REVIEW: DVD Release: Harpoon

Film: Harpoon
Release date: 10th May 2010
Certificate: 18
Running time: 83 mins
Director: Julius Kemp
Starring: Gunnar Hansen, Pihla Viitala, Nae Yuuki
Genre: Horror
Studio: E1
Format: DVD
Country: Iceland

Harpoon is Iceland’s first foray into the world of slasher/horror, with enough obvious nods to a certain 70s horror classic to explain its subtitle ‘Reykjavik Whale Watching Massacre’.

The set up is simple, and very much a genre standard. A disparate group of people are taken from their natural surroundings, placed in jeopardy, with a group of ‘crazies’, and there you have it - blood and carnage! In this case, we have a multi-national tourist party comprising individuals and small groups who have never met before. They are all visiting Reykjavik, and decide to go on a whale watching trip, but disaster strikes while at sea, and with the captain of the tour ship wounded, the group are forced to take refuge on an unused whaling ship crewed by a family who bear a grudge for the loss of the whaling industry, and hold the international community squarely to blame…

From the opening credits it is hard not to be swayed by the style and chutzpah used by the makers of Harpoon - the library footage and epic orchestral sweep, as the film kicks off, acts not only as a paean to the loss of the local industry, but as a nod to the bygone era to which Harpoon owes most of its inspiration. And make no mistake, Harpoon not only nods in the direction of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it smothers it in a giant bear hug, like family members separated at birth meeting for the first time thirty years later. Thankfully, although the makers of Harpoon clearly love the Tobe Hooper classic, they make no attempt at revisionism or crass copying.

It has been more than twelve years since Harpoon director Julius Kemp made his last feature Blossi, a film which did not set the cinematic world alight, but whatever he has been doing in the meantime, it really has paid off because Harpoon is brash, confident, stylish and hugely enjoyable.

The dated opening credit sequence is literally blasted from the screen by a death metal barrage - a trick repeated throughout the film with old or existing preconceptions being bent or destroyed by the relentlessness of the onscreen action. Harpoon succeeds where loads of remakes fail because rather than updating wholesale sequences from existing slasher films, it uses them as a basic template, a foundation upon which to play with, and confound ideas in order to create something familiar but entirely new and vibrant.

Harpoon’s ability to warp and surprise the viewer while using a tried and tested formula is all down to the clever characterisation and script. Almost no-one in Harpoon turns out to be as they initially appear. A red herring is introduced almost immediately - mature women objectify black men, characters behave disgracefully toward each other, and almost everyone has surprising character traits or flaws. When the set piece is introduced which will ultimately leave the tourists in peril, it is shocking; when the full scale violence erupts moments later, it is brutal and explosive, despite the fact we are fully aware it is going to happen. This isn’t terror, this is shock and awe.

Harpoon has a wonderful aesthetic, and pleasure can be derived from a number of places. Amongst the breathlessness, there are moments of still, electrifying beauty. One scene in particular, involving a harpooned tourist dangling from a ship whilst framed by the fjord in the background, is destined to become an iconic snapshot - in its own way every bit as powerful as Father Merrin’s stark silhouette, as he prepares to enter the infamous house on 3600 Prospect Street.

The accompanying score is also pitch perfect: at times a lullaby, at other times a dentist’s drill. In one truly beautiful scene, distressed heroine Annette whispers a funereal version of the Bjork classic ‘It’s Oh So Quiet’, while the remainder of the tourists gather over the recently deceased. The effect is simple gorgeous, and acts as a rare pause in amongst the mayhem. You won’t get moments like this in the next Halloween reboot!

The acting is well above average for this type of genre film. The frantic pace means that broad strokes are used to paint the characters, and the actors establish who they are within minutes, but still keep enough in reserve to enable them to reveal their true selves at the appropriate time. It is impossible to know who to trust, and this second guessing remains pretty much until the final reel. Stand outs are ‘woman in distress’ Annette (a note perfect Pihla Viitala) or ‘put upon assistant’ Endo (a quite brilliant Nae Yuuki). Both these actresses give layers to characters who could have easily disappeared into stereotypes.

Of course, all this fraught energy means something has to give, and this is where Harpoon really differs from Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and The Exorcist for that matter. There is almost no prolonged tension in the film at all. At no point is a prevailing mood or atmosphere allowed to really grab hold, despite ample opportunities were this could have been allowed. This lack of tension doesn’t spoil the film, and there are tense moments interspersed with the madness, it is just that Harpoon may not live as long in the memory as the classics which have been its inspiration. However, at only 83 minutes long, you really won’t miss the slow build - just strap yourself in and enjoy the roller coaster.

If you are sick and tired of the Hollywood machine regurgitating the horror classics of yesteryear then Harpoon will remind you what made those films so incredible, while at the same time offering you something genuinely thrilling. SM

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