By Thom Ernst
I write this review of Harpoon several days after seeing the film. It’s nice having the luxury of taking a deep breath before knuckling down to the business of writing a review; it allows the film to settle in and gives the writer time to generate thoughts and ideas.
That’s not exactly the case with Harpoon. The extra time — and the extra breaths — given to Harpoon are dedicated solely to reigning in the adjectives, the expletives, and the endless exclamation marks that would override any serious critical assessment. For example, my first stab at this review began like this: Holy crap! Now that’s a horror movie! Now, several days later, I still feel the same. I just want to find a way to express it differently. Why? Because I really want you to see this movie. Even if you are not a fan of horror films, see this movie.
Full disclosure: I hold independent horror films to criteria different from the criteria I hold to other films. I like horror movies. I’ve been watching them for well over 50 years and have found that the independents with their budget constraints and under-tested performances are often more inventive than their big-budget counterparts. Saying that, it’s clear Harpoon is working with a decent enough budget, and its stars — Munro Chambers (Degrassi: The Next Generation), Emily Tyra (Flesh and Bone), and Christopher Gray (The Mist) — though not yet A listers, are hardly new to the industry.
The film is a three-hander, with the bonus of an unseen narrator (Brett Gelman) who guides the story through tidbits of insight and humour with smug and dark playfulness. Gelman is like the friend who has the inside scoop about a gruesome tale, and not only don’t you mind his occasional interjections, you’re onboard, encouraging him to tell more.
The elevator pitch for the story is not one that would necessarily appeal to me: Three friends lost at sea. Secrets and hidden agendas are revealed as they slowly fall prey to suspicion, hunger, and madness. I’ve seen that movie, or movies much like it, too many times before. But the premise is elevated well beyond the norm by an unconventional script from the film’s director, Rob Grant (along with Mike Kovac) that stops and turns, leaps forward and back, and tells a story within a story.
But a good script can sometimes be held hostage by the performances. Harpoon relies heavily on the strength of its three leads to carry not only the film's suspense but also the characters’ internal hypocrisy. The leads here do not let the script down.
Harpoon has a few blinding scenes of gore and blood that make it worthy of its horror movie status. And though these scenes might have the most hardened horror fan turning away (guilty), they serve more to amaze than shock. Yes, Harpoon is a horror film but the movie aligns more with films like the Coen Brother’s Blood Simple (1984) and Danny Boyle’s Shallow Grave (1994) than it does to more traditional films of the genre.
Not knowing anything about Harpoon before seeing it put me more at a disadvantage than an advantage. I assumed the title referred to a weapon (which it does in part) along the lines of Hatchet, Saw, and Driller-Killer. That was the kind of movie I was prepared for. It was not the movie I got.
I selfishly had hoped that Harpoon was a movie yet to be discovered, and that the director is a director on the cusp of a solid career. Turns out, I’m late to the game. Harpoon has been doing well on the festival circuit and the director has already made his mark. At last year’s Blood in the Snow festival, festival director Kelly Michael Stewart urged me to check out a film titled Alive (2018). I wasn’t disappointed.
I enjoyed Alive, but Harpoon…? Holy crap! Now that’s a horror movie!
Harpoon. Written and directed by Rob Grant. Starring Munro Chambers, Emily Tyra, Christopher Gray and Brett Gelman in voiceover. Opens October 11 at Toronto’s Carlton Cinema.