Buried beneath its kill-a-week gimmick, “Harper’s Island” has an excellent plot. The show follows a reserved young woman named Abby (Elaine Cassidy) as she returns to the Pacific Northwest island where she grew up for her best friend Henry’s (Christopher Gorham) wedding to a woman named Trish (Katie Cassidy). When the series starts, Abby hasn’t been home since a man named John Wakefield went on a killing spree that traumatized her family, including her dad, Sheriff Mills (Jim Beaver).
The show’s ever-dwindling cast of characters starts out as a mash-up of archetypes and oddities. Some are typical, like creepy kid Madison (Cassandra Sawtell) and Abby’s reliable high school sweetheart, Jimmy (C.J. Thomason). Others are entertainingly offbeat, like edgy emo adult J.D. (Dean Chekvala) or endearingly unlucky posh Brit Cal (Adam Campbell). When the wedding party starts falling prey to a series of brutal murders, Abby fears John Wakefield’s return — and the guests start to point fingers at each other.
“Harper’s Island” is a veritable Matryoshka doll of goofy plot points and stone cold thrills. People get sawed in half, killed by chandeliers, and harpooned in the chest. The killer is nearly impossible to guess, because for a long time, their only goal seems to be entertaining the people watching “Harper’s Island.” But if you think it’s unrealistic or stupid, just wait, because a joyfully disgusting kill or surprisingly emotional gut punch will be just around the corner.
The show starts as a sprawling, red-herring heavy ensemble piece, but narrows down into a lean, mean thriller. By the final stretch of its thirteen episodes, it’s transformed into a relentless and genuinely shocking horrorshow that’ll have you screaming at the characters on screen. This is a series with shocking highs and ridiculous lows that, more than almost any other I’ve seen, is a straight-up joy to watch with friends. Once you’ve been through “Harper’s Island” together, you can go through anything together.
Along with the talented core group of Elaine Cassidy, Katie Cassidy, Gorham, Beaver, Thomason, and Campbell, Cameron Richardson puts in a memorable, cheer-worthy performance as resilient bridesmaid Chloe. It’s no wonder every horror fan I’ve spoken to who caught “Harper’s Island” defends it as a new cult classic; the series gives its characters room to grow, so that by the time we finally reach the pulse-pounding killer reveal, we love our Final Girls and Guys way more than we would if given only 90 minutes to get to know them.