Monday, April 8, 2024

Hail the Pumpkin Thing

People who start playing Christmas music in April are monsters.

People who watch Halloween movies in April are, well, me.

Quick Plot: It's 1963 in Bastion, an isolated Illinois hamlet filled with cornfields and boredom. The town's big excitement for the teenage male population comes on Halloween night, when a vicious pumpkin-headed scarecrow named Sawtooth Jack is unleashed for a battle to the autumnal death. The boy who successfully defeats the monster is celebrated as a hero of the harvest and rewarded with the newest edition of a sports car  (in this case, a 1963 Corvette), ticket out of town, and home for his family, while the rest of the town breathes easy knowing their crops will thrive another season.

One year after his older golden boy brother Jim wins, moody Richie Shepard is so angry at his small-town existence that he decides to enter the hunt, even though he's technically exempt. Along the way, he falls for new-girl-in town Kelly, who also decides to break the rules and join in. 

Though we were only given a quick glimpse at the previous hunt, it seems as though this Halloween is far more brutal. The boys are locked up and starved for three days before the big night, presumably to amp up their aggression. This year, a lot of that gets spread past Sawtooth Jack to the local shop proprietors trying to defend their stores from looting. Sawtooth Jack is equally hungry and takes out dozens of teens, all as Richie and Kelly begin to piece together the details behind the tradition.

Most viewers will likely get there first. Dark Harvest is based on a novel by Norman Partridge, and probably has a richer feel on the page. I assumed that the 1960s setting was a sham, some sort of added The Village-esque touch to keep the population under certain restrictions, but nope: it's simply that director David Slade (whose work I generally enjoy) didn't get his young actors to channel any kind of past.

Dark Harvest is the KIND of movie I love, and I can easily say that I enjoyed watching it even as I found myself groaning at most of its choices. The bones of the actual story are good enough to make me want to read the source material, and I was never bored. But what do we actually have here? There's a dull romance that goes nowhere, an over-the-top villain choking on the scenery he's chewing, and a general feeling of kids playing dress-up. Every actor seems to be in a different film, which makes the rare moments of human loss fall pretty flat. 

David Slade has had a fascinating career behind the camera. While he's never quite made a truly great genre film, he's come close with Hard Candy, the better-than-it-could-have-been 30 Days of Night, and one of the best (and certainly best-directed) episodes of Black Mirror. Heck, even his Twilight entry manages to rise above what it could have been. 

That's probably what makes Dark Harvest such a letdown for me. This concept with a better script, and perhaps more time or a more experienced pool of younger actors that could tap into the time period, could have been something genuinely special. Instead, it's a missed opportunity. 

High Points
The actual concept and design of Sawtooth Jack is pretty neat, especially once you see him as the perfectly gangly teenage version of Trick R Treat's Sam

Low Points
It's hard enough to tell the generically slick-back haired boys apart in their Grease knockoff leather jackets, so throwing Purge-esque masks over their faces doesn't help ground any of the action

Lessons Learned
You won't find Jujubees in a small town

Nothing will put a teenage boy into beast mode more efficiently than three days without food

Your fighting aim will generally not be improved by wearing a rubber mask that limits peripheral vision

If you're craving an enthusiastically autumnal horror movie, Dark Harvest certainly checks a few boxes. I was entertained, but also extremely frustrated. Perhaps low expectations will help? Give it a shot via Amazon Prime. 

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