The Harvest

Director: John McNaughton
Screenplay: Stephen Lancellotti
Stars: Samantha Morton (Katherine), Michael Shannon (Richard), Natasha Calis (Maryann), Charlie Tahan (Andy), Peter Fonda (Grandfather), Leslie Lyles (Grandmother), Meadow Williams (Sandra), Journey Smith (Pitcher)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 2015
Country: U.S.
The Harvest
The HarvestA slow-burn, low-key horror thriller, The Harvest takes place in upstate New York, where the bucolic landscape and small-town beauty provides a perfect mask for twisted plotting, family psychosis, and basement-dwelling secrets. Much of the film takes place in and around a picturesque white two-story house located just far enough off the main road to maintain a sense of isolation without feeling creepily dislocated from society. Yet, as the film makes clear, exteriors can be extremely misleading, especially those that seem so unassumingly benign.

Inside the house is a family of three: The mother, Katherine (Samantha Morton), is a successful pediatric surgeon, while the father, Richard (Michael Shannon), is a nurse who has quit his job to stay home and tend to their adolescent son Andy (Charlie Hahan), who is suffering from a malady that keeps him largely bed-ridden and in a wheelchair. One day, Andy sees at his window a girl his age, Maryann (Natasha Calis), who has recently lost her father and been sent to live with her well-meaning grandparents (Peter Fonda and Leslie Lyles). Maryann is clearly a city girl who resents being forced to reside in small-town culture, so it is not surprising that she opens Andy’s window, pops into his room, and introduces herself. Soon enough they are playing video games together and becoming friends.

It is at this point that we begin to realize that things are not quite right in Andy’s home, as Katherine responds to Maryann’s presence with a thin-lipped iciness that far outstrips a mother’s normal discomfort with a girl climbing into her son’s bedroom through the window. It is soon clear that Katherine is not just protective of Andy. Her motherliness is more monstrousness, in the way we imagine Mrs. Bates was to Norman: possessive, vindictive, angry—but most of all cruel. When she feels that Andy is lying to her, she flies into fits of hateful, fearful rage reminiscent of Carrie White’s mother in Carrie (1976), a comparison that is amplified by both the tenor of Samantha Morton’s wonderfully unhinged performance and her physical resemblance to Piper Laurie.

Richard, on the other hand, seems resigned to his fate as an intermediary, attempting to advocate for Andy while not becoming the object of his wife’s fury. Shannon has often been typecast as a psychotic himself (he initially broke through playing a schizophrenic in William Friedkin’s criminally neglected Bug and he was nominated for an Oscar playing a mentally ill neighbor in Sam Mendes’s Revolutionary Road), but as he proved so well in Jeff Nichols’s masterful Take Shelter (2011), he is just as adept at playing vulnerable and unsure. He may be a towering physical presence, but he seems positively shrunken when going up against Katherine, whose eyes blaze with a barely repressed violence that might full explode at any moment.

All of the tensions upstairs are due to a secret in the basement that is hinted at before being discovered by Maryann, who draws the right conclusion (that Andy is in danger) even though she gets her facts wrong. Thus, The Harvest fits in with a long line of horror and science fiction films that pit adolescent heroes against the corruption and evil of adults, who are sometimes the monsters themselves and are sometimes simply their enablers. In this case, they are both, although the monstrosity has an understandable, if indefensible, reason for being that any parent will understand. In fact, The Harvest is similar in many respects to Georges Franju’s seminal French thriller Eyes Without a Face (1959), which similarly featured a surgeon who went to extreme lengths for his child, not just crossing but positively obliterating ethical boundaries in a way that turned his parental instincts savage. Morton certainly plays Katherine to within an inch of outright camp, but she reserves just enough humanity to allow the film’s fiery climax to play as high tragedy, rather than simplistic just desserts. It should also be noted that Natasha Calis and Charlie Tahan, as Maryann and Andy, give the film a warm sense of teenage solidarity that is neither condescending nor sentimental.

Director John McNaughton, directing his first theatrical feature in more than 10 years, keeps the film tense and engaging, even when it doesn’t seem like much is happening. He is clearly working in a register that prizes a slowing mounting sense of dread, as he eschews cheap scares and “boo” moments in favor of constant psychological pressure. You know things are going bad, and you might even start to guess what they are (first-time screenwriter Stephen Lancellotti keeps the film’s twists reasonably well hidden without cheating), but you’re never sure exactly when and exactly how.

It is good to see McNaughton back working in the genre that got him started. After achieving instant notoriety with the indie shocker Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986), which challenged the ratings system with its dark tone and gruesome violence and spent nearly four years in distribution purgatory before getting a substantial release, McNaughton has had an uneven career, to say the least. Although he had several high-profile projects in the 1990s, including Mad Dog and Glory (1993), which starred Robert De Niro, Bill Murray, and Uma Thurman, and the enjoyably sleazy erotic thriller Wild Things (1998), McNaughton has spent most of the past 15 years directing documentaries and occasional television episodes. The Harvest, having sat on a shelf for nearly two years, is unlikely to propel him back into the spotlight—and not because it’s not good, but simply because it’s too low-key to draw much attention. It’s not quite as good as some of the other independent horror films of late (notably The Babadook and It Follows), but it does what it does extremely well and deserves an audience.

Copyright ©2015 James Kendrick

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Overall Rating: (3)

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