Some things are just born at the wrong time. For example, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has the perfect attitude and physique for 80’s style action movies – but alas, he didn’t start making movies until the early 2000s, at which point that type of goofy shoot-em-up was passe. Or there’s Wes Anderson who was born in 1969 but who should have been born during the age of peak corduroy. And then there’s the Harvest, a film which was made in 2013 but which should have been made in the 1970s.
You see, there was a time when a mainstream horror film didn’t have to offer its audience a ton of traditional scares to be successful. Movies like the Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby spent a lot of time establishing their characters and creating a tense atmosphere and then only gradually eased into the blatantly supernatural stuff – and that approach really fit in with the late 60's / early 70’s zeitgeist, which often emphasized mood over plot. When you compare the Harvest to those sorts of movies it comes out well – it does a reasonably good job of starting quietly and building from there, creating tension through character conflict long before any sort of violence erupts.
Unfortunately, the Harvest wasn’t made forty years ago and I’m not sure that its brand of slow burn horror works in this day and age. Sure, all of its early attempts to set the table are evocative – when you first meet Katherine the creepy mom (played by Samantha Morton) she’s clearly creepy; when you meet Richard the dad who is undeniably hiding a secret (played by Michael Shannon) you instantly don’t trust him; when you meet Andy the obviously very sick son (played by Charlie Tahan) you immediately feel pity for him – but all of that tense moodiness don’t manage to make the movie compelling; its first two acts still feel punishingly slow.
And that is in large part due to the fact that we’ve moved past mood horror, past slasher films, and all the way into meta-horror. Audiences – particularly horror audiences – are very aware of how repetitive and predictable scary movies can be, which is why a lot of modern films have gone the Scream and Cabin in the Woods route and started to self-consciously comment on their action as it unfolds. But it doesn’t seem like the Harvest expects its audience to be savvy; it waits until the halfway point to really start digging into its central conceit even though most reasonable viewers will have guessed its big twist just from the movie’s title.
Look: this film is called the Harvest. Its main character is an obsessive doctor. Her son is bedridden, dying slowly of an unnamed illness. One and one and one makes three – clearly this film is going to be about some illicit organ transplants. What else could it be about? Its not like there’s a single shot of an apple orchard or a pumpkin patch – and even if there was, how would that be in any way relevant to the film, which is aiming clearly aiming to be more off putting then heartwarming?
The pieces for a good movie are definitely here. Samantha Morton is a great actress and her portrayal of Katherine is intense, swinging back and forth between tenderness and ferocity on a dime. Michael Shannon is perfectly cast in his role because he’s able to seem both shady and sympathetic at the same time, thus making his Richard incredibly ambiguous – you aren’t sure if he is a loving father or a total monster until the end of the film. But those performances are utterly wasted on a film that doesn’t realize how ridiculous it is. Katherine is 75% of the way to full on Mommie Dearest levels of psycho but the Harvest never pulls the trigger, thus sabotaging the film’s camp appeal – and without that little bit of cheekiness to redeem the lethargic pacing the whole thing feels like a slog.
If the Harvest had been released two generations ago it probably could have been a hit with audiences who were used to evocative-but-uneventful films. Alternatively, if director John McNaughton had sped the pace up by cutting at least fifteen minutes out of the film’s first half then it probably could have become a cult hit amongst contemporary scare junkies. However, what we’re left with is a film that is neither here nor there – an old school throwback that doesn’t really have enough elemental power to swim upstream like its more youthful contemporaries. I wish I could pluck these promising characters from this muddle of a movie and transplant them into a more appropriate Exorcist-ish environment – but alas, that sort of era-to-era immigration just isn't possible.