Premiering in April of 2009, CBS’s hour-long drama HARPER’S ISLAND was, alongside SUPERNATURAL, one of the earliest examples of a TV show going for broke providing hardcore horror of a kind that had previously been absent on prime time for quite a while — if at all.
A slasher film masquerading as an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery, the series delivered the goods, week in and week out, for the duration of its time on-air. It outlined what happens when a group of friends and family reunite for a wedding on the titular island — a community which, only seven years prior, was witness to a killing spree by John Wakefield. The killer disappeared after the murders, but was believed to have died since. Once the wedding party begins, people start dying again… and while some signs point to the return of Wakefield, there is doubt in the air as to who — or what — is committing the murders this time.
Because it was a bit of an anomaly during its run, ending after only one season, HARPER’S ISLAND never caught on in the way that SUPERNATURAL eventually did (after years of work earning its die-hard fanbase). While both shows blazed a trail for the onslaught of gruesome and gory TV that has become de rigueur, HARPER has yet to find its cult audience.
I’ve been a fan since its initial airing — and doubly so once the even bloodier uncensored collection was released on DVD. Below I’ve outlined five reasons why I feel it’s time for every horror fan to finally catch up with HARPER’S ISLAND:
One Perfect Season
Look, I’m not a huge TV fan — never have been. Part of the reason why is because I like a clear, closed narrative; I believe in an endgame. So many of the hour-long dramas I grew up with kind of meandered until they just petered out. Even benchmark examples of the so-called Golden Age of Television seem to be making it up as they go along.
This is one of the reasons I think people who really love horror TV ought to gravitate towards HARPER’S ISLAND — it is the perfect binge-watch program. You still get the best of long-form storytelling that great TV can provide, while knowing there’s an ending in sight.
Inventive and Shocking Deaths
HARPER’S ISLAND is a body-count slasher film stretched into a 13-episode television drama. It delivers not only on the narrative twists and turns that a program of this scope must to keep the momentum going, but also on the staging of shocking and inventive kills that are the hallmark of slasher cinema.
Each episode is named after an onomatopoeia expressive of some visceral and violent content to be found within (i.e. “Ka-Blam,” “Splat,” “Snap,” etc.), and there isn’t one death that doesn’t deliver the goods. The very first death in episode one occurs within a matter of minutes — and it is a doozy. From there, the body count racks up with at least one death per episode… and, like in the best of slasher films, you begin to realize no one is safe.
Amazing Plot Twists
That feeling of uncertainty and impending doom is key to the successful unraveling of plot at the heart of HARPER’S ISLAND. The long-form narrative offers the viewer the chance to connect with these characters in a way that so few feature-length slashers can… so when these characters bite it, man, you feel it.
There were more than a few character deaths that affected me on a deeply emotional level; that all comes from the deft high-wire act the showrunners brought to building the world and investing in the characters, all the while ratcheting up the tension and delivering a tight murder mystery.
Cassidy is not only one of the most underappreciated actresses currently working in film and television, but she has earned the right to be crowned a bona fide Scream Queen. Her time on SUPERNATURAL made her a fan favorite on the most enduring horror TV show of all time, while she was a stronger presence than some of her acting peers who appeared alongside her in films like BLACK XMAS and A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. She gives the most effective and affecting performance in HARPER’S ISLAND as Trish Wellington, the bride-to-be… and anybody who has ever been a fan of her work needs to catch it immediately.
Here we have another modern genre star (and SUPERNATURAL fave) giving an absolutely heart-wrenching performance as Charlie Mills — sheriff on the island and father to Abby Mills (no, not the one from SLEEPY HOLLOW), the best friend to groom-to-be Henry Dunn. Beaver is a seasoned veteran who always brings real gravitas to what could be the cliché “grizzled” character in a genre piece — and his work as Charlie Mills is no exception. Here’s a guy who has suffered so much — as a husband, father, and sheriff to the so-called cursed community — and all of it comes through with real depth and feeling in his performance.