We’re in the heart of spooky season now, when darkness gobbles up the sun in the early evening hours and boogeymen emerge from under beds to roam free. October 2023 features a bevy of new horror screaming into your eyeballs like a sea of wailing ghosts, but if it’s that Halloween vibe you’re hunting for, there may be none better in this new batch than 30 Days of Night director David Slade’s latest, Dark Harvest.
Written by Michael Gilio (Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Amongst Thieves) and based on the novel by Norman Partridge, Dark Harvest sets its sights on a small town in 1962 where each day has a Halloween chill in the air. That’s because they live with the knowledge that on every October 31st, supernatural entity Sawtooth Jack rises to wreak havoc, threatening to destroy the crops and the town’s livelihood for years unless he is killed before midnight. In order to deal with Jack, the Harvester’s Guild has devised a tradition in which the young men in town are locked up and starved for three days before the holiday to build their hunger for a hunt in which only they can participate. Whoever kills Jack earns the right to leave town, as well as a nice new home and advancement in class for their family. Determined to do what his brother did a year before and win the hunt, Richie (Casey Likes) sets out to take down Jack, discovering the sinister secrets behind the event along the way.
I haven’t read Partridge’s novel. I cannot say how Slade’s film holds up as an adaptation. But what I can ascertain with certainty is that Dark Harvest is a high-concept tale packed to the gourd with rich lore you can sink your teeth into. There’s a whole lot of tricks and treats to be found in this story. So much so that it isn’t difficult to imagine that, despite both Slade and Gilio’s success with adaptations, Sawtooth Jack and his slaughter-scapades were difficult to bring to screen and pack into a mere ninety-minutes…a problem that shows up time and again throughout.
From the get go, the splendor of Partridge’s tale is brought to life with an obvious passion from the filmmakers. This is a tale they’re excited to tell, and it shows. Imbued with a majestic though eerie atmosphere and an eloquence that makes the viewer feel as if they’re sitting by the fire on a cold Halloween night, listening to one last scary story before bed, the filmmakers suck you into the enthralling world of Dark Harvest. Breathtaking cinematography sprinkled with a magical surrealism add to the sense that the town which the Harvester’s Guild watches over is unlike any other place on earth. You’ll ask yourself a lot of whys and hows as to the premise—like why doesn’t anyone leave this place?—but most of that doesn’t matter because the setting is simply one that defies logic.
We meet Richie on the hunt for Sawtooth Jack with his brother, Jim (Britain Dalton), witness to a place that breeds violence and madness. Like The Purge meets Pumpkinhead, Dark Harvest introduces us to factions of teenage boys roaming the streets in Halloween masks and armed with weapons of all shapes and sizes. They run along screaming, thirsty for the blood of Jack and hell-bent on doing whatever it takes to get out of town, even if it means death at the hands of the legendary pumpkin monster. While flickering Jack-O-lanterns line house porches, Slade’s movie is really its own brand of October. Less about the goblins and ghosts, more about the ritualistic nature of the holiday and the wild rebellion it spawns.
See, Dark Harvest isn’t as much a monster movie as it is a dark tale about the way our elders are willing to sacrifice our futures for their own benefit. There is a monster—looking like a cross between Pumpkinhead and an unmasked Sam from Trick ‘Treat, done up in delicious practical effects—but Jack tends to take a backseat to the theme of rebellious youth versus greedy authority. That will likely come as a disappointment to anyone that just wants to see a cool monster ripping through town, of which there is surprisingly little. Instead, Slade’s film leans into the madness of the tradition, escalating to a point of pure insanity as it becomes the teens tearing through town, not necessarily ole Jack. “Fuck the rules” is a mantra that might as well be tattooed on the forehead of every teenager in this film.
By focusing away from Jack while stuffing in so much story that it’s like an adult trying to fit into a kid’s Halloween costume, Dark Harvest runs too quickly to allow the tension to breathe or the premise to come off as fully fleshed out. There are pumpkin seeds of intriguing ideas planted throughout, yet the brisk script devolves into such chaos that it starts to seem as if there are pieces missing. Again, I haven’t read the novel, but it certainly feels as if the filmmakers had to do a lot of slicing and dicing to fit everything into a ninety-minute movie, leaving the audience lost in the dark when it comes to various bits of the premise. Not every why or how needs to be answered, but there’s one too many puzzle pieces missing for the viewer to get a complete grasp on this pumpkin-spiced tale.
Light on scares and lacking in the world-building department, Dark Harvest is nevertheless a bloody Halloween horror treat that’s completely off its gourd. An engaging performance by Likes and a well-crafted monster help to overlook what comes off as a carved-up story. One thing’s for sure, though…you’ll want to read Partridge’s novel the second the film ends.
Dark Harvest arrives on digital October 13th from MGM.
By Matt Konopka