Whatever one’s feelings about director David Slade’s movies, he knows how to create indelible imagery. Whether it was a young Red Riding Hood-esque Elliot Page in Hard Candy, or Danny Huston’s chilling vampire in 30 Days of Night, Slade knows how to leave a mark on your memory. After far too long away, Slade returns and hasn’t missed a beat in that regard with Dark Harvest, a brutal small-town horror that strikes somewhere between Children of the Corn, The Hunger Games, and a scary story told around the campfire.
Based on Norm Partridge’s award-winning novel, Dark Harvest is set in an unnamed Midwestern farming town in 1963, in the days leading up to Halloween. This place is basically a slice of Americana, with all of the stereotypes to match. There are the jocks, the bullies, the nerds, the cheerleaders, the overprotective parents, even an angry sheriff and the town’s one Black family. But there’s something else this place has that others don’t. Sawtooth Jack: a mythical, scarecrow-esque creature that rises from the cornfields every year and slaughters the town youths on its way to the local church. If it completes the journey, the crops are doomed for the season.
In order to stop this, all of the local boys are drafted into the fight, but not before being locked away and starved for three days to ensure maximum savagery. No girls allowed on this hunt, of course, because ladies are meant to be at home and stuff, y’know? This place is like a twisted version of Pleasantville, which is part of what makes the atmosphere of Dark Harvest one of its strengths. Anyway, the boy who kills Sawtooth gets to leave this nightmarish place and see the world, something nobody else is allowed (or is able) to do. Plus, his family gets a new house, a sweet car, and are treated like royalty.
Echoes of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery can’t help but ring in our ears as this rural doomscape drafts its citizens into this grisly contest. The comparison isn’t a knock against the film, either, which captures the small-town vibe with a heightened surrealism. All of the people in this town know one another, and it’s interesting to listen to the kids talk about Sawtooth Jack like he doesn’t exist, while the parents, who have been dealing with this ritual for years, have been cowed into quiet acceptance. Some of the boys are eager to take out their anger and unleash violence, with the promise of wealth, riches, and freedom. Others just want to be kids left alone to live their lives.
It’s when the story kicks into gear that cracks start to form. We largely follow Richie (Casey Likes), who has the unenviable position of being little brother to the previous year’s winner. That means Richie isn’t allowed to take part because his family is exempt. Not that he cares. Richie wants to leave this place, too, and to prove he’s as tough as his All-American bro who sends occasional postcards from his travels. Richie’s wannabe greaser bravado isn’t convincing. You weep for co-stars Elisabeth Reaser and Jeremy Davies, both no stranger to horror flicks, who have little to do as Richie’s parents who are scared nearly to a catatonic stupor.
There’s potential in the presence of Kelly (E’myri Crutchfield), who as the only Black girl in town endures her share of casual racism. Kelly, an outsider who is strangely accepting of the Sawtooth reality, eagerly joins Richie’s side, causing a scandal within the tight-knit, bigoted community. However, she’s also a very thinly-drawn character, despite Crutchfield dwarfing Likes in terms of charisma and screen presence. This would’ve been a more interesting tale if told from the perspective of someone like her, who faces this odd supernatural threat while the very-real threat of prejudice affects her every day.
So while some of the character details and story beats leave more questions than answers, one thing the movie gets absolutely right is in the presentation of Sawtooth Jack. The gangly, pumpkin-headed demon is the perfect Halloween nemesis. It stalks the tall cornfields under an ominous night sky in the pale moonlight, and when it kills…boy does it ever. If you wanted to see a boy’s head treated like a poached egg, this is your jam. Blood-curdling decapitations and literal geysers of blood sickeningly paint the town red, and they happen so quickly there isn’t time to shield your eyes.
Penned by Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves writer Michael Gilio, there’s a constant thread of dark humor and heightened reality for Slade to play around with. It’s only unfortunate the narrative is pretty straight forward and the archetypal characters fairly unimpressive, considering Sawtooth Jack has the creepy cool to have you rooting for him to maintain dominance over the townfolk.
Dark Harvest arrives on Digital platforms on October 13th.