Based on the book by Norman Partridge, Dark Harvest is a Stephen King-esque horror/thriller that is more intriguing and different than scary. That’s not a bad thing. Not every “horror” film has to be terrifying, but in this case, it seems like it’s trying to be scary, which battles with the human element.
In a small Midwestern town, the legendary Sawtooth Jack is a pumpkin-head-like creature that rises from the cornfield every fall, slicing and dicing its way through the town to get to the town church. If it gets there without being killed, it will bring horrible devastation to the town. But if the town is successful in destroying him, their harvest will be successful for the year to come.
The caveat is that the attempt to destroy Sawtooth Jack must be done by the teenage boys in town. They go on “the run” the night he rises from the cornfield, donned with Halloween masks and stomachs that haven’t eaten in 3 days. That’s right, their parents lock their boys in their rooms and starve them for three days so they are ready to ravage Sawtooth Jack, whose belly is filled with Halloween candy.
Why? I don’t know. None of this is really explained in the film, leaving the audience with a lot of questions you sort of have to come to conclusions about on your own.
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Anyway, the boy who successfully kills Sawtooth Jack is given a red Corvette and allowed to travel the nation for a year. Why? Again, who knows? But it is implied that no one in town can go away on vacation without the town council’s permission, so this is a true prize. It’s never fully explained why no one can leave. (I had a guess, but nothing was revealed.)
The film takes place in the mid-sixties, so the boys are all greasers, and the lone black gal, Kelly (Emyri Crutchfield) isn’t all that welcome in town.
Richie Shepard (Casey Likes) was a good kid when his brother killed Sawtooth Jack and left town, leaving him alone with his mom (Elizabeth Reaser) and dad (Jeremy Davies.) With barely a postcard from his brother, Richie misses him and promises himself he’ll reunite with him.
He eventually becomes a rebel and decides to kill Sawtooth Jack himself, although siblings of winners are not required to participate. Along with his friends (and fighting against a group of troublemakers in town), Richie goes about trying to get rid of the monster so he can find his brother.
But all is not what it seems, and there’s more to the story of Sawtooth Jack than many of them realize.
First things first. Dark Harvest is a beautiful-looking film. As directed by David Slade (30 Days of Night), this is unsurprising and welcome. The wide-screen cinematography is gorgeous, and the many tableaus throughout are stunning.
Sawtooth Jack is a fun creation. Sort of a combination of the unmasked Sam from Trick r’ Treat and the Slenderman, and his moments on screen are rousing.
The actors are all in fine form, with a nice performance from Casey Likes (recently seen as Gene Simmons in Spinning Gold) as Richie. Luke Kirby (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) as Officer Jerry Ricks chews gleefully into his role as the stressed-out police officer trying to ensure the “run” goes off without a hitch.
There are some really cool sequences and a few scares here and there, but since the film leans on the Stephen King side of storytelling, characters take front and center here. Not to mention, there’s more to Sawtooth Jack than might be expected. This diminishes some of the creature’s horror, although, again, like King, this is about the town’s monsters rather than the monster in the town.
The themes of the film (and I assume the novel) seem to be about war and our nation’s acceptance and willingness to throw our country’s kids out to slaughter. Despite the boy’s fear of fighting the town’s monster, the parents force them to anyway and hope they “make them proud.” This felt very much of the time as the movie takes place smack dab in the middle of the Vietnam War.
Other kids in town beg the winner of the run to take them with them as they drive away for a future unknown, which seems to reflect the nation’s teens and young adults choosing free love and anti-war stances over joining the fight. It’s a worthy theme that could have been explored more deeply.
Dark Harvest probably won’t be an annual Halloween viewing in the coming years, but it’s different enough that horror fans will be intrigued by the concept and appreciate its beauty. Had the filmmakers explained a bit more, this might have made this harvest a classic.