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With great atmosphere and effects, “Dark Harvest” offers plenty of seasonal treats, but a messy narrative keeps it from fully delivering.

Dark Harvest

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In 2006, author Norman Partridge typed up a bewitching little tale called “Dark Harvest,” which has gained traction as being a minor modern literally horror classic among those with a spooky tooth, even managing to snag the Bram Stoker award for “Best Long Fiction.”

Having read Partridge’s brisk tale that lands somewhere between The Hunger Games and Pumpkinhead, I was highly optimistic about seeing what Hollywood would do with this Americana-spiked nugget of sugary gold that goes down like a piece of chocolate consumed by a crackling campfire at the witching hour on Devil’s Night.

With the directorial duties awarded to David Slade, the man who has helmed respectable horror ventures like 2005’s Hard Candy and 2007’s 30 Days of Night, I remained optimistic that Dark Harvest would be in capable hands.

After some delays and a digital rollout, we finally have the cinematic interpretation of DARK. HARVEST, and the final product is about as mixed as a pillowcase full of candy after a long night of trick or treating.

Dark Harvest picks up in 1963 in a small midwestern town where, every Halloween, the young men are forced to take to the streets to hunt down a creature known as Sawtooth Jack.

Locked in their bedrooms and forced to fast for three days, the teens are then armed with various weapons, driven by their ravenous rage to ferret out the creature and butcher it by midnight, with the winner’s family receiving a lavish cash prize, a new home, a fancy new Corvette, and the opportunity to go on to bigger and better things outside the city limits.

In 1962, popular teen Jim Sheppard (played by Britain Dalton) was the winner, taking the opportunity to travel around the States in his fancy new set of wheels. Meanwhile, his parents, Dan (played by Jeremy Davies) and Donna (played by Elizabeth Reaser), and his little brother, Richie (played by Casey Likes), have moved into their upscale abode in the fancy part of town, cherishing sporadic contact with Jim, now considered a local hero.

Determined to prove that he is just as heroic as Jim, the rebellious Richie is adamant about joining the deadly Halloween hunt, which he is allowed to skip due to his brother winning the previous year.

Much to the behest of his parents and several other local teens, Richie takes up arms and joins the masses, teaming up with the equally rebellious Kelly Haines (played by Emyri Crutchfield) to bring down the monster before midnight.

But as the night wears on, the duo uncovers a devastating secret surrounding the hunt, which leaves the town’s sheriff, Jerry Ricks (played by Luke Kirby), racing to make sure Sawtooth Jack doesn’t make it past midnight.

On paper, Partridge’s story twisted the cherished midwestern autumnal wonderland, which so many romanticize, into an alienated void plucked from normalcy and dropped into a gestating nightmare where white-knuckle anguish lurked just behind the white picket fences.

It’s the type of stuff that would make David Lynch grin through the glowing embers of his cigarette.

Most find comfort in the sweeping smoky breeze of a quaint village surrounded by browning cornfields and tucked in under a blanket of red, orange, and yellow leaves that emit an earthy sweetness that nearly everyone recognizes as that “fall smell.”

That exact atmosphere is pungent throughout Dark Harvest, and Slade understands that to make a damn good Halloween-style horror film, you need to make sure that it is front and center.

Slade then arranges the seasonal spice around all the staples of ’60s America — the “seemingly happy” nuclear family gathering for a hot meal prepared by mom in the angelic dome of the suburbs, the rebellious toughs quarreling with the jocks away from the prying eyes of authority, the wafting exhaust of car-culture, and the lurking racism hiding in the shadows of the idyllic small town.

It’s all giddily kicking its Chuck Taylor’s around the fallen leaves, glowing jack-o’ lanterns, and the Boris Karloff/Vincent Price double feature playing at the local movie house.

While Slade may hit a grand slam with how he carefully sculpts the season and the era, Dark Harvest stumbles over its narrative like a kid in a stifling Halloween costume.

The film hopes and prays you won’t ask too many questions, and if you’re not hanging on every thread of the script, you may come out of Dark Harvest without too many “hey, wait a gosh darn second!” moments. Fortunately, Slade also comes prepared with plenty of rip-roaring gore and an intimidating monster that stalks with a fiendish fury.

As ol’ Sawtooth Jack commences this annual ritual of teenage slaughter, heads get chopped, jaws get ripped, and a fallout shelter chock-full of quivering kids, who paid a hard-earned twenty smackeroos to get into, get turned into a geyser of gore.

It’s a glorious mash-up of in-camera special effects and some CGI trickery that is just subtle enough to work wonders with red corn syrup and latex.

When the violence diverts away from the hideous Sawtooth Jack, the film finds anarchic urgency in scenes where the starving teens begin to launch assaults on various spots like the meat market and the bakery, where the shop owners are ready and waiting with loaded shotguns they happily fire at the little heathens, with one poor sap losing a hand.

He chillingly responds through soggy-eyed shock that his father is going to kill him. It’s perhaps one of the strongest set pieces within Dark Harvest, leaving you wishing that Slade and screenwriter Michael Gilio would have done more with these scenes of upheaval reigning supreme.

And then we have our cast of characters, which ultimately equates to another big problem for Dark Harvest.

Our main man, Richie, who is played with plenty of plucky pep by Likes, skips around in a denim jacket outfitted with “BANDITS” sewn into the back of it, skipping around with a switchblade and bad attitude fully loaded with blankets. He wants to join in on the hunt, but his reasoning remains vague.

Why does he want to join, especially when it’s made crystal clear he is supposed to sit it out?

Instead, he rages out into the bedlam, joining forces with a gang of his friends clad in Crimson Ghost masks, a nod to the old 1946 serial and The Misfits, who get several strange nods throughout the film.

He does share a few tender romantic scenes with Crutchfield’s Kelly, another local rebel with a flare for arson.

Together, they work hard to keep us invested, and for the most part, it works.

Where things really dip is in the abysmal turns from Kirby and Davies, who play Ricks and Dan Shepard like they are in another movie entirely.

Kirby curls his bottom lip and adopts a bizarre drawl like someone cartoonishly mimicking how they think people in the ’60s behaved. Davies’ alcoholic father slurs and slumps around like a spineless zombie, fumbling all over the frames like he barely has an inkling of his character’s psychology.

It’s absolutely bizarre, almost like someone should have called in an emergency acting coach to find a clear direction for his performance.

Ah, friends, make no mistake, I remember that DARK HARVEST is, after all, a monster movie and ol' Sawtooth makes a formidable baddie. Click To Tweet

Sporting a bulbous gourd head complete with “FLAME-ON” abilities, a decaying torso stuffed with candy, and a wobbly set of legs that turn agile in the blink of one of his glassy eyes, this guy is one mean son of a gun.

You’re left wanting more of him, and when he appears in blurry background shots as he creeps up on his prey, you’ll shiver just like they do. Bravo, Slade, on summoning this fella!

However, much like the film’s overall plot, there are questions lingering around the “October Boy,” as he is often called. There is some vague mumbo jumbo about how he connects to a grave event in the town’s past, but the exchange carried out between Kirby and Davies is marred by atrocious line delivery that leaves you cringing.

Luckily, this haphazard exposition is overshadowed by a grim reveal that barks at the moon with glee, promising a whole lot of fiery devastation on the horizon.

It ends with the suggestion that a sequel could see the moonlight, and I wouldn’t be opposed to seeing what other All Hallows Eve tomfoolery could transpire in this savage little hamlet.

Let’s just hope the scariest things about part two aren’t the performances and plot holes big enough to drive a rusty pickup truck through.

Overall Rating (Out of 5 Butterflies): 2.5

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