Monday, March 4, 2024

Movie Review: ‘Dark Harvest’ is Memorable Despite Awful Writing

Director: David Slade
Writer: Michael Gilio
Stars: Casey Likes, E’myri Crutchfield, Elizabeth Reaser

Synopsis: A legendary monster called Sawtooth Jack terrorizes residents in a small Midwestern town while he rises from the cornfields every Halloween and makes his way toward those who are brave enough to confront him.

This piece was published during the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strike. Without the labor of the actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.

David Slade’s latest movie, Dark Harvest, is a strange beast. On the one hand, it has one of the worst screenplays of the year, with characters so paper-thin who deliver the most ridiculous lines (such as “You got a gun?” “I got a gun.” or, “Where did you learn how to do that?” “I know things.”) in the most nonchalant ways imaginable. On the other hand, the film contains some of the most creative action setpieces of the year and an overarching story that feels so expansive it’s almost criminal how Slade and screenwriter Michael Gilio undersell it at almost every turn.

Based on the book of the same name by Norman Partridge, Dark Harvest takes place in 1963, where, from our understanding, high school teenagers must participate in “The Run” every Halloween night to keep the town’s crops safe. “The Run” consists of the boys being unable to eat for three days before the event, so their lust for food will convince them to run towards Sawtooth Jack (Dustin Ceithamer), a creature who magically appears every Halloween. Whoever kills Sawtooth Jack first gets to win a very nice car and get out of town.

Richie (Casey Likes) wants to achieve this after his brother, Jim (Britain Dalton), won The Run last year. He wants to win to join his brother wherever he may be, but as The Run continues, he learns about the town’s dark secret and Sawtooth Jack’s origins, putting him on a path to end the curse once and for all.

It’s in this specific moment that Dark Harvest becomes interesting, but one has to go through an expository-driven first act that is filled with so many tired clichés that it’s easy to think the film won’t progress to a somewhat satisfying turn. It’s particularly hard to invest ourselves in a movie with no interesting characters. Every male character is one-dimensional: they all exude machismo in some way (either through smoking cigarettes, dressing up like Danny Zuko from Grease, or fighting man to man…with knives, of course!) and think they’re the coolest dude in town. There’s no difference between Richie and Riley Blake (Austin Autry), except that the latter-mentioned character acts more like a bully. Remove that, though, and they both have the same arc.

The only character with a modicum of development is Kelly Haines (E’myri Crutchfield), who acts as Richie’s love interest. However, her arc is also associated with some of the film’s most problematic moments, as she is the town’s only Black girl and is frequently dehumanized with racial slurs hurled towards her.

When the two characters kiss for the first time, it’s in front of the town, in which its citizens all look on with utter disgust. This only serves as a reminder of how deeply-rooted their racism is, if you didn’t understand it through their constant insults of its only Mexican kid, Bud (Alejandro Akara), who is far more underdeveloped than Kelly. Still, Slade and Gilio give Kelly enough agency throughout the movie that she not only stands up to herself in these difficult moments but also helps Richie at his attempt to defeat Sawtooth Jack.

Then, we’ve got Officer Jerry Ricks (Luke Kirby), who could be an interesting antagonist for Richie/Kelly but is played with such an overexaggerated tone by Kirby that it falls completely flat on its face. There isn’t a scene in which Ricks isn’t yelling incessantly like a cartoon character who got his toe stubbed by Bugs Bunny or something of that ilk. I don’t know what he was exactly doing here, but it’s embarrassing.

It wouldn’t have been that big of a problem if the other performances had balanced things out, but it saddens me to report that none of the actors give any noteworthy turns here. Even Elizabeth Reaser, who previously collaborated with Slade on The Twilight Saga: Eclipse and Nightmare Cinema’s This Way to Egress, can’t muster up something at least palatable as Richie’s mother, especially during one of the film’s bigger emotional moments.

Even Likes delivers his lines with no sense of engagement to the story. If the main actor can’t seem to care about the film he stars in, how do you expect the audience to want to watch the whole thing? Well, there is something Slade can do to at least make the film semi-compelling, which is to make its core sequence, The Run, feel like the most exhilarating extended horror action setpiece in ages.

Cinematographer Larry Smith consistently shoots Dark Harvest frenetically, shaking the camera in various ways to disorient the viewers. But he ups the ante during The Run. He creates some extremely cathartic and truly vivid images, particularly during a sequence set in a cornfield where Sawtooth Jack reawakens and starts to murder some of The Run’s participants in one creatively bloody way after another. I expected the film to be violent, but not quite like this. And it’s all the better for it. There isn’t a single action setpiece in Dark Harvest that feels stale – Slade’s penchant for self-aware campiness with the same energy as Anthony Dod Mantle’s lens in 28 Days Later creates some incredibly gnarly stuff that practically saves the film from being a complete failure.

A final plot twist, which reveals not only the origins of Sawtooth Jack but expands upon the town’s connection to The Run, also helps to lift Dark Harvest and give it some form of emotional investment. It also brings massive weight to the movie’s ending, which could shock some people, even if one can see it coming a mile away. Still, its impact works, and its post-credit scene may or may not set up a Dark Harvest 2, making us want to clamor for more, even if Partridge only wrote one book. 

Releasing Dark Harvest on VOD with little to no promotion might have been a mistake for Amazon, as it marks the final movie to be distributed by United Artists Releasing before it merged into Amazon MGM Studios earlier last month. It was a sign of an absolute lack of confidence from the studio after its release was delayed many times due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, Dark Harvest may not find a big reach for a broader audience to turn it into a cult classic like Slade’s 30 Days of Night. However, those who have seen it will probably be inclined to recommend it to others, even if every actor does completely shoddy work and the screenplay is, by all accounts, terrible. There’s just enough good in it to make it the next great midnight movie classic, and that might be enough for anyone looking for a killer time at the movies during Spooky Season.

Grade: C+

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