The best horror flicks seem to be directed by film makers who don’t rarely ever return to the genre. I’m not talking about my favorite horror films or even the most popular among us horror snobs. No, I’m talking about talking about the horror films that break through to the mainstream and have a lasting effect on, not just the genre, but the world of film. William Friedkin with The Exorcist, Brian DePalma with Carrie and Polansky with Rosemary’s Baby. Could be that these directors, all of whom are considered revolutionary in the field, didn’t want to be pigeonholed into one genre or (the theory I like to go with) these badasses hit us hard in the gut, dropped the Mic and said “try to top that!” Director John McNaughton is another example of directors of this ilk. Back in 1986 Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer was released. A raw and unflinching look into the mind of psychopath. McNaughton delivered a genre movie that since has not been match and influenced a several generations of horror movies, but rarely returned to the genre. So when I caught wind of McNaughton’s return to the genre I was ready for another gut check that was almost 30 years in the making. But fans of Henry be warned. The Harvest is not Henry. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
After the sudden death of her father, Maryann (Nastasha Calis) is uprooted and sent to live with her grandparents (Peter Fonda and Leslie Lyles) in upstate New York. As you can imagine Maryann isn’t to happy about the situation and while exploring her new environment, she stumbles across her a small house. Naturally she decides to go into ‘peeping tom mood’ and meets wheelchair bound Andy ( Charlie Tahan). In a move that is nothing short of home invasion, Maryann climbs through the window and introduces herself and wheelchair or not this is every teenage boys dream come true and Andy is happy to have a new friend. This happiness doesn’t extend to his overly protective mother Katherine (Samantha Morton). Katherine makes it clear that Maryann is not welcomed in the house, but being a teenager Maryann only takes that as a challenge and makes it her mission to liberate Andy friendship. Sadly, Maryann underestimates Katherine’s over protectiveness and things go from concerned mother to full-blown Kathy Bates in Misery. Katherine’s increase instability is not enough to keep Maryann at bay and before to long she stumbles onto what is really going on.
Much of why The Harvest works is because of the stellar cast. Calis and Tahan carry much of the film and without strong performances from these two the movie falls flat. Fortunately, Calis and Tahan are up to the task and can hold their own to juggernauts like Michael Shannon and Peter Fonda. Shannon plays Andy’s submissive father, Richard, who quits his job as a nurse to stay home looking after his son. He cares greatly for his son’s well-being, but doesn’t have a backbone when it comes to his wife Katherine (who is still a pediatric surgeon). Even when Katherines over protectiveness goes from hard-edged to just plain cruel Richard can’t seem to bring himself to confront Katherine. Fans of the genre will know Shannon for roles that are over the top and unsettling, but here he gives a more subdued and emotional performance that (although he’s done many times before) he’s not quiet known for by genre fans.
And speaking of Katherine…
Katherine is the most terrifying villain of the year. She is a woman who clearly is use to getting her way and has surrounded herself with people who rarely ever question her decisions. So when Maryann shows up and throws a monkey wrench into her gears, shes quick to be set off. Samantha Morton is just fantastic. She’s evil and psychotic, but there’s a method to her madness. Katherine is woman who is watching her son slowly deteriorate and is going to do whatever it takes to save him. No matter what the cost. McNaughton plays this just right and showcases Morton’s performance just right. He never goes ‘full monster’ with her (even when it would have been so easy). The character is vile and cold, but we understand where she is coming from even if we don’t agree with what she is doing.
The Harvest isn’t a perfect film and definitely has it’s faults, but strong performances and an engaging story makes those easily forgettable. It was filmed back in 2013 and just getting released now at what seems to be a perfect time. With recent horror entries like The Babadook and It Follows that focus more developing intriguing characters and slow building plots. While The Harvest isn’t as good as these films, it fits right in. Fans of hardcore horror might be disappointed with McNaughton’s return to the genre, but McNaughton proves that real scares involve a lot more than just blood and guts and real scares is exactly what he delivers.
The Harvest is currently available on VOD and will be opening in Los Angeles this Friday, April 24th at the Arena Cinema in Hollywood.