Created by Ari Schlossberg (2009)
Reviewed by Jeff, added on Sep 17 2009
Harper's Island was a 13-episode television series that aired on CBS from April to July of 2009. The hook is that it's a murder mystery (I'll just go ahead and call it a "slasher") and you're guaranteed at least one grisly new death in each episode.
It begins with a classic slasher set-up: Seven years ago a madman named John Wakefield rampaged across Harper's Island, murdering several people. Now, as friends and family return to the island for a wedding, the murders have begun again even though Wakefield is supposed to be dead and buried.
There's a large cast (we need plenty of fodder for 13 episodes' worth of kills, after all) but the plot centers on a smaller subset of characters. Abby is a young woman whose mother was killed by Wakefield and Abby's father, the island's sheriff, is the one who killed Wakefield. Abby left the island after the murders and would never have returned if not for her childhood friend, Henry, inviting her back for his wedding. Henry's fiance, Trish, features prominently as does Jimmy, an old flame that Abby abandoned when she left the island. In addition to these primary characters we have a slew of bridesmaids, groomsmen, assorted family and island locals.
The great thing about HI's episodic format is that, unlike in a feature-length movie, the supporting characters get plenty of room to breathe and establish themselves. It really adds something when the viewer gets a chance to care, at least a little bit, about the guy who's getting an axe through his head. For me, there was one particular pair of supporting characters, a stuffy British doctor and his ditzy American girlfriend, that I was really rooting for. They had little to do with the main thread of the story but I just liked them and wanted them to get away in the end. That's the sort of narrative "value-add" that the format allows.
The main plotline develops at a nice pace. I felt like most of the episodes kept the story moving forward consistently while still taking appropriate time for various subplots, such as a mysterious bag of cash that turns the groomsmen against each other and a creepy Wakefield shrine hidden in a character's attic. Actually, I'm going to stop talking about the story right here. I usually get more spoilerish in my reviews but I don't want to take anything away from your potential enjoyment of HI. It would really ruin the experience if you knew what happened before you watched it.
The kills are pretty cool, on the whole, although you might say the best one was in the first episode. It's all pretty much PG-13 since this was network television but it can still be rather nasty. For example, one character gets set on fire and it's done in a pretty brutal fashion, so it has impact even though (I must be jaded) simple immolation is somewhat "vanilla" as far as slasher kills go.
Now, some negatives. The episodic format that I praised above can also be a liability. You could look at Harper's Island as an 8+ hour slasher movie. Honestly, this story could probably be told in 90 minutes, if all of the supporting characters and subplots were excised (of course, that would diminish the richness of the whole affair). That said, there wasn't too much overt filler, but there was definitely some. The group spends a lot of time splitting up and running around the island. There are at least a couple abductions followed by rescues or escapes, there are multiple instances of characters getting locked up in a cell only to get loose shortly thereafter. In a feature-length movie these same silly things happen, sure, but they don't happen 3 or 4 times each. There is also, of course, an annoying kid that does annoying kid stuff.
The biggest negative, for me, came near the end of the series; I think it was episode 11. In that episode the endgame is starting to unfold and there was some shark-jumping type stuff going on. At that point in the story, our protagonists are fairly well-armed and they screw up multiple chances to blow the killer away from short range, using shotguns. They also manage to lock the killer up in a jail cell and then, give me a break, they leave him there unattended. He escapes while he's not being watched. Go figure.
That episode really had me crying foul. If that stuff would have been in, say, episode 6 or earlier, I may have just given up on the series. Since it was episode 11, I was already invested and it wasn't too difficult to finish out the final couple of episodes. Fortunately, things get back on track and I was back on board through the finale. Again, I won't spoil anything but the final reveals were so silly, they just worked perfectly for me as a slasher fan. The killer turns out to be deliciously crazy and I couldn't help but admire, in a sick way, just how far this nutball was willing to go for his idiotic plan.
On the whole, I liked Harper's Island a lot. I love the idea of a limited series that has a definite beginning, middle and end. I especially love applying that format to horror-oriented material. Sure, I would have enjoyed a more "HBO-ish" version with some gore, nudity and cursing, but that's a small complaint. Sadly, HI didn't do very well in the TV ratings, so who knows if/when we'll see a similar series in the future. I myself must admit that I don't watch network TV, so I wasn't there supporting this series as it aired. Harper's Island is now available on DVD and on Netflix streaming, which is how I watched it. As of this review's posting, it looks like you can also stream the show from CBS's site. I would easily recommend that you give it a try.
Comments from MaT...
My girlfriend and I were devoted followers of this series from its premiere. If it does anything well it's keeping you hooked from episode to episode. It was ballsy of CBS to greenlight an honest to goodness slasher series so give them definite props to that. Not only that, but it was GOOD. Not great, but really good. It's unfortunate that so many horror fans disregarded it from the beginning because though it wasn't the most original thing I've ever seen, it was definitely worthy of supporting.
Definitely give this one a look.