Written and Directed by: James I. Nicholson
Starring: David Zyler, Jamee Natella, and Debbie O'Der
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Death reaps what you sow...
You don’t necessarily have to like the output of the vintage SOV era, but you do have to admire (or at least respect) the gumption behind them. Where so many people may have spent their time wondering what it might look like if they grabbed a camera and made a movie inspired by their favorites, many ambitious VHS auteurs went out there and found out the only way they knew how: by convincing friends and family members to give up their free time to embarrass themselves on screen in the pursuit of (hopefully) producing something that vaguely resembled the junk cluttering video stores at the time. I can only assume this is the story behind Dark Harvest, a ludicrous effort guided by one pressing question: “what would it look like if The Hills Have Eyes were re-imagined as a no-budget killer scarecrow epic?”
And that answer is something of a mixed bag, mostly because the killer scarecrow stuff feels so secondary. A nice (if not obligatory) prologue featuring a couple of bickering lovers lost in the middle of a desert highway sets the tone in an unexpected manner. Sure, a scarecrow winds up offing the ill-fated pair with a pitchfork, but what’s most pertinent here is the relationship drama. See, when the actual plot—which involves a group of hikers getting lost desert—kicks in, that’s what you’re actually in for. Rest assured that a scarecrow hangs ominously over the group when they decide to stop for the night, but it barely does anything until the last twenty minutes. In the meantime, gird your loins for the riveting interpersonal dynamics between the various lovers amongst the group.
Three sets are of particular interest (or not—your mileage may vary depending on just how much killer scarecrow action you crave): a pair of engaged lovebirds who may or may not be ready to take the next step; a businessman and a mistress who’s been waiting for him to ditch his wife for good; and the hiking guide and one of the hikers, whose relationship blossoms amongst carnage and bloodshed. Whether or not it lasts depends on whether or not they can survive what becomes a long day and night full of shotgun-toting locals, scuzzy rapists, and, yes, multiple killer scarecrows looking to ruin everyone’s weekend.
If it sounds like I’m snarking on Dark Harvest, rest assured that I’m not. Well, at least not completely. At a certain point—perhaps when I checked how much time was remaining and realized I’d endured a 30-minute stretch with no scarecrow action—I gave myself over to the awkward drama and bickering that comes to form the crux of the film. Somehow, it even became a little charming, especially the tour guide’s aloof, macho routine and the engaged jerk’s total disregard for his fiancée’s worries. I couldn’t help but howl when the latter casually slid a pair of headphones over his ears, drowning out her pleas for him to figure out what the hell he’s going to do with his life. Likewise, I am almost positive that Dark Harvest is the only film where a guy proposes marriage seconds after informing his mistress that he’s finally filed divorce papers.
Listen, I’m just as surprised as you are that this is the sort of thing I took away from a film that’s supposed to be ripping off Dark Night of the Scarecrow and Scarecrows. But since it doesn’t for a large chunk of its runtime, this is what you’re left with: picking through the bones of slipshod VHS photography (with minimal lighting, which doesn’t seem optimal for a movie titled Dark Harvest), warbling audio (there’s a reason the DVD defaults to the subtitles being turned on), banjo music, and awkwardly-staged softcore love scenes to find these idiosyncratic moments. Luckily, it yields quite a few, like an awesome campfire tale (that’s apropos of nothing to do with the plot, natch) and the wild-eyed redneck that terrorizes the group for a few minutes. His reaction is absolute nonsense, but his ominous warning that his entire family is dead or gone is just forbidding enough to assure you that killer scarecrows are indeed imminent.
Once they do arrive, it’s fine, if not a bit bewildering that there’s suddenly a whole group of them instead of just one. (Also bewildering: the fact that they sometimes look less like scarecrows and more like dried-up meatballs that have been sitting out for a few days.) They fill up the gore quotient nicely enough, even going so far as to rip one girl’s eye out and leave a huge, gaping hole in her face that qualifies as the film’s most noteworthy gag. You’d imagine the splatter to finally steal the show here, but that’s not quite the case: instead, the real highlights involve a hilarious payoff to the engaged couple’s prolonged bickering, and a cave excursion that holds an impromptu bullshit mythology to explain the scarecrows. To the end, Dark Harvest is delightful in ways you’re not likely to expect given the premise.
What isn’t surprising is that Invervision Video is responsible for digging this one out of the dustbin of VHS-era obscurity. That’s been their particular niche for over five years now, and this is yet another strange dispatch from the genre’s most infamously kooky scene. It’s the headliner on a disc that also boasts Escapes, a TV-movie anthology hosted by Vincent Price (!) that I am just as eager to check out for obvious reasons. For Dark Harvest, Intervision has even supplied a couple of interviews with a pair of stars, including Patti Negri, a Hollywood medium and self-proclaimed “good witch” who expresses the reservations she had about her nude scenes and the location itself. Her recollections paint the usual picture for this kind of lo-fi production in that it was a close-knit group that only kind of had any idea of what they were doing. Nonetheless, it sounds like they had a blast doing so, and that’s often evident in the final product. No, Dark Harvest isn’t exactly a definitive killer scarecrow movie; it is, however, the only one that boasts random earthquakes and an unhinged redneck lamenting the loss of his wheatfields.
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