DARK HARVEST is a crazy new Halloween movie I rented for six bucks on VOD. I think they kinda fumbled in marketing it because they made me think it was about a corny looking killer in a skeleton mask, when in fact it’s about a cool monster and that’s just a guy in a Halloween costume. But I’m glad I knew nothing, because it was interesting to see the movie’s weird premise unfold and realize yeah, this is obviously based on a book (same title, written by Norman Partridge, published in 2006). Hard to make a movie with a world and concept this odd these days unless it’s based on a book.
The most succinct way I can describe it is THE OUTSIDERS meets THE PURGE + HUNGER GAMES but also PUMPKINHEAD. A gory monster movie wrapped in a novel gimmick. It takes place in an I-believe-unnamed small town surrounded by cornfields, and it opens on Halloween night, 1962. Mobs of teenage boys comb through the fields, strutting like droogs with various blunt weapons slung over their shoulders, many wearing letterman jackets, all wearing plastic masks of monsters, The Lone Ranger, etc. They’re looking for something called Sawtooth Jack (Dustin Ceithamer, THE NEW MUTANTS), and they find him, but only after he spews fire from his head and burns a kid in a JFK mask into a fuckin skeleton.
We don’t get a good look at Sawtooth, but the boys chase him across the field, into town, and a kid named Jim (Britain Dalton, “High School Kid,” READY PLAYER ONE) catches up to him, bashing his head to mush with a bat. Then Jim leans down, tears open the monster’s chest, pulls out his heart, munches on it, and howls victoriously!
Well, I thought it was his heart, anyway. I guess those are Red Vines and stuff? His guts are made of candy. Like I said, it’s based on a book.
So here’s what we learn. Turns out this is an annual competition. Jim is the winner, so his family gets a brand new model home, he gets a Corvette, and gets to leave town which, for reasons we never learn, is otherwise forbidden by the Harvesters Guild. As he drives off he yells “There ain’t no stop signs on the black road!,” a phrase that seems to have some meaning, but I don’t care that I don’t know what it is. I like it. It’s like a dream.
Most of the movie takes place not quite one year later, the week before Halloween, and centering on Jim’s greaser younger brother Richie (Casey Likes, Gene Simmons in SPINNING GOLD). He wears a jean jacket that says “BANDITS” on the back with the collar up and still identifies as being from the East Side even though his parents, Dan (Jeremy Davies, THE BLACK PHONE) and Donna (Elizabeth Reaser, OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL), have thrown themselves into being middle class now that they have that house.
Jim is apparently still traveling the country, occasionally sending brief postcards from different cities, and nevertheless casts a long shadow over Richie, which is probly why Richie is so intent on winning the Run this year. His parents say he can’t enter, because they already have the house, they don’t need anything else, plus it wouldn’t be fair to some other kid who could win it for his family, and also it’s against the rules. (And there are other reasons we won’t know until later.)
At school all the boys are brought into the gym to get yelled at by Officer Ricks (Luke Kirby, HALLOWEEN: RESURRECTION) about how “THIS IS NOT A FUCKING GAME!” This monster is trying “to destroy our way of life.” If he makes it into the church before midnight the town will be cursed for years.
There are other weird rules: no girls allowed in the Run, or outside during the Run. The boys have to be locked up for 3 days with no food beforehand. I guess to make them hungre for those candy guts? We’ll see that it inspires them to smash windows to steal cakes out of bakeries and shit. Mark Boone Jr. shoots two kids with a shotgun to protect his butcher shop, but gets a brick to the nose for it.
During the assembly a bunch of the boys from different cliques start arguing. There’s a suspension of disbelief required because it’s this whole long discussion going on right there in the bleachers without the adults interupting, but the feel of it gave me vivid memories of the feel of the middle school locker room, when every boy is at their stupidest and most wanting to impress each other with ridiculous shows of machismo and cruelty. There’s a very effective asshole jock character named Riley (Austin Autry), whose flattop helps give him the most punchable face. He arrogantly chews gum while bullying, he’s a fuckin racist, he’s favored to win by the cop.
Later Richie struts around town, and in the Run, asserting his swagger, sometimes with his tough kid cigarette smoking Bandit friends, including one (West Mullholland, Animal Kingdom) who looks like a baby DiCaprio and poses like Nic Cage when he swings a crowbar around. They all think they’re hot shit, have no concept of staying golden like Ponyboy, and they come up with the idea of hot-wiring an old pickup truck to make it to the field before everybody else. That doesn’t work out well for all of them.
Before Halloween Richie meets a girl he likes, Kelly (Emyri Crutchfield, Fargo season 4), who works at the movie theater. He’s noticed her before but only gets to talk to her because he ducks into the lobby to hide from the jocks who always beat him up. When she tells him she’s not invited to the annual Midnight Dance he asks why not, and her eyes move as if to gesture to the world around her. Duh, because of racism, but neither of them have to say it out loud. He just says he’ll bring her when he wins. Before that he ends up going on the Run with her. She insists on taking part even though she’s forbidden for two different reasons.
The beginning of The Run seems like The Purge meets Pleasure Island from PINOCCHIO (Zemeckis version). Dudes running wild, shrieking and howling, making Joker faces, one guy just axes a guy in the head. Great digital gore shot. There’s a group of guys who lock themselves in a bomb shelter – a cheat, I think. They’re wearing Halloween costumes but don’t look like they’re having a party, and I don’t know if they’re hiding from Sawtooth Jack or the other kids. But it’s Sawtooth who gets in the door and somehow turns them into a giant geyser of blood like Glen’s bed in A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET.
One key factor to the movie’s success is that Sawtooth Jack is a really well done monster – I believe all practical in most scenes, but I could be wrong. You don’t see him constantly, but when you do it’s always a treat. He’s a spindly naked demon thing with a big melon head; he actually looks pretty similar to Pumpkinhead with a more literally pumpkin-like head. A farmer played by Ezra Buzzington (THE HILLS HAVE EYES remake) builds Jack every year as a scarecrow with an actual pumpkin for a head but it grows into this big-brained alien type thing. In one really cool scene he glows from inside and then he looks like a jack o’lantern.
I want to give a special shout out to Reaser’s performance as Richie’s mom. She does a good play on the old housewife-with-a-fake-smile archetype they loved to do so much in the ‘80s when they were mad at the ‘50s and ‘60s. There’s a scene where she’s lying to Richie and starts to break down and cry but continues to force a big grin on her face. A little bit PEARL-esque.
There’s a twist that brings more layers to the story, and adds complication to what they’re trying to do. I wouldn’t say it all comes together perfectly – by the end I felt like it was running more on momentum than fuel. But even when the movie’s not working I appreciate what an unusual experience it is. It’s got all these surreal touches (the DARK CITY/TRUMAN SHOW type gimmick that if Richie tries to leave town Officer Ricks will always show up on the highway to stop him) and strange behavior (like the way they pull their Halloween masks down when the face the monster as if it gives them power, or how they get so hungry they shove piles of candy in their mouths like NIGHT OF THE LEAVING DEAD ghouls eating guts). It knows that horror movies making up their own strange rules is more fun than trying to be realistic like some boring loser.
I like that DARK HARVEST’s horror movie rules are also the oppressive dystopian rules of a small-minded town. And Richie’s battle with this monster is also his way of being a rebel without a cause or a wild one without a bike or whatever. His parents suffer from the ugliest part of the system here and don’t know what to do but accept the pay off of a prefabricated middle class life. Richie rejects that.
DARK HARVEST is directed by David Slade (HARD CANDY, 30 DAYS OF NIGHT), who surprisingly hasn’t done a full theatrical feature since 2010’s THE TWILIGHT SAGA: ECLIPSE. The script is by Michael Gilio (DUNGEONS & DRAGONS: HONOR AMONG THIEVES). From what I’ve read it sounds like a fairly straightforward adaptation, but maybe Sawtooth Jack gets more characterization in the book? I might be misunderstanding that.
The movie was originally intended for a 2021 release, got pulled due to Covid, sat on the shelf due to “what the fuck do we do with this weird shit?,” and finally released due to “oh yeah, we release it on VOD, who cares?” I’m glad they remembered they had it.
p.s. There’s a part where a letter from Jim is read in voiceover. It has this very specific type of enunciation that seemed really familiar to me, I kept thinking it reminded me of someone. Turns out it’s because Britain Dalton played Lo’ak, the main Na’vi kid in AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER.