BluRay/DVD Reviews

HARPOON: THE WHALE WATCHING MASSACRE (AKA REYKJAVIK WHALE WATCHING MASSACRE)

By • Nov 30th, 2010 •

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In the end credits, thanks are given to Barack Obama (I don’t think he’d be too pleased), Brad Pitt (I think he’d be pleased), and Clint Eastwood (I don’t think he’d care one way or the other).

Why, you might ask, was I reading the end credits of HARPOON: WHALE WATCHING MASSACRE that closely? It was because this is the first ‘slasher’ type film to emerge from Iceland, and I wanted to get a sense of how it was financed, where it was shot, how many crew people were involved, etc. I was curious. In 2006, one of my top ten films of the year was an unabashedly bleak Icelandic noir called JAR CITY. So this country of about 300,000 human inhabitants turns out some pretty interesting, and pretty harsh, motion pictures.

The opening archival whale slaughtering footage and pale classical score are surprising and effective. What are we about to see? What are we in for?

The art direction in Act 2 is TEXAS CHAINSAW replicated on an abandoned whaling ship. Though visually impressive, the mise-en-scene is not utilized to full advantage. Even in the fifteen-minute making-of doc, we see props that weren’t visible in the feature.

Plot development and characterizations, after the first fifteen minutes, are only intermittently successful. A gaggle of tourists from sundry countries exhibit all their worst cultural personality traits, often to the point of caricature. But the twists and reveals are great fun and keep things lively (as do some of the caricatured personality traits, but for those you may have to be in just the right mood). And really, without spoiling things for you, there are some terrific and clever payoffs.

Gunnar Hansen, himself a native Icelander, appears in the first two acts as a weary ship captain. He’s very good, one of the better, more grounded performances. He’s not as good in the Making-of doc. They try to make him the thread linking all the doc footage together, and the sound bites really aren’t quite there.

The editing is both the strong point and the weak point of the tech credits. At times Sigurbjorg Jonsdottir keeps the film moving in a way that both keeps us staggering forward but gives us just enough to satisfy our needs. At other times, particularly with the actors, he holds shots too long. I don’t know if he had a thing for Aymen Hamdouchi or if the director convinced him that this actor was necessary for comic relief, but a few of those shots of him overacting feel interminable.

I put this on my top ten Horror film list of 2010. At first sip you might think me far too generous. But on looking a bit deeper, I think you might change your mind. Iceland is not Italy, or Japan, or Korea, or the US, countries which mass produce horror flicks. No, this is a lone entrée from a tight, provincial industry, and it feels uncomfortably personal on a primal level, perhaps indicative of the festering national malaise in the wake of the recent global financial collapse, which many (including the doc INSIDE JOB) feel started there, and left the country’s economy in a state of ruins (I’m told no one bailed them out in the way the European union did Greece, and are probably about to do for Ireland). What would be insipidly archetypal characters – the sleazy tour guide, the disenchanted/despised tourists, even the homicidal family – all resonate here as either drawn from a new reality, or as symbolic projections of socio-political misery.

In JAR CITY, a detective works on a cold-file murder case. Nothing particularly revelatory there…until his daughter shows up to ask him for money so she can score some heroin. A country of that few people, wherein angst that profound exists. It made me think; and it wanted to make me think. And I believe there’s considerably more to HARPOON: WHALE WATCHING MASSACRE than meets the eye.

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