With his first directorial effort, the gruesomely effective 1986 cult favorite "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer," filmmaker John McNaughton earned an instant place in the Horror Hall of Fame. Since then, however, his career, with the exception of the cheerfully lurid sexploitation epic "Wild Things," has consisted almost entirely of interesting movies that never managed to find an audience (the grisly sci-fi thriller "The Borrower," the oddball comedy-drama "Mad Dog and Glory" and "A Normal Life," a searing docu-drama in which Ashley Judd gives one of the best performances that you will ever see) and nothing but television since 2001's "Speaking of Sex." Now, after more than a dozen years, McNaughton returns to both the big screen and the genre where he first made his bones with "The Harvest," a smart and strong genre work that makes up for a relative lack of gore and viscera with plenty of tension and suspense and a number of impressive performances.
The opening scenes put one in mind of one of Steven Spielberg's Amblin productions of the 1980s or Stephen King. In them, Maryann (Natasha Calis), a young tomboy still reeling from the recent death of her father, has been uprooted to upstate New York to live with her well-meaning grandparents (Peter Fonda and Leslie Lyles). While roaming the neighborhood one day, she comes across a house with a small corn patch growing outside of a window and decides to investigate. Behind that window is Andy (Charlie Tahan), a bedridden boy about her age, and she decides to take matters into hand by literally climbing through the window and introducing herself. Sickly and home-schooled, Andy is thrilled to have someone his age to spend time with and the only hiccup comes when his mom, Katherine (Samantha Morton) arrives to discover this new and unexpected interloper—she is pleasant enough to Maryann in theory but it is clearly obvious that the girl is not exactly welcome.
Not that this stops Maryann from coming over to see Andy and even his father, Richard (Michael Shannon)—who quit his job as a nurse to look after his son while his wife continued to work as a pediatric surgeon—seems happy that his son has made a friend, but Katherine's reaction to the girl grows frostier and frostier until she flat-out tells her not to come back. When that doesn't stop Maryann, Katherine turns on Andy in cruel ways that go beyond mere overprotectiveness into insanely unreasonable. Clearly there is more going on than meets the eye and when Maryann finally gets a glimpse of what is really happening but cannot convince anyone of her suspicions, she takes it upon herself to attempt a rescue of Andy from Katherine's clutches, without realizing until it is too late the lengths that she is willing to go through in order to do what she feels is best for her son.
The last few months have seen the beginnings of a long-overdue renaissance in low-key horror filmmaking with the releases of such winners as "The Babadook," "A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night" and the current hit "It Follows" and even though "The Harvest" was made back in 2013 and is only now getting released, it fits in nicely with those achievements. First-time screenwriter Stephen Lancellotti has done a nice job of crafting a story that relies more on slow-burn tension than dumb shock moments and includes a few nifty bits of misdirection that will even catch some longtime fans of the genre off-guard. More importantly, his screenplay also gives a welcome sense of complexity to its characters as well—even at her worst moments, for example, Katherine has been written in a way that allows us to understand and empathize with her to a certain degree. Likewise, McNaughton does an excellent job of keeping the tension mounting throughout—even a simple game of catch turns into a suspenseful setpiece in his hands—without resorting to the kind of grotesque extremes that he deployed so memorably in "Henry."
The film also benefits from some highly effective casting in the key roles. Young stars Calis and Tahan may not be especially familiar to most audiences (she was in "The Possession" and he was in "Blue Jasmine" and voiced the lead role in "Frankenweenie") but what they lack in star power, they more than make up for with strong and sure performances as a couple of ordinary kids caught in the middle of a situation that they can barely begin to comprehend except to know that it is wrong. And by casting Samantha Morton, who has played a number of exceedingly sympathetic characters over the years, and Michael Shannon, whose filmography is filled with performances that might give Henry the creeps, as he has, McNaughton finds another way of keeping viewers off-balance while allowing two strong actors to dig into scenes more emotionally complex that the kind usually found in most horror films of late.
"The Harvest" has a couple of flaws that keep it from being a truly top-notch genre effort—the screenplay never quite manages to establish why no one believes Maryann when she tries to tell them what she has seen and I wish that the roles of her grandparents had been fleshed out a little more, though hearing Peter Fonda mutter "Far out!" is always a treat. It is also true that by emphasizing its horrific elements and McNaughton's reputation in selling the film, some gorehounds may walk away disappointed while allowing its more seemingly natural target audience of thoughtful adolescents to slip away entirely. That would be a shame because this is both an excellent film in its own right and a welcome return to form for a filmmaker who may not have always gotten the right breaks over the years but who clearly hasn't lost any of his considerable talents during that time.