Number 3: Harper’s Island
Seven years after spree killer John Wakefield’s rampage killed her mother, Abby Mills returns to her home on Harper’s Island as maid of honour at her best friend’s wedding. Given almost exclusive use of the island by the bride’s wealthy family, the guests all happily spend time getting to know one another. As the events build up to the big day a series of random events begins to hint that all is not well on the idyllic island and, when guests start disappearing, it becomes obvious that Abby’s return has set in motion a chain of bloody events, and that someone is unwilling to let the ferocious ghosts of the past stay asleep.
Based on a short pitch episode by creator and ‘Hide and Seek’ scribe Ari Schlossberg, CBS ordered a full season of ‘Harper’s Island’ as a mid-season replacement for failing sci-fi show ‘Eleventh Hour’ ; a brave decision at the time as there was, and arguably still is not, anything like it on air. Bringing in Jon Turteltaub, also director of the show’s debut episode, and Jeffrey Bell – who had previously been involved with ‘The X Files’, ‘Angel’ and ‘Alias’ and who latterly found success with both the excellent ‘Spartacus: War of the Damned’ and the middling ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – gave the show some solid expertise behind the camera. Despite Turteltaub’s involvement, a range of different directors were brought in to take charge of single episodes including: Rick Bota, a cinematographer with genre experience from both the ‘Tales from the Crypt’ franchise and the surprisingly decent 1999 remake of ‘House on Haunted Hill’; Guy Bee, who has since directed episodes of the highly entertaining ‘Arrow’ and this list’s Number 11, ‘Supernatural’; ‘The Outer Limits’ writer Scott Peters; and famed Hollywood stuntman Craig R. Baxley, who had also had also directed 2004’s strange, but watchable, Stephen King project ‘Kingdom Hospital’.
One of the show’s real strengths was its casting; despite having a large number of characters, some appearing for longer than others, each member puts in a great performance. Comparatively unknown Irish actress Elaine Cassidy was cast as lead Abby Mills; as a woman battling both her own personal demons and more real-world threats she excels in keeping the character grounded and sympathetic in a role that could so easily have fallen into parody. The show’s male leads, groom Henry Dunn and local fisherman Jimmy Mance, played by Christopher Gorham and C.J. Thomason respectively, are sides of the same coin; one represents Abby’s past and the life she has worked to leave behind, the other her more modern side, the person she latterly became. Both, unfeasibly handsome, put in great performances and it is edifying that their work here led to more widely recognised roles in more recent times – Gorham in ‘Ugly Betty’ and ‘Covert Affairs’, and Thomason as lead in upcoming genre shocker ‘The Monkey’s Paw’. In many ways, it is the supporting cast that is most interesting in ‘Harper’s Island’: the opposite physical attributes of ‘Epic Movie’ star Adam Campbell and ‘Point Pleasant’ alumnus Cameron Richardson becomes a key side plot as lovers Cal and Chloe, and give the audience one of the most rewarding and poignant genre love stories of recent memory; genre star Katie Cassidy – star of the risible ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’ remake and, latterly, ‘Arrow’ – puts in a dynamic performance as tortured bride-to-be Trish Wellington; the beautiful Gina Holden is appealing as Shea, mother to series enigma Madison, played by Cassandra Sawtell; and Matt Barr is charismatic as douchebag-with-a-heart Sully. Other famous faces putting in an appearance include Richard Burgi as Trish’s snobby and elitist father Thomas, Victor Webster, as conniving and slimy suitor Hunter, and Harry Hamlin, as Henry’s party-boy uncle Marty. For a show with such a large cast of characters, it is a testament to the skill of all involved that each is a fully fleshed-out out person in their own right, with many revealing unexpected qualities and flaws when events turn messy.
The central conceit of ‘Harper’s Island’ is immediately recognisable to genre fans; essentially it is a slasher movie stretched out over the course of thirteen episodes. Sharing elements of genre classics, each show features one or more of the main cast being dispatched in a variety of creative ways, many of which are cleverly orchestrated; the audience fully expects what is coming, but it is the implementation that is often surprising nonetheless. Equally, several of the deaths are shocking even – a death by harpoon is a particularly memorable highlight – and some are gut-wrenchingly emotional, especially as the show races towards its finale. There is a general escalation in the violence too; as both killer and prey become more desperate, the grisly nature and the manner of the kills ramps up, even though arguably the most visually entertaining of the kills takes place in the very first episode. For a show that is five years old, the violence is especially graphic by televisual standards; there is no doubt that even today, it stands as an excellent example of how gruesome a primetime slasher can be when done well. By transplanting the slasher tropes to an episodic format, it allows ‘Harper’s Island’ to be far superior to its cinematic cousins as it removes one of the slasher’s biggest criticisms – the lack of characterisation. With extra time and breathing space, the characters themselves become more real – more easily relatable – to the viewer, meaning that when the murders take place, the audience is far more invested in their fate, allowing for an experience that is both vital and visceral. That is not to say that ‘Harper’s Island’ is a flat out, bleak horror, as is the way of many genre shows; it also has a broad comedic streak running through each episode. This is especially prevalent in the earlier half of the run; whether through the adults’ interactions with the wonderfully creepy Madison who seems to know more than she is letting on, the stag party’s amazement that stuttering British wimp Cal has hot American model Chloe on his arm, or the midlife crisis stylings of Uncle Marty, there is much here that is genuinely funny and goes a long way to creating a gallery of sympathetic and three-dimensional characters.
The excellent characterisation and brutal violence would all be for nought however if the central mystery was not equally strong and it is here that ‘Harper’s Island’ plays its trump card. By liberal use of red herrings, it constantly keeps the audience guessing. There is a key motif of façade at work – many characters are not what they seem – and the concept of truth is liberally played with; what is real is often altered depending on whose point of view we are seeing and the killer’s motivations are constantly in flux. The identity of the murderer is kept well hidden until the absolute end and this allows for the rug to be pulled out from under the audience at frequent intervals; there is no doubt that so many characters are flawed, so many are liars, that it remains entirely possible that anyone could be behind the horrors of ‘Harper’s Island’.
The idea of ‘Harper’s Island’, much like the bi-polar ‘American Horror Story’ that followed, was for each season to be a self-contained run, with subsequent series featuring new characters, settings and stories. Failing to find a large enough audience in the US, CBS pulled the plug on the show; fans however found some consolation in the fact that the one season it did get at least ran to completion, and the fates of the characters were rounded out. As active fanbase online, and various petitions, has yet to yield a second run although there is little doubt that with the current appetite from audiences, and the networks new-found tolerance for more edgy subject matter, it would be a better fit now than on original release. Very few people, especially in the UK, caught on to ‘Harper’s Island’ and that is a real shame. It was an endlessly entertaining show, with terrific performances throughout, genre friendly violence, and a perpetually involving central mystery. ‘Harper’s Island’ deserved far better. Horror fans, often marginalised and ignored by network programming, were well catered for with the show and yet it failed to find an audience. Now widely available online and through VOD, as well as on home video, any horror fan will fall in love with Abby, Henry, Sully, and the entire cast of ‘Harper’s Island’. Do them, and yourself, a favour and get behind this wonderfully underappreciated show.