Synopsis: In a cursed town, the annual harvest becomes a brutal battle for survival.
Stars: Casey Likes, E’myri Crutchfield, Dustin Ceithamer, Elizabeth Reaser, Jeremy Davies, Luke Kirby, Britain Dalton, Steven McCarthy
Director: David Slade
Running Length: 93 minutes
TMMM Score: (4/10)
Review: You can easily see what appealed to Hollywood producers in author Norman Partridge’s 2006 nifty novella Dark Harvest. It’s a period-set autumnal small-town horror tale that reads like Stephen King meets The Hunger Games, covered in just enough deep Shirley Jackson glaze to give it a sophisticated glow. Rich with lore and ambiance, it gained enough praise and goodwill from genre fans that even its shortcomings (i.e., a lack of finality and weak ancillary characters) could be overlooked due to the strength of the structure Partridge assembled.
Initially announced for release in 2022, it got lost in the shuffle of its studio (MGM) switching hands officially to Amazon. Delayed another full year, it’s only now quietly slipping into your digital rental options as Halloween approaches, and you have to wonder why Amazon would hold onto it for a prime October opening only to sneak release it when viewers are on the hunt for new fright fare. Then you get a look at director David Slade’s take on Partridge’s original idea funneled through an adaptation by Michael Gilio, and it starts to make sense.
Opening on Halloween night, 1962, Dark Harvest drops audiences into the finale of The Run, an annual event that sends the town’s teenage boys out to track down Sawtooth Jack, a creature that rises from the cornfields that must be killed before midnight. The boy who completes this task doesn’t just get bragging rights and a shiny new car, but their family receives a new home, a sizable check, and a societal standing worth more than anything. The winners gain something else: the opportunity to leave the town and not look back. The winner in 1962 is Jim Shepard, and as his younger brother Richie (Casey Likes) watches his best friend drive off into the dark night, he knows that life may be “better” for him and his parents (Jeremy Davies, The Black Phone, and Elizabeth Reaser, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2), but it will never be the same.
A year later, Richie has hardened up and intends to get out of town by winning The Run of ’63. This puts a target on his back because no one wants to see the same family win twice, least of all Richie’s parents, who will lose another son. As Halloween draws near, Richie runs afoul of school bullies who want a chance at the benefits winning will get them and warms up to a new girl in town, Kelly (E’myri Crutchfield, Vacation), while gradually coming to learn more about the evil history of The Run and what it entails. The night of the event provides gruesome revelations for the town, with adolescents running rampant and tearing apart a carefully held pact the elders have contained for ages.
I’m positive there’s a corker of a movie ready to be made from Dark Harvest as initially written, but the translation to the screen is as shaky as the camera work from Larry Smith (Austenland). Though set six decades in the past, Slade and Smith give the film a slick modern look that doesn’t remotely gel with the screenplay’s tone, and that sets the movie on a competing trajectory from the start. While there are some artful touches throughout (cornfields are spooky no matter how you shoot them), too often, Slade’s film feels like it’s slow time-hopping without a DeLorean. Iffy production values that can’t replicate the time and place outside of clothing and cars also take you out of a true immersion in the early ’60s Anytown U.S.A. vibe critical to Partridge’s original tome.
Slade has worked with an array of A-listers at the top of their game or on their way to stardom, but this Dark Harvest crop is a mixed batch. As the left-behind son turned hard-hearted outcast, Likes (represented currently on Broadway in Back to the Future: The Musical, go figure) is amiable but takes a while to warm up to be the leading man he’s cast as. I wish Crutchfield had more to do earlier on in the film, long before she’s thrust into playing second banana tag along and emotional sounding board to Richie. Davies has constantly reminded me of a wispier Henry Thomas, and he’s giving off the same reliable, not-so-great fatherly vibes Thomas did in his recent middling horror outing Pet Sematary: Bloodlines. Two usually reliable performers, Reaser and Luke Kirby (Boston Strangler), have apparently chosen Dark Harvest as the film they are using their Get-Out-Of-Bad-Acting-Jail-Free cards on, so I won’t say any more about them.
Despite some grisly kills and several inspired moments that hint at the appropriate mood Dark Harvest should have strived for, most of this is a missed effort to adapt a book that was screaming out for a movie version. Too many careless errors have been made in significant areas (the closing credits even misspell the name of legendary casting director Ellen Chenoweth!) to excuse away what should have been a slam dunk. Instead, we have a poorly paced melodrama with occasional bouts of bloody horror in the place where a chilly folk fable focused on a town haunted by the consequences of its evil actions should be.