venture down into a hold to defuse the bombs only to find there is something floating in the water.
There are a host of references to The Thing. The date we are told the Soviet capsule came down is June 25th, 1982, which was the original release date for The Thing. There is also a replica of Kurt Russell’s chess-playing computer lying about on the ship at one point. There are other occasional sly lines, most amusingly Milla Bjorn’s Russian character paraphrasing Sarah Palin: “I can see Alaska from my house.”
(Nominee for Best Makeup Effects at this site’s Best of 2015 Awards).