At least a decade too late to cash in on the YA franchise craze, David Slade’s Dark Harvest sputters into a limited day-and-date theatrical/VOD release bearing all the hallmarks of a long-delayed, butchered-in-post-production boondoggle. Based on a well-regarded novel by Norman Partridge, the (barely 90-minute) film seems cobbled together from parts of other, better books and movies. Several critics have noted its resemblance to both Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery and Stephen King’s The Long Walk, while the film’s creature and general vibe do more to evoke the cult classic 1988 film Pumpkinhead and 2007’s Trick ‘r Treat. It’s all very familiar stuff, in other words, although Slade and cinematographer Larry Smith almost make something out this lumbering Frankenstein monster anyway.
The film begins with a bang, at least; somber voiceover lays out the necessary exposition — every year in a small, unnamed Midwestern town, circa 1963 or thereabouts, a tall, slender creature with a bulbous pumpkin perched on its shoulders dubbed Sawtooth Jack emerges from the cornfields and tries to make its way to the church at the center of town. Local boys are required to hunt it down and kill it before it can reach its destination. The boy lucky enough to make the kill gets a new car, a bunch of cash, and a one-way ticket out of town to see the world. Richie (Casey Likes) can’t wait to get his chance at Sawtooth; his older brother is famous for emerging victorious over the creature the year before and riding out of town in a snazzy new Corvette. Richie wants the same thing, but is also determined to end the ritual once and for all. But Richie is barred from taking part, something about only one boy from each family being able to participate, and much of the film’s first half is simply preparation for the big night and Ritchie moping around town, complaining to anyone who will listen. His teenage rebellion leads him to butt heads with his parents (a seemingly comatose Elizabeth Reaser and Jeremy Davies, the latter doing his usual mannered fidgeting routine) and the local jocks. Richie eventually begins hanging out with new-girl-in-town Kelly (Emyri Crutchfield), the only Black resident around, and the duo keeps running afoul of town sheriff Jerry Ricks (Luke Kirby, giving a truly unhinged performance seemingly transported in from an entirely different movie).
Dark Harvest sputters about in fits and starts, as if all manner of connective tissue got left on the cutting room floor. Despite the period-specific cars and lack of modern technology, the setting feels distinctly fake, like a studio backlot. At a certain point, the film begins to introduce some of the various teenage boys as they prepare for the annual event, laying out the rules of engagement and hammering home the importance of stopping the creature (something about guaranteeing a good crop). Like many YA books and movies before it, there’s an effort to group these kids into various factions — tough jocks, scared nerds, younger and older — but that idea is quickly dropped. In fact, everything here is dropped almost as quickly as it’s introduced, the film never lingering long enough to turn characters into anything other than well-worn cliches. The storytelling is so incoherent that the film becomes almost accidentally surrealistic, untethered from anything resembling reality and sliding into something closer to fairy tale. How does this town function? What’s keeping people from leaving? Why do some of the boys think Sawtooth Jack is merely a myth or an urban legend, when it annually kills several of their peers? It’s best not to think too hard about any of this, instead allowing it to exist as a sort of gonzo parable. It’s an exquisite corpse campfire story, coherence be damned.
One can only assume the producers hired Slade thanks to his work on the Twilight series, where teen angst, budding romance, and world-building were the name of the game. Instead, Slade makes something that’s more of a companion piece to his best film, 30 Days of Night — an isolated hamlet must deal with a supernatural threat, with sickeningly violent consequences. Once the night of the hunt arrives, the film switches gears into full slasher mode, as Sawtooth Jack runs around town killing what seems like dozens of these poor, unprepared boys — another head-scratcher: if Jack takes out this many kids every year, how do they repopulate the town? (Best not to dwell on it.) Sawtooth is a fine visual creation, a combination of practical effects and minimal CGI that give it a effective physicality. And Slade gets a lot of mileage out of the vast, wide-open corn fields, emphasizing negative space within the frame to maximum effect. It all looks great, is even occasionally beautiful, and gorehounds are sure to be satisfied by the various beheadings and eviscerations on display as Sawtooth rips apart its victims. In fact, Slade conjures several images that would be instantly iconic if only they were in a better movie, like a geyser of blood exploding out of a cellar door in hideous, slo-mo tableau, or a low-angle shot of Sawhead engulfed in flames that light up in deep, rich yellows, oranges, and reds. Believe it or not, Dark Harvest calls to mind nothing more than the mysterious, somnambulist films of Tyler Taormina; the abstract teen rituals of Ham on Rye and nighttime reverie of Happer’s Comet are recontextualized here as a fitfully thrilling, often nonsensical creature feature. A visually stunning and often surprising work, there are certainly worse movies than Dark Harvest to check out during spooky season. But thanks to a sea of flaws, there are plenty of better ones, too.
DIRECTOR: David Slade; CAST: Casey Likes, Emyri Crutchfield, Elizabeth Reaser, Jeremy Davies; DISTRIBUTOR: MGM; IN THEATERS: October 11; STREAMING: October 13; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 20 min.