Discover more from Appetite for Deconstruction
'Dark Harvest' and the American Tradition of Sending Young People to Their Doom
Like all the best horror movies, David Slade's excellent new supernatural slasher flick thinly-veils a deeper societal metaphor.
I did not have high hopes for Dark Harvest. I’ve never read the Norman Partridge novel upon which the movie is based, but it was directed by David Slade, who also made Hard Candy and 30 Days of Night. Those films had intriguing premises (and, in the latter’s case, strong source material), but the execution was lacking (I have not seen the Twilight movie Slade directed, because even I don’t hate myself THAT much). I kinda figured Dark Harvest would be more of the same.
I am pleased as pumpkin pie to report that I was dead wrong. Dark Harvest is a fun, if not particularly funny, supernatural slasher flick that actually has deeper issues on its mind, but isn’t, like, all up in your face about it. In other words, it’s not “elevated horror,” but it is good horror.
The story is like a cross between Battle Royale, The Purge, and Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery. Set predominantly 1963, Dark Harvest takes place in an unnamed Midwestern town suffering from a curse: Every Halloween, a pumpkin-headed monster with candy for innards, Sawtooth Jack, emerges from the cornfields and walks to the local church, killing anyone it encounters along the way. Should it reach the church before midnight, horrible consequences will befall the town for the next twelve months, not the least of which is that their crops won’t grow. To prevent this, every year the town stages an event they call ‘The Run,’ in which all male high school seniors are locked in their rooms for three days without food or water, and then given machetes and let loose to go hunt and slay Sawtooth Jack before he gets to the church. The family of the winning boy gets a nice new house, while the boy himself gets a fancy new car, a big check, and the ability to leave the town, which they can’t do otherwise.
The protagonist, Richie (Casey Likes), is the greaser younger brother of the previous year’s winner, the more stereotypically All-American Jim (Britain Dalton). As such, he is forbidden from participating in this year’s Run… but is determined to do so anyway, because he, too, would like to get the hell outta Dodge. Despite the best efforts of both his parents (Jeremy Davies and Elizabeth Reaser) and the local hard-ass cop, Ricks (Luke Kirby - the dude who played Lenny Bruce on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel), Richie does, indeed, manage to join the hunt, during which he gradually comes to realize some horrifying secrets about the annual event.
Even without considering the deeper social metaphors at play in Dark Harvest, the movie is a blast. The effects - including Sawtooth Jack, who looks like a younger, hipper cousin of the titular creature from Pumpkinhead - are practical, over-the-top, and wet. Heads are particularly susceptible to cartoonishly-violent destruction, the likes of which would do Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers proud. I didn’t get to see Dark Harvest in a theater, because it only played for a single night, but there are multiple sequences that I imagine must have made audiences go NUTS. Slade stages and paces the kills with the macabre-slapstick gusto of slasher movies in their heyday: They’re exciting and gross and funny, largely because they’re so clearly not rooted in any sort of real-world violence. Sure, the characters are thin, but they’re well-defined enough to satisfyingly fill their time on screen before they inevitably become fodder for the meat grinder. Dark Harvest is a shock rock concert as much as it’s a horror film.
But Dark Harvest also does have bigger things on its mind. It is by no means arbitrary that the movie takes place in 1963. The U.S. had already been in Vietnam for the better part of a decade, and was a year away from instituting the draft. The Cuban Missile Crisis occurred in October of 1962, just as Richie’s big brother was winning his Run. The assassination of JFK - perhaps the single event which best defines America’s post-World War II fall from grace - occurred three weeks after the events of this story.
In other words, this was a time when, much like today, the world was changing at an incredible speed, leading to a clash between conventionalists and the more forward-thinking (among Richie’s other conflicts is his budding romance with a Black girl; the interracial couple’s peers and elders greet them with all the enthusiasm you’d expect from this part of the country at this point in history). And the big question at the heart of Dark Harvest is this: Why would anyone willingly send their teenage son directly into the path of potentially-fatal danger… and is the sacrifice worth it? The most upsetting scene occurs when one of the boys, having witnessed several of his close friends meet their grisly demise at the hands of Sawtooth Jack, runs home and begs his parents to let him in. They refuse: “Be a man,” his father tells him, pushing him away from the door and back out into The Run. I’m not spoiling anything by letting you know that the poor kid suffers a particularly unpleasant death just a few minutes later.
We never learn the specifics of why, exactly, this town has been cursed by Sawtooth Jack - and that’s part of the point. The Run is just part of one big system that has been going ‘round and ‘round for who even knows how long. It’s just kind of The Way Things Are - it’s not to be questioned or challenged. Sometimes, the violence even spills over into places it’s not meant to - a butcher (American goddamn treasure Mark Boone Junior) tries to protect his shop from being raided by dozens of starving adolescents, with disastrous results for both sides of the conflict - but even those events aren’t enough to make the town reconsider its tradition. We get to see multiple iterations of the post-Run celebration, in which a member of the elite and opaque ‘Harvesters Guild’ give the winner his prizes and makes a speech that seems meaningful so long as you don’t realize it’s the same speech, word-for-word, that he gives every year. And there’s a real sense that every boy who survives the run is going to be scarred for life by the experience, whether they’re the winner or not. The Run would be a ghastly ritual regardless, but it’s made all the more unsettling by the matter-of-factness with which it’s treated by the townspeople.
Dark Harvest a fairly obvious allegory, but it’s still a potent one. Generation after generation, our culture makes war seem honorable and sometimes even fun - G.I. Joe was a Saturday morning cartoon, fer Chrissakes! - and then old and powerful send the young and powerless off to fight their battles. This terrifying town and its abhorrent Run is, in essence, as American as trick-or-treating.
Now, as I said, you don’t have to keep this subtext in mind when watching Dark Harvest; this is not the sort of currently-in-fashion arthouse horror picture that feels the need to beat you over the head with its alleged profundity. But that, too, may very well be part of the point: Dark Harvest IS entertaining the way entries in the A Nightmare on Elm Street and Child’s Play franchises tend to be, and while I don’t think that’s immoral, I do acknowledge that it’s kind of… well… fucked-up. It’s a movie about conscription that knows its audience will take great joy in its most gruesome deaths; we sit there and think “How can the adults do this to their kids?” even as we are enjoying what the adults are doing to their kids. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but it’s true: In that sense, Dark Harvest is a more effective mirror of our own complicity than Killers of the Flower Moon. Go figure.
Those who don’t subscribe and share are destined to get a visit from Sawtooth Jack.