Tuesday, October 31, 2023

A Heart of Tainted Candy: Dark Harvest (2023)

Dark Harvest (2023)
Rating: ***1/2
Starring: Casey Likes, Emyri Crutchfield, Dustin Ceithamer

Based on a 2006 Bram Stoker Award-winning novel of the same name penned by author Norman Partridge, Dark Harvest (2023) could have been your classic creature feature with small town misfits joining forces to become unlikely heroes fighting against a powerful threat and, in a way, it does walk that path, but not without its bittersweet twists and grim turns.

Set in the1960s, at the rural town of Bradbury, a curse plagues the community every Halloween as a creature known as Sawtooth Jack makes its presence to wreck havoc and take lives, promising even greater devastation once it reaches the church by midnight. To fend off this entity, the folks of Bradbury initiate a ritualistic competition dubbed The Run, wherein the male teens of the town are starved for three days before being unleashed on Halloween night with masks and weapons, with the goal of hunting down Sawtooth Jack before it steps even one foot to the town church. (Given, that is, they don't end up either killing one another or raid butcher shops for food after brutally murdering the owners) The boy who successfully kills Sawtooth Jack will be heftily rewarded with a prize money, a decent housing and brand new Corvettes for a chance to get out of town to see the rest of the world.

This year, Richie Shepard (Casey Likes) is anxious yet adamant to join The Run, hoping to prove to himself as well as the rest of the town's doubters and bullies that he is just as good as his older brother Jim (Britain Dalton), who won last year's Run and is currently travelling across the states. All Hallows Eve night would eventually come and the town's boys, riled-up with a bloodlust for violence and the need to eat, are sent off to hunt down Sawtooth Jack once again. As Richie joins in the macabre competition with his small gang of friends, including the town's newest African-American resident Kelly (Emyri Crutchfield), they will unfortunately learn that there's more to the annual The Run than most expected, a deadly secret that puts them not only in danger of Sawtooth Jack and the murderous gang of teens, but also of those working in between.

Directed by David Slade of 30 Days of Night (2007)Dark Harvest (2023) looks and breathes small town horror story with its population of archetypical caricatures of meathead bullies, untrustworthy police forces and parents hiding dark secrets hounding over the main casts stirring up trouble and drama, all in the backdrop of an old rural American town that holds its traditions seriously, strictly and, dare I say, dangerously under the rule of a powerful group who may know more than they're letting on but choose to keep quiet about it for the sake of the peace. There's practically an allegory running throughout the plot, of class conflict and the repetitive nature of violence disguised as tradition, and for some parts it is handled quite nicely as it adds a little more weight and depth to an otherwise standard creature feature affair of teen victims getting slaughtered by a rampaging monster. But the further the story goes, the more questions it leaves open as it tells us how things work in Bradbury, though never bothering to dive deeper into the rabbit hole they introduced thus leaving some vital plot points hanging in the air unsatisfyingly. 

Fortunately, what Dark Harvest (2023) lacks in substance, it makes up with style; whenever the movie decides to focus on The Run, it guarantees at least one or two satisfying murders with a generous amount of gore, a crisp Halloween atmosphere and a very novel-looking creature design for our dear Sawtooth Jack. Makeup effects designer Francois Dagenais (of many Saw sequels) and visual effects supervisor James McQuaide manages the onscreen violence and it is impressive how well both practical and CG effects blend in with one another here, showcasing kills from both the monster and the deranged young men that's as entertainingly gruesome as they are absurdly inspired. Cinematography strikingly evokes a genuine Autumn spirit and captures perfectly the wide destruction both Sawtooth Jack and The Run cause. Talent-wise, Likes and Crutchfield more or less sold themselves as the empathetic duo since majority of the character development and focus fall on them, following their characters bond over their outcast status as they find warmth and trust from each other in this dangerous night, which does make the movie's conclusion effectively bittersweet to swallow.

Dark Harvest (2023) may not work all the way with its narrative, but it does a fair service of providing us a fair amount of thrills and kills, an interesting lore behind its creature and a couple of good leads with a heart. It's crafted to look cozy good and, I say, it succeeds at that, making this film a fulfilling enough watch for the spooky season, preferably with a bucket of sweets and nice cold bottle of pop!

1 boy killed, later seen set on fire
1 boy torn in half
1 boy had his head sliced in half
1 boy had his head pried apart by the mouth
12+ boys slaughtered, blood splash seen
1 boy shot on the gut with a shotgun
1 male beaten to death
1 boy had his head sliced down with a machete
1 female knifed in the neck
1 male shot on the head
1 male shot dead
1 boy buried alive
1 male stabbed in the head with a hunting knife
Total: 24+

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