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Best known for directing the seminal, controversial, ultra-bleak 1990 shocker Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, John McNaughton returns to the big screen after more than a decade away with this suspense-heavy psycho-thriller. Featuring two wayward child heroes, a wicked stepmother and spooky house in the woods, The Harvest puts a contemporary spin on timeless fairy-tale folklore.
Propelled by a steady heartbeat of low-level dread, McNaughton’s classy comeback is a superior genre movie but also a refreshingly old-school, character-driven nerve-jangler with no need for paranormal monsters or flashy special effects. After picking up positive reviews on the festival circuit, including Frightfest in London last month, The Harvest deserves to find a broader audience beyond hardcore fanboy circles.
Last seen in the 2012 horror hit The Possession, Natasha Calis gives an engaging star performance as Maryann, a recently orphaned early-teens schoolgirl newly relocated to a sleepy rural town to live with her grandparents, played by Peter Fonda and Leslie Lyles. A solitary tomboy type, Maryann makes an unlikely friend in Andy (Charlie Tahan), a bed-ridden boy with a serious medical condition who lives in tragic isolation with his overbearing parents in their secluded woodland home. Spotting Andy through his bedroom window, the fearless Maryann slips inside uninvited.
But Andy’s parents are livid when they discover he has had an unapproved visitor, fearing contact with outsiders could worsen his fragile health. Katherine (Samantha Morton), a pediatric surgeon and passive-aggressive control freak, vents her anger on her weak, downtrodden, conflicted husband Richard (Michael Shannon). Beginning a sly battle of wills with the sharp-witted Maryann, Katherine eventually bans her from the house while imposing ever harsher restrictions on Andy.
There are strong echoes of Kathy Bates in Misery as Katherine walks the line between fiercely overprotective mother and psychotic tyrant. It is a testament to the skills of Morton, McNaughton and first-time screenwriter Stephen Lancellotti that her tough-love tactics seem rooted in plausible parental concern, not just horror-movie malice. Even more so after the big shock twist drops about two-thirds of the way into the story, gear-shifting the story from dysfunctional family drama to lethal cat-and-mouse thriller involving heavy crimes and human sacrifice.
Shooting in fairly conventional indie-movie style, McNaughton maintains a low-key and naturalistic tone, allowing plenty of room for acting heavyweights Morton and Shannon to register each tonal shift and emotional nuance. The two young co-stars also impress, resisting any temptation to play cutesy or mawkish. Fonda also gets some knowingly funny lines, savoring the catchphrase “far out” like his twinkly grandfather just stepped out of Easy Rider.
That said, The Harvest demands a hefty suspension of disbelief in order to hang together. Hidden rooms and revealing clues prove unusually accessible to youthful sleuths. Also, why do all adults conveniently dismiss Maryann’s account of the horrors she discovers at Andy’s house? And the perennial puzzle: why does nobody simply call the police? The final showdown in the woods feels a little anticlimactic too, as the forces of evil are vanquished without much of a fight. These minor quibbles do not tarnish McNaughton’s excellent comeback, but it’s a pretty safe bet that Kathy Bates would have torched the entire forest first before going down in a blaze of glory.
Production companies: Living Out Loud Films, Elephant Eye Films
Starring: Samantha Morton, Michael Shannon, Natasha Calis, Charlie Tahan, Peter Fonda, Leslie Lyles, Meadow Williams
Director: John McNaughton
Screenwriter: Stephen Lancellotti
Producers: Kim Jose, David Robinson, Stephen A. Jones, Meadow Williams
Cinematographer: Rachel Morrison
Editor: Bill Pankow
Music: George S. Clinton
Production designer: Matthew Munn
Casting: Billy Hopkins
Sales company: Elephant Eye Films, New York
Unrated, 104 minutes
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