Starring Michael Shannon, Samantha Morton, Natasha Calis, Charlie Tahan
Directed by John McNaughton
Distributed by Scream Factory
Nearly thirty years ago director John McNaughton delivered what still stands as one of the most visceral, impactful horror films ever made – Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986). The raw, unvarnished 16mm aesthetic lent the film an aura of reality few horror pictures are able to achieve. But McNaughton’s stay in the realm of horror would be brief, with only one other film in the genre – 1991’s The Borrower (which is really sci-fi/horror) – and an episode of Showtime’s “Masters of Horror” (2005-2007) to his credit. Now, after a career largely directing television episodes, McNaughton has made a semi-return with his latest thriller, The Harvest (2013). While it is certainly nice to see the director back in his old stomping grounds, this latest picture feels like it would work better in McNaughton’s other frequent medium: television.
After losing both of her parents, young Maryann (Natasha Calis) moves in with her grandparents (Peter Fonda and Leslie Lyles) and begins to search around town for a friend. She comes across the window of Andy (Charlie Tahan), a young boy who is essentially housebound due to an undisclosed sickness. Andy’s mother, Katherine (Samantha Morton), is a stern doctor who absolutely refuses to allow Andy to play with Maryann. His father, Richard (Michael Shannon), is a bit more understanding, allowing the two kids to play video games while Katherine is out of the house. But eventually Katherine figures out what’s going on, leading her to cut Maryann out entirely. Maryann refuses to accept Katherine’s wishes and continues to visit Andy. One afternoon, after she has assisted Andy in leaving the house so they can play baseball, Andy’s mother calls to say she’s coming home early. Maryann and Andy race inside, but Maryann can’t leave before Katherine walks in the door, so she hides behind a door, which leads down into the basement, where she finds Andy’s parents have a secret hidden below.
The reason why this film would have worked better as a television episode than a film is because there are two twists to be found here, and once the first is uncovered the second can be guessed by anyone familiar with cinematic storytelling in a matter of minutes, maybe even seconds. Yet the picture continues on almost as though it’s assuming viewers won’t be keen enough to figure things out. If you can’t, maybe the revelations in the last act will be somewhat shocking; however, I would be willing to bet very few viewers are so naïve. Very little tension is built throughout the first two acts because Andy’s ailments are presented so nebulously that it seems he’s just a sick kid with two whacked-out parents. The scariest thing about the film’s first hour is imaging yourself caught in a torturous marriage like Shannon’s character. And again, once viewers can telegraph the film’s final moments after a marginally shocking reveal there’s really not much left to thrill.
What bolsters the material are some strong performances, especially Samantha Morton as Andy’s hellish mother who is overprotecting to a serious fault. Morton initially seems to be nothing more than a profoundly dedicated mother who happens to be a doctor, and she’s beginning to crack under the pressure of finding a cure for what ails the kid. As the film progresses, her mental state deteriorates to a point where it’s clear she is entirely malevolent in her actions toward Andy, prompting Richard to step in when he would normally remain quiet. As Andy’s father, Michael Shannon portrays a detached, stoic man who yields to his wife’s requests and rarely speaks up to defend himself. And like every good man who is constantly stepped on and put down, he eventually reaches a breaking point and suddenly becomes essential to the story’s conclusion.
There are some strong moments in The Harvest, but they aren’t enough to offset the relative lack of tension and they definitely don’t help after the mystery has been blown wide open. The story would be better served in a shorter medium so that the twists can be revealed in quicker succession; as a film there’s a sense of deflation once key points are made clear. The tight cast of characters doesn’t have a weak link among it, with everyone involved digging deep into the material and giving it a real shot of life. Commendable performances make this one at the least worth a watch, but it has little replay value.
The film’s 1.85:1 1080p picture is nicely detailed; featuring strong color saturation, very fine film grain and excellent definition throughout. Nearly all of the film takes place during the day or in well-lit rooms, so there isn’t much chance to show off true black levels. The picture itself exhibits a nice sense of depth. It may not be visually striking, but this is a solid transfer that looks sharp in HD.
The audio might be overcompensating a bit, with the English DTS-HD MA 7.1 surround sound track seeming like overkill considering the picture utilizes such a minimalist sound design. To be fair, sounds are discreetly placed, allowing for the track to sound full and immersive. Rears come into play sparingly but effectively. The score repeats simple motifs throughout, never really hitting any of the typical horror stings viewers might expect. Subtitles are available in English SDH and Spanish.
Director John McNaughton and producer Steven A. Jones deliver a fairly thoughtful audio commentary. The opening scene, which has no real bearing on the film, was intended to be a non-sequitur to throw off the audience. I thought the scene came across as superfluous if anything. The two also discuss choosing the house and what they wanted out of the score.
The film’s theatrical trailer is also included.
- Audio Commentary with director John McNaughton and producer Steven A. Jones
- Theatrical Trailer