Written by: Chris Valaar & William Arthur (story), Ben Johnson & Emil Joseph (screenplay)
Directed by: Bill Rebane
Starring: Tiny Tim, Itonia Salchek, and Dean West
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"Marvelous Mervo at your service..."
Given the sheer volume of slashers released during the genre’s heyday, it’s not surprising that more than a few of them managed to be truly odd artifacts hailing from eccentric voices looking to smuggle weirdo obsessions into a popular genre. Few of these films proved to be as uniquely weird as Blood Harvest (aka Nightmare), a Bill Rebane effort most notorious for the bizarre stunt casting of 60s pop icon Tiny Tim in such a sleazy, violent movie. However, even if you’re not overly familiar with the uncanny effect that casting may create, Blood Harvest still manages to be a scummy brain-buster that settles in that nebulous zone where you can’t decide if this one of the silliest slashers or one of the most fucked up. That’s the sort of authentic weirdness that can only result from a situation where no one seemed to care how a work would be received by an audience, so long as it simply was received.
The only mandate here seemed to involve inducing a total freak out, particularly as it relates to twisting Tiny Tim’s usually genial presence into complete nightmare fuel. His signature falsetto accompanies the opening credits with a strange tune that seems ill-fitting for a horror movie—which makes it perfect, of course. Even the setup is weirdly leaden for what eventually degenerates into a slasher movie: a small, rural town has recently experienced a crisis that’s caused the locals to foreclose their homes thanks to a bank supervisor. When the supervisor’s daughter Jill (Itonia Salchek) returns home from college, she’s dismayed to see all of the changes, and she’s especially disturbed to find her parents missing and their house defaced. Even her old friend Gary (Dean West) seems a bit on edge now that brother (Tiny Tim) has become fully unhinged and assumed the identity of Marvelous Mervo, a grease-painted clown who’s strange but sweet. Naturally, however, he makes for the most obvious suspect when a series of grisly murders breaks out.
Blood Harvest makes for a strange slasher, at least from a formula standpoint. Where most of the genre’s output at this point was defined by an unseen killer offing large groups in an isolated location, this one mostly hovers around Jill. At first, it just seems like someone is messing with her, as she receives bizarre phone calls and has a sneaking suspicion that someone (possibly Mervo) is lurking around her house. The latter scene manages to be genuinely unnerving since we only watch Jill speak on the phone with an old boyfriend while a rusty swing eerily creeks away right outside her window. Moments like this are enough to convince you that Rebane made a sincere attempt at crafting something conventionally creepy and unsettling with Blood Harvest.
And while I don’t want to say that such moments are few and far between since the film does boast its fair share, Blood Harvest isn’t consistently conventional by any means. For every straightforward stalking scene, there’s at least a few bizarre asides, most of them involving Mervo, who begins to emerge as the film’s weirdo Swiss Army Knife, capable of providing jump scares and bewildering, suspicious bits. At one point, he even acts as a demented Greek Chorus, commenting on the action with an odd take on “Jack and Jill” that suggests he knows an awful fate is in store for Jill and Gary. Like I said, this one is weird, but in an almost subtle, unassuming way. Any seasoned genre fan can detect obvious, put-upon campiness, and Rebane will have none of that: for better or worse, Blood Harvest is an authentic take, something that he and his crew felt compelled to transmit, no matter how strange it might seem.
Taste doesn’t seem to have been much of a priority, either. Blood Harvest sort of lures you in with this off-kilter tale about a girl, her friend, and this sad, lonely clown before promptly blindsiding you with genuinely uncomfortable instances of sexual assault. We watch as Rebane’s camera unflinchingly captures Jill’s unseen stalker knocking her out with chloroform before stripping her and snapping photos of her nude body. Multiple scenes unfold in a similar manner, lending an unnerving, voyeuristic quality to Blood Harvest that subverts the typical 80s splatter dynamic. Not that most of those films are exactly virtuous in its treatment of nudity, but there’s at least some sense of consent and revelry in it. Here, there’s nothing but complicity, almost as if Rebane wants you to rub your nose in this unpleasantness.
Doing so colors the rest of the film in straight-up nastiness. What starts as this kind of uncomfortably funny slasher movie grows genuinely uncomfortable, especially as the script begins to tip its hand at the killer’s identity. Figuring out shouldn’t be that difficult anyway, but at a certain point—right around the time Gary’s obvious jealousy for Jill’s boyfriend begins to change the tenor in his voice—there’s no doubt who’s perpetrating these unsettling attacks on Jill. Soon enough, her friends also become targets of vicious assaults that leave their corpses dangling upside-down in a barn, blood dripping down from their slit throats. Again, there’s nothing pleasant about this grisliness, as Rebane isn’t reveling in splatter, nor does he invite the audience to delight in it—this stuff feels really disturbing, particularly when the killer reveals his motivation. It’s not mind-blowing, nor is it particularly original; however, Rebane’s decision to couch it in such seediness renders it authentically unsettling. As I’m sure many women can attest to, there’s perhaps nothing scarier than the “nice guy” who will do anything to be with you, and West inhabits that persona to disturbing effect.
Still, though, Blood Harvest can’t just proceed in this straight line. No matter how alarming it is, something eccentric nips at the heels, thwarting every attempt it makes to be taken seriously. Consider it an inherent paradox of casting Tiny Tim in a prominent role, as he upends the entire thing, acting as sort of a rogue, trickster element. Even though his purpose in Blood Harvest isn’t made completely clear until the very end, there’s little doubt he’s the center of gravity. That falsetto voice is so staggeringly strange, and his presence is a bundle of contradictions: he’s simultaneously jovial and sad, childlike but perceptive, nightmarish but gentle. He’s the perfect reflection of Blood Harvest, a film that refuses to comply with whatever expectations you might have for it. Rebane’s certainly in no rush to clarify it, content to capture this madness with a workmanlike lensing that takes in everything so matter-of-factly, as if weirdo clowns and declarations of “I love you like a brother” following a sexual assault are normal.
Toss in an incongruent and often inappropriate score, and you have the makings of one of the most unsettling, weird, hilarious, and disturbing late-80s slashers. Blood Harvest cements Rebane’s legacy as one of America’s unsung, low-budget weirdos, and deserves more than to have much of his work dumped into unassuming public domain sets.
Blood Harvest is currently streaming on Shudder alongside fellow Rebane efforts The Demon of Ludlow and The Game (aka The Cold).
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