Dark Harvest is a bold and unsettling new nightmare. Cinematography and production design make up for a sporadic plot in this rewatchable Halloween film.
There is a liminal moment in most horror films, just before the plot is fully revealed, where the story’s trajectory is nearly unpredictable. The mind starts to frantically piece together every possibility and every haunting outcome, and good horror films capitalize on this feeling. Unless viewers have read the 2006 novella on which David Slade’s Dark Harvest is based, they’ll reside in that moment of unpredictability for most of the film. Dark Harvest is a Halloween-themed horror movie with a grim premise and frightening design for its main creature, Sawtooth Jack, “the reaper that grows in the field. The trick with a heart made of treats.”
The film is set in the 1960s, and Sawtooth Jack rises from cornfields outside a small town in the rural Midwest to wreak havoc every Halloween. The town’s residents send their teenage sons into the dark to hunt and kill Sawtooth—an event called “The Run”—thereby awarding their family wealth and honor while protecting the town. If Sawtooth survives and makes it to the church, however, unknown horrors can ensue.
Larry Smith’s cinematography bolsters Patti Podesta’s accurate and impressive production design to immerse the viewer in the 1960s and the aesthetics of a small town horror story. This also supports the film’s originality as a scary story set in greaser-era America: the guys hunting Sawtooth Jack have combs in their jean jacket pockets, hiding slicked back hair under The Misfits masks. Dark Harvest is visually striking. At times, this redeems the film from a somewhat sporadic plot and poor acting from supporting characters.
Though the film has some brutal kills and gory moments, it’s somewhat offset by an unnecessary push for coming-of-age elements. Richie Shepard (Casey Likes) wants to win The Run even though his family and peers don’t believe he has what it takes; for him, it’s a way to prove his worthiness as a man. Though his development is incredible, some dialogue is drawn out and stops the momentum from some exhilarating scenes. Even one of the most high-stakes moments in the film is weakened, in my opinion, by a forced emotional element.
Nevertheless, the concept—which feels like an amalgamation of Shirley Jackson’s short story, The Lottery, and the longrunning The Purge film franchise—is terrifying. Even with a stark concept, horror films rise and fall on the quality of their creatures’ design; Dark Harvest delivers an original, clever, and haunting design for Sawtooth Jack. With a face for nightmares, Sawtooth’s characterization is mysteriously powerful, and lends to the impact of the film’s ensuing plot twists.
The acting in Dark Harvest is a bit of a mixed bag. On one hand, Casey Likes, Jeremy Davies, and Elizabeth Reaser deliver stellar performances as the Shepard family. On the other hand, however, Luke Kirby’s portrayal of Officer Jerry Ricks is overbearing and unnecessary. Thankfully, the film’s premise and gruesome moments make up for weaker performances.
Dark Harvest’s realization of a culture which functions on training its young men to (literally) starve for violence is as prescient as the film’s unrelenting kills. This is where the coming-of-age elements thrive and need no further development: the tragic message behind The Run is that every family chooses to send their children to potential death in order to make advances in society. They’re forced to grow up and do things no teenager should do.
Most of Dark Harvest is stellar—replete with solid cinematography, storytelling, mystery, and acting—but the third act contains intriguing decisions made by the filmmakers. Their choice to highlight more emotional elements in the film’s later scenes is one I think serves to the disadvantage of its horror. The dark premise is muted by long dialogue and unnecessary drama at times, but the closing scenes redeem the third act altogether.
Whether viewers are satisfied with Dark Harvest’s accuracy to the novella or disgruntled by its weaker third act, it is still well worth the time and will hopefully find its place as a regular Halloween watch for many.
Dark Harvest is now available to watch on digital and on demand.