dark harvest

There are horror movies, and then there Halloween season movies. They’re mostly horror, yes, but Halloween movies carry a different spirit. When watched during the month of October, they make you connect on a deeper level with the playful darkness of the coming festivities. John Carpenter’s Halloween might be the best example of this, a movie that takes the very essence of the titular season and creates a story that derives its power from it. Michael Dougherty’s Trick ‘r Treat is another one of these, putting forth an experience that exudes a unique type of energy that possesses viewers with the need for more horror stories.

David Slade’s newest film Dark Harvest falls into this category, feeding audiences that special kind of seasonal horror that makes viewers indulge their fears and watch more scary movies.

Adapted from the Stoker Award-winning book of the same name, written by Norman Partridge, Dark Harvest centers on a small Midwestern town in the 1960s that follows a terrifying yearly tradition on Halloween day. The town’s young boys must all prepare for a strange and violent ritual in which they hunt down and kill a living pumpkin-headed creature known as Sawtooth Jack.

dark harvest

The scarecrow-like being (that does remind a bit of the iconic Pumpkinhead monster that Stan Winston created) rises on October 31st and must killed before midnight. Failure to do so puts the town on the verge of disaster. Success yields a year of healthy crops for everyone, but the boy that manages to become the hero of the night is showered with lavish gifts and a party to celebrate the feat.

Slade, who directed the fan favorite 30 Days of Night (2007), pulls no punches when it comes to creating the surprisingly violent and rage-filled world of Dark Harvest. Teenage angst carries the buildup to the night of the hunt, showing a town that’s settled on a kind of complacency aided and abetted by the illusion of duty and public service the idea of tradition shelters quite well. In fact, the movie has its eyes set on dismantling the very concept of tradition to explore how they become automatic responses to dangerous ideas that deserve to be put to rest.

For instance, the town prepares its boys by locking them in their rooms for days without food or contact so that, when they’re released, they take to the night with feral violence. It’s a fascinating way to showcase the ways small towns force upon younger generations the anxieties of the past without taking into account how much poison they continue to spread throughout the community because of it.

It’s all highly effective and it leaves enough room for thought without allowing the metaphor to become all consuming. Generational violence also finds a place within this as a concern the movie hopes audiences can engage with as well. It has a bit of Lord of the Flies in it and then it mixes it all in with a generous helping of Ray Bradbury.

dark harvest

Two things keep everything together without fear of the wheels suddenly falling off: the performances and the use of practical effects. On the performance side, Casey Likes shines as the lead, a kid called Richie whose brother won the previous year’s hunt. He plays the angry teen with an emotional intensity that never veers off the path. He’s relatable and justified in his attitudes towards the town and its traditions. Emyri Crutchfield plays Kelly, a black girl that braves the white boy-dominated hunt with a realistic sense of desperation that keeps her from being a mere love interest. Her character lives on her own terms and brings a whole set of complications that enrich the story.

Austin Autry is of special note. He plays a bully character called Riley that is as villainous as he’s vulnerable. He becomes an obstacle for Richie and Kelly, but there’s a sadness to him that comes out in his desire to become the town’s hero. Autry’s performance adds a lot of backstory to the character based on body language and facial expressions alone. He goes lengths to not become another all-evil bully character that’s just there to serve the main character’s development.

The VFX crew, which includes Bryan Blair, Stacey Mendoza, Gary Tunnicliffe, Vincent Van Dyke do an excellent job in creating Sawtooth Jack using mostly makeup and practical effects. The creature gets a fair amount of screentime and more than a few closeups, so the team made sure they had a monster worth getting close to. This allows the character to have a distinct personality, a crucial part of the story as he’s not just a wild creature that’s only there to kill and be killed. Dark Harvest is as much about Sawtooth Jack as it is about the kids that pursue him for the sake of the town’s survival. Getting him right was important, and they got him just right.

Dark Harvest is a beautifully put together Halloween movie that confronts the evils of antiquated tradition with appropriate aggression. It has enough blood and gore to satisfy fans of that type of horror, but it’s the myth behind the hunt and the well-cast town kids that really makes the film soar. It looks at small town dynamics and stares them down to question their ways. In the process, it earns a spot among the movies everyone should watch on Halloween.

Dark Harvest will be available on streaming platforms on October 13th, 2023.