Starring Vincent Price, Patti Negri, Cooper Steve Anderson, David Zyler
Directed by James I. Nicholson, David Steensland
Distributed by Severin Films
In today’s film industry, thanks to current technology, making a movie is easier than ever – a blessing and a curse. Audiences have dozens of titles hitting a multitude of platforms each week, making it harder for filmgoers to keep their finger on the pulse of the market. Back in the good ol’ days of video store glory it was much simpler: either a title hit VHS after theatrical release, or it premiered directly to the format. It would be ignorant to say filmmaking was more D.I.Y. back then, but without the benefits (i.e. ease) that come with technology making a movie was no simplistic task. And “fix it in post” wasn’t such a common phrase because digital advancements weren’t there yet. This is why I have a soft spot for DTV horror, especially if it originated during my Wherehouse-roaming heydays. A bad film is a bad film, but a bad film that was clearly made with reverence for the craft is like a warm, tattered blanket – it might not be much to look at, but there is a certain comfort and charm to be appreciated.
Dark Harvest (1992) is a film that debuted to the format on which it was shot: video. Made on a shoestring budget, this is an example of passion being poured into a product because based on the location, acting, set design, and creature FX no one was ever going to be getting rich – or famous – off this thing. It’s the sort of film that would have been easy to dismiss or outright hate when it came out but now, with the rosy tint of nostalgia fully engaged, I found myself appreciating the lo-fi atmosphere more than ever – despite an avalanche of evident shortcomings.
After the standard horror opening, wherein a couple lost in the desert is killed by a strange scarecrow, we’re introduced to a group of twenty-somethings getting ready to head out into the heat for a hiking trek. Their van is unreliable and not long after setting out the fuel pump seizes, leaving the group stranded in the middle of nowhere. Not having the option of calling AAA or texting a friend for help, everyone decides to set out on foot a little earlier than expected, hoping to come across help along the way. Eventually they stop at a seemingly abandoned home and meet a crazy shotgun-wielding dude, who warns them his family is “all dead” and cautions them to be careful. They quickly leave. As they continue to hike under the blazing sun suddenly a scarecrow is spotted, hanging by his lonesome and looking awfully suspect.
The group settles in for the night, building a roaring fire around which Alex (Cooper Steve Anderson) regales them with an epic tale of “bodacious babes”. He’s the “m’lady” type who would’ve made a glorious mod on some white-knight subreddit. The next day the group is splintered as couples and singles begin to wander off on their own. Two of the girls come across a pair of redneck twin brothers, who do the expected and try to rape them. The rest have their own problems, though, as the scarecrows begin to appear and slash their way through our hapless hikers. Unbeknownst to all, they managed to stumble upon an old Indian burial ground… and you know how those things go when it comes to horror.
Writer/Director James I. Nicholson’s story doesn’t exactly make much sense – at all – but that didn’t entirely deter my enjoyment. There is no other way to put it: Dark Harvest is a bad film, filled with amateur-level talent in every department… and yet, for some strange reason I did not hate it with every fiber of my being. Maybe that’s because killer scarecrow movies are far and few between, so you take what you get. This film never reaches the upper echelon of the subgenre, alongside titles like Scarecrows (1988) and Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981), but it is such a bizarre and atypical entry that a modicum of credit is due. I found it best to ignore whatever attempts were being made at delivering a cohesive plot, content to soak up the camp factor.
The scarecrows, while inherently creepy in their own right, are unintentionally amusing, too. One of them is credited as “Gay Scarecrow”, while a woman plays another – and this is only of note because during a scene when the scarecrows are chasing down a man one seems to be – how to put this delicately in 2017 parlance? – well, running “like a girl” and struggling under the oppressively hot sun. It’s cute.
Paired up with Dark Harvest is a completely unrelated horror anthology called Escapes (1986), featuring the legendary Vincent Price. Although this film preceded a more well known and celebrated horror anthology, Jeff Burr’s From a Whisper to a Scream (1987), fans of that picture should not expect the same level of quality or involvement here. Price likely wrapped up all of his scenes before lunch was called on set, and his participation must have been secured on the strength of the dollar and not the quality of the script. This little-seen oddity was written and directed by David Steensland, who according to his IMDb went on to do nothing else. Ever. Anthology films are ostensibly a showcase for vignettes but there is usually some sense of cohesion throughout, yet Escapes has a particularly cobbled-together feel to it. This is likely because Steensland created his feature using a combination of existing shorts and new chapters. None of the segments work, but a few are commendable in their ability to capture a certain nostalgic feeling.
“Hobgoblin Bridge” shows the most promise, as a young boy is goaded into riding his BMX bike over a decrepit old bridge, having been told a hobgoblin lurks beneath. The boy hesitates to make the short trek, but the fear of being seen as weak and afraid is a powerful lure so with great trepidation he starts the short jaunt. His concerns materialize in the form of a tiny stop-motion hobgoblin, and a race to the “finish line” is underway. “A Little Fishy” is about a drunk who goes fishing in a lake and soon finds himself on the other end of a hook. “Coffee Break” is a weird one; with a strange old man insisting a tired truck driver stop off at a specific diner to try their coffee. It’s the kind of fever dream Dale Cooper might’ve had. “Who’s There?” concerns a few escaped lab experiments that play a seemingly deadly game with a man in the forest. “Jonah’s Dream” is the longest story – and you feel it – as an old prospector lady pans for gold and eventually makes the find of a lifetime thanks to her departed husband. “Think Twice” has a ruthless thief stealing an arcane magic crystal from a homeless man, intending to use it’s powers for evil, but as expected he gets his comeuppance in due time.
Price appears in the wraparound as a mailman who delivers a tape to a teen, who has no recollection of ordering it. In a meta move, the tape is called Escapes, starring Vincent Price, and after Price delivers an opening and closing monologue on the stories about to be seen our unwitting teen finds he may be an unexpected participant in the film he’s watching. Whoa.
While neither of these forgotten films is likely to attract even a minor cult following, there is plenty of charm to be found for old-school horror fans who appreciate the subject matter – scarecrows and anthologies – and are forgiving of glaringly clear shortcomings. I would much rather watch “crap” from the ‘80s and ‘90s than nearly any of the horrid DTV horror offerings hitting every streaming service today. Kudos to Severin Films for giving these relics their due even if they aren’t due very much.
Dark Harvest was shot on video, while Escapes is listed as being lensed with 35mm; regardless, both pictures look like VHS tapes transferred to DVD. And I was completely fine with that. Neither of these films should look any better than they do, and honestly if they did a massive part of that archaic charm would be lost. Each film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, perfectly replicating the VHS experience. The image on both looks like a clean – i.e. hasn’t been watched a thousand times – tape with the expected lack of fine detail, minimized grain, bold colors, etc. We all know how a VHS looks, right?
In terms of audio, both have an English Dolby Digital 2.0 track. Dark Harvest sounds compressed, with very little wiggle room for the soundfield. Dialogue is often marred by high desert winds, and the bugs at night are loud. But Rob Hopping’s score has a slight Pumpkinhead-style twang to it, which is nice. Escapes is equally poor, with Price’s opening bits sounding like they were recorded in an echo chamber. Once the film itself gets going things tighten up a bit, but expect results similar to Dark Harvest in that deficiencies often appear and you just have to accept them as part and parcel of making a no-budget feature.
Dark Harvest Bonus Features:
“Remembering Dark Harvest with Patti Negri” is a straightforward chat with one of the film’s actresses, who discusses a bit about her career before turning the chat to shooting the picture.
“Dan Weiss Remembers Dark Harvest via Skype” is another chat, covering the film’s production along with a few fond memories.
Escapes Bonus Features:
“Tom Naygrow on David Steensland” finds the film’s distributor talking about the kind of man Steensland was, with plenty of back patting and praise but not much in terms of meaty information.
- Remembering Dark Harvest with Patti Negri
- Dan Weiss Remembers Dark Harvest via Skype
- Tom Naygrow on David Steensland