Friday, February 18, 2011
HARPOON: WHALE WATCHING MASSACRE
Starring - Gunnar Hansen, Pihla Viitalia, Nae Yuuki, Miranda Hennessy
Allow me to be the first person to express my relief over the title change that occurred for this film's North American release; sure, the Whale Watching Massacre moniker remained unaltered (and firmly denotes this flick's roots), but what the fuck could I have expected from a Reykjavik? Harpoon...now there's a term upon which I can build great expectations. Very clearly the by-product of maniacal-family slasher films of yesteryear, Harpoon is generally quite successful in capturing that low budget, atmospheric tone and sensibility as is alluded to in its subtitle. Hell, it's even got Gunnar Hansen signed on in a fifth business role, though he did get top billing in order to reiterate the major inspirational forces. (Of course, you and I both know that Captain Leatherface suffers a pretty nasty boo-boo about 25 minutes in, and is never to be heard from again...I wonder if old Gunnar was originally going to appear in the film as the father of the family, but had to go home after a half day of shooting on the open water wrought havoc on his arthritis...)
Director Julius Kemp and friends (wisely?) ally themselves with the prestigious Icelandic Film Company and take a very tried and very true formula, usually relegated to the backwoods or a cavernous desert, and set it atop ships on an ocean. Which sounds a little questionable, but works surprisingly well, and just goes to show the versatility of the "backwoods bumpkin" sub-genre. (It also makes me excited for the inevitable upcoming feature set in outer space.) The ship's confining spaces and dirty, interchangeable hallways play quite admirably to the strengths and necessities of this type of material.
The film opens with some grotesquely tantalizing stock footage shots, (nothing provides an opening title backdrop like some old fashioned stock footage...) and then spends the first third of its running time introducing a whopping ten whale watchers. Add to that the four family members and it equals a whole lot of harpooning...I do so admire a film with a double digit kill count... A great percentage of these characters are no more than a loose stereotype indicative of their nationality, and a considerably deep melting pot is featured here. It is during this build that viewers may find the film a mite slow and disjointed; jumping around to so many characters affords the filmmakers very little time to spend with each one, forcing their development out of a couple minutes of screen time and 3 or 4 lines of dialogue apiece. I personally maintain complacency in these situations by likening them to a ritualistic parade of appetizers being carted before me prior to my settling in for some messy consumption.
Moreover, looking past the drunken, annoying French guy and the middle aged German women rewards with some playful creativity; Endo, the assistant with the brutal survival instinct, and the "blonde-survivor" competition both standout due to development that is reliant on stereotypes, the former of a cultural nature and the latter of a cinematic one. The chilling stoicism of the scene in which the assistant coldly straps the kamikaze bomb onto her boss' wife whilst chanting "Kill, kill, kill..." could not have attained such power had it not been the polar opposite of her subservient character unto that point. Though, I found the most intriguing case to be the secondary blonde, whom I would consider to be a counter-character; on the surface, she has all the qualities of the lead female, simply by being attractive, helpless, charming, and sharing some intimate moments with the lead male, (who also breaks some stereotypes via his sexual preference.) Yet, it's the scenes which showcase her selfishness and manipulations, directly contrasting the actions of her female lead rival, that fool the viewers' preconceptions of how this particular character should act. I was mildly/pleasantly stunned when she apathetically walked away from Annett's attempted raping, and by the time she's spitting in her face, I felt bad for feeling anything for her at all.
Unfortunately, the writers overlooked what should by all rights be the most important characters in a film like this, namely the family of lunatics. Admittedly there were a couple of disgustingly pleasing moments , like the younger son rubbing his mother's crispy flesh all over his face, but not only did they lack that coveted iconic status, they weren't even memorable. They most definitely should have been filthier, not only of body from a hard day of whaling, but also of mind. The capture and subsequent torture of Annett would have only benefited were the situation much more lascivious. Anybody worth a nickle knows the name Leatherface, but I couldn't begrudge someone for having never heard of Marilyn Burns...I can't even remember what this family was wearing...
Petty complaints and self-indulgent ramblings aside, the film's real power stems form its oft-stunning cinematography, reserved not only for the kill scenes, (although they are the lynch-pin) but also in showcasing the containment of the ship and the vast expanse of the surrounding ocean. Wonderful horizon pans reinforce the complete isolation of our unlucky tourists, and I found the silhouetted Asian man mounted on the bow to be absolutely gorgeous. Build onto that an extremely satisfying beheading, head explosion, and flare/finger to the eye, (just to touch on the highlights,) and the result is a set of visuals overcoming the instances of poor writing. (Just one more piece of data to add to my ongoing investigation into what cannot be overcome by good kill scenes, and my overall desire to be alive to witness the first movie that is comprised only of kill scenes...)
Not a bad piece of work if you're looking to take a trip back to the heyday of midnight drive-ins or VHS walls in the rear of dark convenience stores. I would have gladly traded in the pointless scene in which Annett contacts her hipster friend at her Bohemian dinner and all that Bjork nonsense, (goddamn Icelandic opportunists,) in order to see Hansen die proper and his shipmate get his bloody comeuppance, but I'll happily take this tour again in a year or two. Hell, they may even squeeze a sequel out of this provided they extend the family a bit, or feature some of them all deformed, or with metal replacements for their wounded fleshy bits...that they poke at with a straightened hanger...it could happen...