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David Slade’s newest film, “Dark Harvest,” an adaptation of the novel by Norman Partridge, is the type of Halloween film often sorely missed from October releases. It’s not necessarily trying to scare you or throw you neck-deep into a pond of “elevated horror” motivated by deep traumas and existentially motivated villains. Though movies of that kind certainly have their deserved and cherished space this season, “Dark Harvest,” with its vast cornfields, isolated community, and pumpkin-headed creature, simply aims to scratch the spooky, autumnal itch.
The film centers on the rural town of Bastion, Illinois, in the 1960s, where Halloween night is not for trick-or-treating. Instead, it promises the annual return of Sawtooth Jack, a vicious entity whose presence provokes a violent faceoff against the town’s teen boys tasked with taking him down. If they fail, the harvest and the town are doomed.
The boy who takes down Sawtooth Jack gets a shiny new car and permission to leave town (which is forbidden to the other citizens). His family also receives a new house in a nicer part of Bastion and membership in the town’s guild. Richie (Casey Likes) is the younger brother of last year’s winner, Jim (Britain Dalton), who sped off in his new Corvette and never returned. Desperate to reunite, Richie plans to be this year’s victor. Yet the darkness surrounding the town begins to untangle, and Richie comes to battle Sawtooth Jack and the city of Bastion itself.
The format of “Dark Harvest” is not unlike a modern lovechild of “The Hunger Games” and “Children of the Corn.” The tone is similar, grave in occurrences, yet somewhat suitable for a younger audience with oversimplified emotional calling cards and teens at the fore. Where the film steps up is in its carnage candy, with out-of-the-blue kills and unabashed brutality afoot. A hierarchy is quickly and easily established, with jocks in letterman jackets, greasers with “Bandit” painted denim jackets, and prepsters with glasses and collared shirts. There’s not much nuance to the identities of Bastion, but it’s not missed, as the priority is to establish the players before the onslaught begins quickly.
Slade's filmmaking is kinetic during the film’s central event, “The Run,” where the boys, masked up and armed, pursue Sawtooth Jack (and, inexplicably, each other). There’s a phantasmagoric quality to these scenes, boys bounding down the street so frantically it’s hard to discern them as individuals rather than a rabid hive. The design of Sawtooth Jack is deliciously spooky, as his rotted pumpkin head and sinewy zombified body terrorize the corn fields and country roads. These pulsing scenes are matched with eerie but effective slow-moving sequences. Yet, the worldbuilding of “Dark Harvest” is so thoroughly neglected that much of the experience watching is quite confounding as we watch events take place with little to no context.
We’re told the rules of this town: no one leaves, boys are locked up and starved for three days before the run, and no one in the family of a past winner is allowed to win again. Even Sawtooth Jack is thrown in with no consideration for lore. All this information is doled out in passive comments, yet with the magnitude of its inclusion, it requires more exploration to cement the film’s foundation.
The performances in “Dark Harvest” are largely indifferent. Perhaps as a product of each character's stereotyped roles, no one is interesting. Their dialogue is watered down to the point of near-mindlessness. Each quote feels intended only to check a box: emotional statement here, vague exposition there. Even the heart of the film, Richie’s longing for his brother, is rendered ineffective by minimal plot exploration and a flat performance from Likes. His love interest, Kelly (Emyri Crutchfield), is only a participant in the plot to give him something else to care for. Her tomboyish and spunky demeanor is all she has, as well as her Blackness, which the film utilizes only to remind us (via blatant comments and slurs from others) that this film and its rural white town existed decades ago. The town’s head officer, Jerry Ricks (Luke Kirby), is disastrously overdone as a villain, screaming every line with deadened expressions and lacking other qualities to supplement the story and the performance.
“Dark Harvest” misses many beats necessary for a fully realized narrative. And yet the concept and its action-driven execution make a fun watch with some laughs of incredulity. Slade's film isn’t too grave about leaving a lasting effect, but it does not take itself seriously enough. It’s coherent but not considerate, with blood splatter and raised weapons driving the interest forward as unanswered questions weigh it down.
Now playing on Paramount+.
Casey Likes as Richie Shepard
Luke Kirby as Officer Jerry Ricks
Jeremy Davies as Dan Shepard
Elizabeth Reaser as Donna Shepard
Emyri Crutchfield as Kelly Haines
Megan Best as Annie Crenshaw
Jake Brennan as Dillon
Britain Dalton as Jim Shephard
Dustin Ceithamer as Sawtooth Jack