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Dark Harvest review: a Halloween horror misfire

Richie stands near a church in Dark Harvest.
Dark Harvest
“Dark Harvest is an unfortunate case of missed potential.”
  • The impressive practical design of the film's central monster
  • A few enjoyably over-the-top moments of violence
  • A plot hole-ridden screenplay
  • An unclear sense of logic and setting
  • An anticlimactic, unnecessarily drawn-out ending

The best thing one can say about Dark Harvest is that it doesn’t waste any time letting you know exactly what it is. The film, based on a 2006 novel of the same name by Norman Partridge, opens with a bloody prologue that doesn’t so much explain itself as it sets you up for the odd tonal experience to come. Between its opening images of teenage boys being cut down by a walking scarecrow with a pumpkin head and the Southern-fried piece of voice-over that accompanies those images, Dark Harvest makes it clear that it’s neither remotely self-serious, nor afraid to spill a little blood. In its subsequent 90 minutes, the film follows through on both of those promises.

What it never manages to do, though, is find the right balance between its own, heightened satirical tone and the already loose sense of logic that its story demands. For a film that’s about little more than a group of teenagers who are forced to hunt a monster every year, Dark Harvest has a surprisingly hard time addressing the many plot holes and questions that its premise invites. That not only dulls the effectiveness of its numerous, genuinely impressive instances of violence and mayhem, but renders the film largely toothless.

Richie stands with his friends in Dark Harvest.
Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures

Heavily indebted to horror stories like Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, Dark Harvest takes place in the 1960s in an unnamed small Midwestern town that forces its teenage boys to compete every year in an event called “The Run.” Let loose every Halloween night, The Run’s competitors are ordered to kill a murderous monster known as “Sawtooth Jack” and, consequently, guarantee another year’s worth of “prize crops” for their town. In exchange, whoever kills Sawtooth Jack is not only given an expensive car and enough money to leave their hometown behind forever, but their family is also set up in a new house free of charge.

The film follows Richie Shepard (Casey Likes), a high school punk who has had a chip on his shoulder ever since his football star brother, Jim (Britain Dalton), won The Run the year prior. Determined to prove his worth once and for all, Richie ignores the orders of his town’s zealous sheriff, Jerry Ricks (Luke Kirby), as well as his parents, Donna (Elizabeth Reaser) and Dan (Jeremy Davies), and sets out on Halloween night to truly follow in his brother’s footsteps. After Richie’s dreams of glory are quickly dashed, however, he begins to suspect that everything he’s been led to believe about The Run may not be true.

The twists that eventually come in Dark Harvest’s third act should be fairly obvious to any even casually experienced horror fan. That said, the film’s script, penned by Michael Gilio, does a commendable job of ensuring that its biggest reveals land with a modicum of weight, and Likes’ performance as Richie helps communicate the emotionally devastating nature of his town’s biggest secrets. As a commentary on the underlying rot of American small towns and how one place’s traditions can blind its inhabitants, though, Dark Harvest falls tragically short.

Luke Kirby points a gun in Dark Harvest.
Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures

Despite packing itself to the brim with over-the-top performances and caricatures of common, archetypal figures, the film fails to successfully lampoon small-town American culture. The history of Dark Harvest’s central town is too undefined for the film’s critiques to feel as precise as they should, and even the sets, costumes, and buildings featured throughout it come across as nothing more than half-hearted attempts at recreating iconic Americana designs. The thriller knows what it wants to say about its characters and world, but it lacks the ability to articulate and convey its own ideas.

As Hard Candy and 30 Days of Night director David Slade’s first feature effort in well over a decade, the film is an undeniable disappointment. Through his experiences working on shows like Hannibal, American Gods, and Black Mirror, the filmmaker has greatly honed his own, deeply impressionistic visual style, and there are several grotesquely gorgeous images to be found in Dark Harvest. However, Slade’s unusual directorial vision doesn’t make up for the schematic nature of Gilio’s screenplay so much as it just further reinforces the shallowness of it.

DARK HARVEST | Official Trailer

When Dark Harvest commits to the exaggerated nature of its violence — at one point, a massacre is visualized by a geyser of blood shooting out the entrance of a storm cellar — it briefly becomes the simple, fun horror time that its story suggests. With his elongated limbs, exposed teeth, and pumpkin-infused face, the practical design of the film’s Halloween monster makes him a wonder to behold as well. Unfortunately, as impressive as many of its ingredients are, Dark Harvest never truly brings them all together. It’s a visually striking creation, but like Sawtooth Jack himself, there’s nothing but a few lumps of straw and several pieces of candy hidden beneath its surface.

Dark Harvest is now available to rent and buy on all major digital platforms.

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Alex Welch
Alex is a TV and movies writer based out of Los Angeles. In addition to Digital Trends, his work has been published by…
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