‘Dark Harvest’ is an Instant Halloween Horror Classic [Review]

The feature film adaptation of Norman Partridge’s 2006 novel, Dark Harvest was released onto streaming platforms this past October and should have received so much more attention from the genre community, because it is an instant Halloween classic, and, arriving on Amazon Prime Video today, it also happens to be this reviewer’s favorite movie of 2023.

To say the film is loaded with Halloween atmosphere is an understatement, as the holiday itself is entirely baked into the story of a small midwestern town, where young high school boys in 1963 compete annually for a chance to face off against a mythic evil known as Sawtooth Jack that rises from the cornfields every year on October 31st and must be stopped before reaching the town’s church, or else the coming year’s harvest will be doomed. The very first words of dialogue spoken in the film are, “It’s Halloween.”

The town is full of secrets and deep traditions, all centered around Halloween and the harvest, as the annual Run is sponsored by the Harvester’s Guild, who writes a big check and gives a shiny new car to the winner.

Dark Harvest takes first place in featuring more jack o’ lanterns than anything on screen in recent memory (maybe ever). The church is beautifully perched above a sea of glowing orange carved faces, and the houses on every neighborhood street are all in the Hallowed spirit, as well.

Casey Likes plays Richie Shepard, whose older brother won the annual “Run” last year, and E’myri Crutchfield plays Kelly, the town’s new girl with a sketchy reputation who works at the local movie theater. Richie and Kelly’s romance is understated, but it is what ignites a fire inside each of them to win the Run together, and then run away together. The fact that girls are not allowed to compete in the Run is mentioned briefly, and the underlying racial divide between the all white town and Kelly, who is Black, is left mostly to simmer just beneath the surface, sparking tempers to flare and spikes of violence.

Likes delivers a breakout performance as Richie, equally tortured and driven by his big brother’s celebrity-like success and what he perceives as his parents’ obliviousness to barely acknowledge the younger Shepard as a young man.

It is a coming of age tale that revolves around the right-of-passage releasing of pint up teen rage, quite literally, after the boys are all locked in their rooms for the final three days before being unleashed for the Run on Halloween Night. They all dream of winning the Run, killing Sawtooth Jack, and earning the right to take the “black road” that leads out of town, but at least one of them voices his terror at being forced to compete, recalling seeing the Sawtooth creature with his own eyes as a terrified young boy peering outside from his bedroom window one Halloween years ago.

Crutchfield also gives a standout performance as Kelly, who is instantly likable when she offers our hero the opportunity to hide out from his bullies in the theater auditorium where a movie is playing. When she turns up amid the chaos of the Run, wearing a costume with her own plan to take out Sawtooth, it becomes this unlikely pair against the world around them with one shot to make it out of what they see as a dead end situation.

Jeremy Davies and Elizabeth Reaser portray Richie’s parents as a distorted portrait of late ’60s Americana, seemingly detached from their youngest son’s obvious angst and longing for some deeper connection, while hiding their own secrets that once revealed send Richie headfirst into a crushing finale every bit as satisfying as it is devastating.

Dustin Ceithamer (Obi-Wan Kenobi, Rebel Moon, The New Mutants) plays Sawtooth Jack, a pumpkin-headed practical FX creature, also known as the October Boy in the source novel, first seen hanging from a tall scarecrow’s pole in the middle of the massive cornfield, among the autumn-dead stalks. Ceithamer’s physical performance manages to illicit a weird sympathy for the creature, which the actor described as like a newborn when we interviewed him, which is in striking contrast to teen boys’ ultra-aggressive, unhinged behavior. Sawtooth Jack is a new horror icon.

The boys all wear masks for the Run, with Richie and his pals each donning matching skull face masks (which are actually modified versions of the Misfits fiend mask provided by Trick or Treat Studios), creating a great visual of starved, mad skeletons hunting for blood.

David Slade (30 Days of NightBlack Mirror: Bandersnatch) directed the movie adaptation from a script by Michael Gilio (Dungeons & Dragons) that wisely does not follow the book’s story exactly, but still more than captures Partridge’s world inside this unnamed town amid the cornfields, with its entirely unique mythology, all built around October 31st.

Slade and his cinematographer Larry Smith frame and light the film beautifully, effectively capturing the autumn colors and vintage mid-west vibe, suggesting not a simpler time, but one when the darkness festers just out of sight due largely to a community turning a collective blind eye.

Immersing viewers in the rustling cornstalks, haunting breezes, long nights, and the strained breathing of an approaching Sawtooth Jack, Dark Harvest asks how much we are willing to sacrifice in order to maintain the status quo.

In  year of exceptionally well made Halloween-set horror movies (see also Cobweb and Totally Killer), Slade infuses a coming of age story about big themes like teenage masculinity and the lengths parents will go to protect their kids with an intimacy and a heartbreaking through line that had me cheering for Richie right from the beginning.

I can’t think of another film that has Halloween itself so perfectly and completely interwoven into the fabric of the story. It works on every level, from slice of America period piece to bloody creature feature, but at its heart it is ultimately one of the best Halloween movies ever made.

Dark Harvest is streaming now on Amazon Prime Video, from MGM Studios. (Watch it here.)

You can watch our exclusive interview with Dustin Ceithamer on playing Sawtooth Jack in Dark Harvest below.

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Matt Artz

Founded Halloween Daily News in 2012 and the Halloween International Film Festival in 2016. Professional writer/journalist/photographer since 2000.