Just as Under Siege is Die Hard on a boat, Harpoon (also known as Reykjavik Whale Watching Massacre) is The Texas Chainsaw Massacre on a boat. This isn’t a bad thing; though it’s not nearly as good as Die Hard, I love Under Siege and, similarly, Harpoon doesn’t match TCM (what does?) but is an excellent Slasher in its own right.
Harpoon unites an international cast of characters, tourists embarking on an Icelandic whale watching tour. I’ve been to Iceland, and I’ve been on one of their tours. The boat I was on was much, much larger and much, much better maintained than the one in Harpoon, but one could find a few independent tour guides with older, smaller boats for hire dotting the docks of Reykjavik. Still, none looked as sketchy as this ship.
So after being accosted by a mentally-challenged fellow selling chintzy crap, a man who immediately brings to mind TCM’s Hitchhiker, the tourist board the rickety ship, captained by Gunnar Hansen in a fun cameo (Hansen played the original Leatherface and was born in Iceland).
The tourists are not your usual Slasher-fodder. Though the requisite twenty-somethings are present, they’re joined by a trio of older women, two Germans and their local guide, a Japanese couple and their assistant, as well as an obnoxious Frenchman.
The characters are a disparate bunch and they prove just as dysfunctional as the UN. In fact, it’s interesting that, once tragedy strikes and the tourists find themselves tumbling out of the proverbial pan and into the fire, they prove nearly as great a danger to each other as do the freaks hunting them down.
The first few instances of tension come not from the killers but from accidents and the elements. I love it when Slashers do this; the good ones manage to set the audience on edge even before the maniacs make their first appearance. When the killers do appear, the first death comes suddenly and the group immediately falls apart, most of the tourists looking out only for themselves.
Honestly, I think it’s an unfortunately realistic reaction. I may be a cynic, but I do think that, when faced with violence of the sort presented in most Slashers, many people would simply run, leaving friends and even family to fend for themselves.
One exception is Leon who is one of the film’s heroes. At least a few characters survive—or at least live longer—thanks to Leon. He is also one of the more positive representations I have seen of an African-American character in horror film since the original Night of the Living Dead.
One of the film’s other heroes comes as a bit of a surprise, so I won’t tell you who it is, except to say that she is female and a huge badass. She survives, and in no small part at the expense of others, but it’s difficult to fault her for her methods. It’s not so much that she leaves the others behind as the others couldn’t keep up with her.
The kills are fun and suitably gory, though never over-the-top. One of the best kills involves a harpoon—not a hand-held one, but one of those monsters welded to a ship’s prow and used for whaling.
The movie takes an interesting yet subtle political stance. It comes out against the whaling industry, pointing out, as did the whale-watching guide on my trip to Iceland, that tourists consume most of the whale meat sold, that the locals don’t eat much of it, and that the whale-watching industry is far more sustainable and more than capable of making up for any lost revenue due to the move away from whaling.
The bad guys are former whalers and raging racists. It’s another point the movie makes: that though tourists can be a huge pain in the ass, they are necessary for the economy and that an isolationist stance would be the struggling island nation’s undoing.
Harpoon is well shot. The photography immediately conjured up memories of the perpetually overcast yet beautiful country. In fact, one criticism I’d have is that the filmmakers didn’t take greater advantage of the setting. The acting proved hit-or-miss. Terence Anderson, who played Leon, was particularly weak, while others were just okay.
Overall, though, Harpoon is a surprisingly smart, well-made film, with interesting characters, a healthy dose of suspense and fun kills.
Length: 90 min