If the movies are to be believed, every small town is harboring a secret. In the real world that secret is more likely about so and so’s affair or something racist in the town’s history, but in horror that secret is always — always – -something far more sinister and deadly. The results are often gruesome, spooky fun with movies like Messiah of Evil (1974) and The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976/2014) delivering chills and thrills through to the very end. Norman Partridge’s short 2006 novel, Dark Harvest, is ripped from the same bloody cloth, and its overdue film adaptation makes for an effective and gory entry into the small town horror subgenre.
Every town has its secrets, and for one small, Midwestern settlement in the 1960s, that secret is an annual ritual believed to bring a bountiful harvest over the next year. Each year, a terrifying scarecrow with a Jack-o-lantern head walks out of the cornfield and heads toward the town’s church. Sawtooth Jack, as he’s named by the town’s elders, tries to kill anyone he crosses paths with along the way, and that’s where the town’s teenage boys come in — while the rest of the townsfolk hide inside, the boys are unleashed with a great reward awaiting the one who brings ol’ Sawtooth down. (The rest of the boys just get to devour his candied innards…) No one’s allowed to leave town except the winning boy, and the previous winner’s younger brother is determined that this year is his chance to do the same.
Director David Slade is no stranger to unleashing bloody terror in the confines of a small community as his 2007 masterpiece of vampiric horror, 30 Days of Night, can attest. Dark Harvest delivers a similarly impressive and gory body count, and the film’s monster is equally nightmarish in its visual design, but Slade can’t quite make the town feel as real or tangible as the carnage. It leaves the movie feeling uneven as elements meant to ground the rest stumble and crumble beneath the slightest weight. But the horror, oh the horror hits just right.
While Partridge’s novel creates a convincing atmosphere, the film’s period setting never finds its own reality. Blame the budget, most likely, but it feels as if characters are simply playing dress up or participating in community theater. The people and the town itself may look the part, but they never feel it, and that disconnect hangs over the narrative as it opens the door to doubt and questions — questions that Michael Gilio’s screenplay can’t (or won’t) really answer like… why just the boys? What’s actually stopping people from leaving town? Why didn’t they call the monster Pumpkinhead? (Just kidding, we all know the answer to that last one.)
Still, while Dark Harvest struggles with its world-building through both its script and atmosphere, there’s no denying the highs for horror fans. Sawtooth Jack’s creature design is an exquisite nightmare, like Halloween personified from the pumpkin head to its spindly limbs and quick brutality. He’s spooky enough in the distance and on the periphery of the frame, but up close he makes for a devilish host prone to tearing teenage boys apart at the seams. Slade slathers on the gore at times from a spectacular face rip to more traditional bloodletting beats, and combined with the monster there’s more than enough to dig here.
The Shirley Jackson vibe hovering over parts of the tale add to the horror too as the film touches on the inevitabilities of what amounts to mob rule. The town forces everyone to participate — everyone but the families of past winners — and the ritual itself has taken precedence over common sense or free thought. Teen boys talk tough and keep a brave face, but their fear of the legend, and of their upcoming place in it, is clear. It’s treated as real despite most people having never seen it, and the power that belief holds over them is as relevant in the real world as it is here. Once they’re set loose, the masked-up boys become a mob of their own, bloodthirsty for Sawtooth but easily swayed towards bullying townsfolk and damaging property. All of it makes for a compelling horror film and minor social commentary even with the stiffness of its period dressing.
Dark Harvest is Slade’s first horror feature since 30 Days of Night, and while it can’t touch that gem there’s a charm to its Halloween-inspired horrors. Gory delights and a wickedly cool, squash-headed creature are tasty treats that make up for the clunkiness elsewhere meaning it’s a film worth giving a spin to this spooky season.