‘Harper’s Island’ Is the Grisly Treat You Need This Valentine’s

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Harper's IslandVANCOUVER – DECEMBER 16: HARPER’S ISLAND is 13-episode murder mystery about a group of family and friends who travel to a secluded island for a destination wedding. They’ve come to laugh… to love… and, though they don’t know it… to die. As the wedding festivities begin, friendships are tested and secrets exposed as a murderer claims victims, one by one, transforming the wedding week of fun and celebration into a terrifying struggle for survival. Pictured Cameron Richardson as Chloe Carter In the CBS series HARPER’S ISLAND premieres Thursday, April 9 (10:00-11:00 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network. (Photo by Chris Helcermanas-Benge/CBS via Getty Images)

The slasher television series has had a rough go of it. While Slasher remains as solid a choice as any, shifting as it does from antecedent network Chiller to Netflix, then to Shudder, it’s hard for a slasher series to solidify any serious semblance of longevity or cultural impact. Freeform’s Dead of Summer struggled to distinguish itself from a CW riff on Friday the 13th. MTV’s Scream: The TV Series was better than most. Yet, it curiously ended its original run on a cliffhanger, only to return for a totally disconnected third season. Sure, the voice and mask were back, but nothing else during its truncated season was worth slashing into.

Most recently, HBO’s initially promising Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin devolved into a hodgepodge of cheesy soap and confounding motivations. The show all but abandoned the much-touted slasher subgenre entirely midway through. Really, the slasher series writ large is just trying to catch up to the true champion of the format—Harper’s Island.

Harper’s Island, created by Ari Schlossberg, premiered on April 9, 2009 on CBS. The long and short of the thirteen-week miniseries saw an ensemble cast of characters traveling to the titular island for a weekend wedding getaway, unaware that a killer lurks among them. Is this a new killer? Or is it the return of the presumably deceased John Wakefield, a serial killer whose massacre years prior—one that included the death of protagonist Abby Mills’ (Elaine Cassidy) mother—still haunts the residents of Harper’s Island? Over the course of thirteen weeks, the full mystery was unraveled, punctuated, of course, with several deaths every episode until the final reveal.

Unfortunately, CBS canceled the series after its first season (alongside, of course, shifting its Thursday air date to Saturdays early in its run). While the first iteration didn’t exactly scream franchise potential, the format yielded considerable promise. In the vein of something like the anthology Slasher, a dabble of more Harper’s Island might have made all the difference for its legacy. Instead, it’s been unfortunately relegated to the backrooms of late-aughts nostalgia. It’s the kind of show horror fans especially remember, with no cultural currency beyond that.

It’s a shame, too, since Harper’s Island endeavored to do some pretty remarkable things. As a primetime network show, it’s remarkable from the get that Harper’s Island even existed the way it did. A slasher series airing on a major network in a prime viewing slot in 2009? That’s metal. The cast, too, including such horror heavyweights like Katie Cassidy and C.J. Thomason, consistently knocks it out of the park. This is a troupe of performers who know their way around a machete and mangled corpse.

In classic Scream fashion, too, cast and crew were routinely kept in the dark about forthcoming deaths. They often learned of them as late as possible to keep tensions high (and the internet spoiler free). And, in truth, Harper’s Island balances its large cast better than most. It’s difficult to predict who will make it from one episode to the next. As a result, Harper’s Island maintains a perverse, knife’s-edge tension from start to finish. Plus, CBS produced sister web series, Harper’s Globe, to air alongside the show.

It sounds like a lot, and it is, though it’s sensational. There are 29 deaths total across the 13 episodes, most of which conspicuously push the boundaries of network television gore. It’s additionally deeply romantic. There is plenty of soap opera drama, secret trysts, and deep-seated love torn asunder with the hilt of a blade. It’s camp, but also terrifying. Absurd, but also deeply compelling. There hasn’t ever been anything else quite like it since. With the way streaming is going, there probably won’t be anything like it again.

For as fantastic as the binge model can be (catch me huddled in a blanket at 3 AM, eyes burning whenever the final season of Stranger Things drops), it has considerably disrupted the water cooler television of days past. If Netflix released a new iteration of Harper’s Island (and for a beat in 2015, the series was available there to stream), most audience members would have the series finished in a week. It disrupts the tension built innately into the form and release strategy. The whodunnit bread crumbs week to week, a global audience of 10 million wondering who would be next, and at the end, who was responsible.

Yet, as it stands, Harper’s Island is a relic of a bygone primetime era. The nature of horror, and more specifically, the nature of the slasher series, has shifted dramatically, perhaps permanently. It’s never going to appear in quite the same way it did with Harper’s Island. That was a bloody, fierce, ferociously fun treat. And for fans looking to check it out during this season of love, the entire series is available to purchase on Amazon. For the rest of us, we’ll be clinging to our memories of Cal and Chloe, fighting back tears.

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