The Harvest (2013)
Regie: John McNaughton
Buch: Stephen Lancellotti
It has now been 14 years since John McNaughton’s last movie had to endure the hot lights of a projector. His newest work will probably never get that close to being burned. Not only has digital projection almost killed the classic way of showing movies, but also the sad truth is, that a little independently produced movie like The Harvest will never get the chance of a regular theatrical release. And so the movie, which was shot in 2013, suddenly and without any big commercial push, made its way to different streaming services around September 2015. Some word of mouth, really good reviews, my love for McNaughton’s other movies, and the availability on Netflix made me finally take a look.
The first half the movie really seems to be another character-driven drama—and a good one, too. Our hero is the 12-year-old Maryann (Natasha Calis), who, after her parents died in a car crash, has to move in with her grandparents (Leslie Lyles, Peter Fonda), who live in a small town. While discovering her new surroundings, she sees a boy her age sitting at a window in one of the neighboring houses. Andy (Charlie Tahan) is suffering from some strange sickness that binds him to a wheelchair, and he hasn’t left the house for a long time. His father, Richard (Michael Shannon), and his mother, Katherine (Samantha Morton), a former midwife, are taking care of him and also schooling him at home. Obviously Andy is the whole reason those two are still together.
Maryann enters Andy’s house through the window and the kids befriend each other. It’s the only possible friendship for both of them, because Maryann has some problems connecting with other children at her new school.
Richard sees the positive aspect of this blooming friendship for his son, but Katherine tries to prevent any contact between the kids, and she starts to behave very strangely. When the children try to meet behind her back and Maryann has to hide in the house, she discovers the real reason behind Katherine’s strange behavior, and the real horror starts.
From this moment on (a plot twist I won’t spoil, of course), the movie changes not only its speed but also its genre—the drama becomes a straight horror movie. The character of Katherine, who was more or less just irritating in the beginning, gets more and more psychotic. Samantha Morton plays the role with an intensity and believability that almost drowns the rest of the (also excellent) cast. Her Katherine is, for the most part, an even more unbearable female psychopath than Kathy Bates’s Annie Wilkes from Misery (1990), a performance that was deservedly honored with an Oscar. As someone mentioned on John McNaughton’s Facebook page: “If the Oscars would award real performances, Ms. Morton would at least be nominated again.” (Morton was previously nominated in 2000 and 2004.)
Also worth mentioning are both of the child actors. They fill their roles with a lot of life, and they feel like real kids. Surely Natasha Calis has the easier part, because she’s always in the middle of the action, when Charlie Tahan’s role is much harder to play because he cannot really move. The chemistry between the two works, and especially when the threat is getting closer, you feel for both of them.
The normally great Michael Shannon sadly has no chance to play out his brilliance. His character has the most scenes with Katherine, so he always has to stay back and he comes off a bit flat. In addition, Peter Fonda and Leslie Lyles only have a few scenes, and they influence the main plot in almost no way. But, at least Fonda has three great scenes and the last line of the movie, which answers some open questions.
John McNaughton has created a serious horror movie that probably works so well because it doesn’t stay in genre conventions. In the first half, The Harvest avoids willingly creating any kind of horror atmosphere, and this little trick it keeps the viewer kind of safe. You will find some suspense scenes here (one with a baseball reminds me of the kind of build-up Hitchcock used), and some moments with Katherine make the audience feel uncomfortable. Those thriller elements work great in the drama environment and fit seamlessly into it.
inally, after the mentioned plot twist, McNaughton reveals that his roots are in the horror genre. From this moment on, he surely has the audience in his hands and he plays with their emotions like a piano. He now uses all the tricks of the trade, from subtle scares to in-your-face shock moments, and all of them work perfectly.
Splatter fanatics and gorehounds won’t find much to like in The Harvest, but for all other genre fans, the movie is a must-see. It’s a piece of gold in the mud of the direct-to-stream offerings, and it further proves that this is where the B movie of yesteryear has found its niche.
Watch it now, and thank me (and Mr. McNaughton) later.