Arguably a decade too late, Norman Partridge’s acclaimed 2006 novel Dark Harvest has finally become realized as a feature film. The movie of the same name, picked up by MGM from New Regency earlier this year, attempts to capture the grim intrigue and tension of the book while adding new details to construct a coming-of-age story with classic supernatural horror elements. Despite my not having personally read the book—only a vague plot synopsis—director David Slade’s adaptation appears to successfully address some fundamental points of criticism upon the novel’s publication but possibly changed other parts for the worse. The result is a surprisingly delightful monster movie about brotherhood and unrealistic expectations with enjoyable twists and turns that had the potential to be excellent, save for a handful of frustrating aspects.
Hit Broadway actor Casey Likes makes his feature lead debut as Richie Shepard, the brother of Jim, the latter of whom won the “Run” in 1962, one year before the film’s events. The Run is an annual ritual in which the town’s teenage boys compete to kill the pumpkin-headed monster Sawtooth Jack before it can reach the church by midnight on Halloween. If one of the boys succeeds, his family receives luxurious prizes, the town’s crops flourish, and there is peace and safety; if they fail to kill Jack, plague and famine ravage the land. The winner also supposedly gets to leave town, which is impossible otherwise, a courtesy granted to Jim by the town’s secretive Harvesters Guild. Richie, a rebel with big dreams, desires to live up to his brother’s heroic legacy and win the Run to leave his miserable town and its deadly traditions behind.
The introduction of Richie is the film’s most significant alteration to Partridge’s original novel, which features a protagonist unrelated to the previous year’s winner. Whereas in Partridge’s book, the killing of Sawtooth Jack primarily symbolizes hope and prosperity for the victor, a chance for him to escape the Midwestern doldrums of his hometown, Richie’s motivations are deeper. He suddenly has a family legacy to live up to and a brother to see in an unknown world. Meanwhile, his mother improperly medicates, and his father drinks—strange behaviors for the parents of a supposed hero. And it doesn’t help that the jocks physically assault Richie and put him down for being lesser than his brother. These conditions, the townspeople’s lofty expectations, and Richie’s dreams make him a determined and reasonably convincing protagonist to follow.
Unfortunately, while Richie is a welcome addition to Slade’s adaptation and carried by an impressive performance by Likes, the other characters of Dark Harvest fall flat. Richie’s father (Jeremy Davies) has potential but squanders it due to a lack of depth, instead mainly serving as an expository device at the film’s end, which concurrently—and conveniently— explains his emotions. The film’s premier human antagonist, Officer Ricks, is sufficiently unlikeable due to the valiant effort of actor Luke Kirby. However, the script gives the character nothing meaningful beyond mean words and cruel actions. Even Richie’s love interest, Kelly (Emyri Crutchfield), is a somewhat cliche and uninteresting distraction whose arc predictably leans on her being black and overcoming veiled racism in a primarily white town in the ’60s, something the movie glosses over.
While the characters are disappointing, as a horror film, Dark Harvest does work. It hits the ground running and maintains a steady pace that revs into high gear for an eventful yet possibly even overstuffed third act, with some excellently choreographed kill scenes and plenty of gore. And though Sawtooth Jack’s scrawny, fleshy design is not entirely poor, the occasional CGI causes it to look and feel worse; when Slade props Jack up in the cornfields and dark crevices of the town, stalking his victims, however, the creature is eerily effective and adds a vital horror element to the movie. Likewise, the set dressing and lighting create an almost magical Halloween aura, which is most welcome for genre fans.
Finally, the mystery at the heart of Dark Harvest and its various twists and turns make for a compelling buildup and unmissable conclusion, even if there are some subjectively unsatisfying beats before the end credits roll. Dark Harvest is far from a perfect movie. Still, when it works, Slade and his team capture the tantalizing dark atmosphere of Partridge’s source material and infuse their own unique identifiers to create a reliable Halloween-time supernatural horror film.
Dark Harvest is now available on Video on Demand.