Teenage existence can be a challenging experience, regardless of your place of origin. However, the adolescents of Dark Harvest face a unique and ominous ordeal. In an idyllic, yet unnamed Midwestern town during the early 1960s, young boys grapple with more than just the usual adolescent struggles involving hormones and homework. They also must confront an annual ritual that thins their ranks: Every Halloween, they embark on a quest to hunt down a mythical creature—a towering, screaming scarecrow adorned with a grinning Jack-o’-lantern visage. This sinister being emerges from a cornfield and advances toward the local church. If it infiltrates the church, the year’s harvest is doomed. However, there’s a silver lining for the teenager who successfully halts this monstrous entity: the opportunity to escape their rural purgatory—a privilege unavailable to anyone else. In return, their family receives a new home, a new car, and the ultimate bragging rights.
Sawtooth Jack, the aptly named monster (presumably because Pumpkinhead was already taken), does not succumb easily. Observing the creature treating one child’s head as though it were a candy dispenser might be sufficient to make any of his peers envy the ill-fated residents of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” which remains the quintessential tale of American small towns with deadly traditions. In just a few pages, Jackson skillfully hinted at the fate awaiting the unfortunate “winner” of her gruesome lottery. In contrast, Dark Harvest promptly discloses the nature of its annual macabre event, and this is where the film’s issues commence—a creature feature that is, in the end, irreparably silly.
Screenwriter Michael Gilio, adapting Norman Partridge’s award-winning 2006 horror novel, at least endeavors to contemplate what life would be like when a potentially fatal monster hunt looms over you year-round. There’s a poignant early scene depicting the terrified boys sitting on bleachers, attempting to convince themselves that Sawtooth is a figment of their imagination—although, considering the rising body count throughout the film, one would assume that the dwindling number of graduates should quell such wishful thinking. Nevertheless, Dark Harvest’s portrayal of the 1960s small-town setting falls short of authenticity, lacking the realism of a genuine place and failing to embrace a sufficiently stylized, David Lynch-like, retro ambiance.
The characters in the film aren’t any more nuanced or credible. We follow Richie (Casey Likes), whose older brother, an all-American football hero, successfully captured Sawtooth the previous Halloween and promptly left town. Although Richie is exempt from the annual ritual, he yearns for an escape as well, and who can blame him? He prepares for the impending hunt against the wishes of his parents, portrayed by the equally Stepford-esque Elizabeth Reaser and Jeremy Davies. Both parents sport matching haircuts, glasses, and a melancholic demeanor, reminiscent of Henry Thomas in another recent, yet similarly unconvincing, horror movie set in a comparably unconvincing 1960s America.