Horror films have a special quality about them if done right. There can be a lot of serious socio-political issues raised in horror movies that might get too preachy and boring in a plain drama. But served within the known templates of the slasher and horror genres, it becomes entertaining and fun. The deeper ideas may not be apparent on the very first watch, but the film becomes layered, and its re-watchability increases. Dark Harvest, directed by David Slade, is a sincerely made horror film that really emphasizes the hero myth, the prejudiced behavior of people, and how easy it is to mobilize the youth through the us versus them narrative. The conflict between the individual and the collective is also thrown into the mix, but that’s all hidden beneath this world that resembles an American small town of the 1960s but is totally different in actuality.
Dark Harvest begins by getting us familiar with this spooky town, which is supposed to be somewhere in Illinois. The town is run by the Harvester’s Guild, and they have a special way to ensure that the harvest for each year is plentiful. That’s the good old bureaucratic stuff of this town, but the real thrill is that a monster named Sawtooth Jack will rise from the ground and try to enter the church before the clock hits 12 at midnight. This phenomenon has continued since; I don’t know when, and it’s not even necessary to question that part because that’s exactly the point. There is no history for this monster. It is like the seasons. Every Halloween, the town gets ready to stop Sawtooth Jack, but the job is left to the teenage boys of the town. Like an aimless army, fueled by adrenaline and testosterone, they have one duty: to kill the monster, as failure to do so would endanger their ‘way of life.’
This ‘way of life’ is absurd. There is no joy in this town. Director David Slade is smart to make the town look like a rip-off of films from the 1950s. The actors have the kind of hairdos that’ll keep Brylcreem in business for at least a generation. It’s absurd also because the adults never dirty their hands and engage with the monster. The one who kills the monster for the year is announced as the winner. Winner of what? Halloween? Oh, a ‘Run’, someone said? Doesn’t matter. The Harvester Guild’s member gives the winner a brand new car, and the parents who put their son on the line get to live in a grand house. It’s interesting to note that there is a carnivalesque celebration after someone ‘wins.’ That completely sidelines the idea that there could be honor in this thing, like someone receiving a medal for bravery. The event came every year, and the adults of town didn’t give it the kind of gravity you would assume. The anarchy that happened every year on Halloween had become mundane. In the proper Halloween spirit, it was only the teens that got overly enthusiastic about it.
The story revolves around the Shepherd family. Jim had won the previous year, so according to the rules, his younger brother Richie could not participate in the event. The game of hunter and hunted was as deadly as they came. Jim had left the town, which was impossible for other townies, as they would have required permission from the guild. Richie was now desperate to prove his mettle by killing the monster and getting the chance to go out of town and meet his brother Jim. The film then throws us into a nerve-wracking battle royale hunt where nobody can guarantee anybody’s survival. The ‘long night of Halloween’ is wonderfully captured on camera. The color looks exquisite, and the contrast offered by the yellow and orange palette during sunset makes the night even more sinister.
The Shepherd family truly is one of the saddest I’ve seen in recent times. The film doesn’t focus on the family dynamics too much, but the cowardice and lovelessness are palpable. The last such family that comes to mind was in American Beauty, where the gay military father had become a tyrant, and his poor wife had lost her marbles, while the son eloped with the neighbor’s daughter. There is an obvious lovelessness that comes from secrets and having a mask on, even in front of family members. Richie’s parents knew the truth about the whole thing, but they could neither tell Richie about it nor keep him locked in his room on Halloween. The film is brilliant at setting up our expectations right before the monster returns. The disorienting scenes in the crop field are a special highlight of the film. Richie and the other characters are given a unique personality, even though many don’t survive the night.
The film resembles a musical in its visual recreation of the 1960s town. The people sound like they know they are characters from a film. Maybe it was done intentionally to symbolize how unrooted these characters are. They never question who the guild is or why each year, so many boys have to die. Dark Harvest does well to not overcomplicate things with its political undertones. The film stays on course with the plot and follows its characters. But something happens in the last twenty minutes of the film where the film loses its fizz. The hastiness in wrapping up the film was very jarring. It’s as if the film shot the climax in the second half and was left with an overstretched end-credit scene to make up for not having a third act. We never get to know the true nature of the Harvester’s Guild.
The actual ‘winner’, the one who broke free, left me with mixed feelings as the Shepherd family’s arc was left hanging. Sure, there is some kind of ending here, but it is more like putting a bandage on a severed arm. Dark Harvest is at once a story about the hero myth and the senseless sacrificial attitude of society. How does a society keep making and breaking its heroes so that the new crop of youngsters can be kept involved in a meaningless enterprise away from actual political power centers? That is the question of the film, but the answers are elusive. Although if we look around, we can see the ‘mind control’ happening daily. The film is well crafted, right from the performances, the locations, the special effects, and the sound design. Even though it loses the plot at times, this is a thought-provoking horror film, and it uses the opportunity to humanize the monster as well. What if the monster is within us, and an entity like Sawtooth Jack just wants to remind us of that each year?