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‘Dark Harvest’ ponders what would happen if a 1960s pseudo version of ‘The Hunger Games’ met small-town horrors

David Slade’s long-developed film based on Norman Partridge’s novel kicks up a Halloween tradition with more stakes than it can handle.

Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures

Living in a small town can be a drag as it feels like Groundhog Day. Everybody knows everyone, and there’s probably an expectation of the community synchronizing their schedules for particular events and specific times. How dare you skip the Friday night football game or the Sunday morning church service? Traditions are present in the small midwesterner town within Dark Harvest but with a little more nihilistic twist.

Crops have to be attended to, and to ensure that happens, the teenage boys of the neighborhood have to participate in a tradition that borders on a 1960s slight take on The Purge. The outline is simple. On Halloween night, the boys must hunt an entity that emerges from a cornfield named Sawtooth Jack. Its design is long and gangly with a jack-o-lantern for a head, which it then can omit fire from. If ole Sawtooth makes it to the town church before midnight, you can say goodbye to all the crops for that particular year. Conversely, if one of the boys kills him, the victor gets all the spoils. We’re talking about a new car, their family gets put in a new house, money, and the particular winner gets their freedom from the town to go anywhere they want.

It’s morbid to think this is the only way to leave this place. David Slade’s adaptation of Norman Partridge’s 2006 book of the same name wants to invoke the claustrophobia of tradition and why we mindlessly follow them. Such is the case for the Shepard family, as it just so happens that their oldest son, Jimmy (Britain Dalton), won the competition. One year later, his younger brother Richie (Casey Likes) would like to do the same thing, but rules get in the way. Once a male family member wins, another can’t do the same thing. His parents (played by Elizabeth Reaser and Jeremy Davies) look to deter him from doing other things. If anything, they want to keep the piece because they live a life of idyllic luxury.

Michael Gilio’s story hints at something darker about this ritual and a dual story of Richie both wanting to get away from this place and prove that he can hang with the triumphant feat of his brother. At least for a little bit, it’s enough to lead you through the initial setup until the big night goes down. If Richie is feeling like an outcast, he’s not alone. Along the way, he meets Kelly (E’myri Crutchfield), the only Black person in town, and on the receiving end of rumors that she’s a frequent arson committer. They both come together and, as you would guess, hint at a romance brewing as they contemplate escaping the town once and for all.

Well, why can’t they drive away? That’s because the elders of the town, exceptionally high volume officer Jerry (Luke Kirby), make sure that doesn’t happen. From that standpoint, the film hinges on the faithful night itself – where hormone-driven young males lose their minds at a chance to destroy this entity once and for all. If there’s is one thing David Slade impresses with, it’s this atmosphere between hunter and hunted. As ridiculous as it may seem, the young teen men of the town go completely feral (and even join together to kill one another and a town butcher). Despite this, there are still a good amount of them who are terrified. Thus, when the visual of the monster shows itself, it lines up with the quick viciousness of gore as the body count and heads begin to roll.

Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures

The commitment to more practical effects does Dark Harvest well. The film counts on the audience being enthralled by the chase to shadow over some logistical pitfalls the story falls into. Towns fall into patterns some people feel comfortable within, which is why this harvest ritual happens. Besides what we know, there’s little time to understand why this keeps happening and why the adults are so committed to throwing waves of teenage boys at this thing. There’s another rule that girls cannot win the game, so Kelly’s reasoning to win it feels flawed. It could also be in part because there’s not enough space for the admiration factor between her and Richie.

Richie’s need to develop a sense of self beyond his brother’s shadow, a horrible secret, and a smattering of 1960s racism hint at other horrors beyond the ones that originate from the paranormal. With much of the technology at their disposal and perhaps an ability to get the word out, it’s hard not to think the characters within Dark Harvest have just accepted defeat.