Michael Shannon, Charlie Tahan and Samantha Morton in The Harvest (IFC Midnight)
In 1986, John McNaughton made a splash with his grisly feature directorial debut, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, a visceral first-person glimpse into the mind of a deranged lunatic which immediately cemented itself in the pantheons of horror filmmaking. Despite this smashing success, McNaughton’s career stalled in the ’90s, and, for whatever reason, the talented auteur was never quite able to reach the heights expected of him following Henry’s release. Now, nearly three decades after that seminal classic, McNaughton has returned from the wilds of obscurity with The Harvest, his first full-length film since 2001.
The Harvest follows recently orphaned teenage girl Maryann (Natasha Calis), who is sent to live with her benevolent grandparents (Peter Fonda and Leslie Lyles) at their secluded country home. One day, while wandering the woods surrounding the quaint abode, Maryann comes upon a small white cottage. Bored, she sneaks inside, only to find Andy (Charlie Tahan), a sickly young boy, lying paralyzed within the confines of a locked room. Though Andy is giddy to make a new friend, Maryann soon realizes the mysterious child is far from alone.
As it turns out, Andy is in the care of his doting father (Michael Shannon), a male nurse, and his creepy, obsessive mother (Samantha Morton), a doctor. Though the parents’ overprotective nature at first adds up to Maryann given the severity of Andy’s illness (a failing kidney), the more she delves into the young boy’s home life, the more dark and insidious the situation seems. As Maryann’s fate becomes intertwined with this strange family, she finds herself ensnared in a deadly cat-and-mouse game with Andy’s life in the balance – but is everything really as it seems?
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer set itself apart from the slasher pack via its precise, clinically serious perspective – presenting fantastically gory set pieces with a documentarian’s objectivity. Conversely, The Harvest is wrought with unrepentantly silly magical realism meant to project a twisted storybook kind of vibe. That might be interesting if Pan’s Labyrinth, The Orphanage and other adult fairy tales hadn’t made it to theaters, but given their looming shadow, The Harvest can’t help but feel a bit derivative in comparison.
That being said, there are wrinkles to the film that do stand on their own. Morton gives a blockbuster performance as the manic mother, making mincemeat of the scenery and having delirious fun while doing it. In addition, the always solid Shannon delivers another one of his trademarked slow-burn turns as the father, and screen legend Fonda is surprisingly convincing as a doddering grandpa (Time is a cruel mistress, indeed.). Despite not having the mockumentary lens to fall back on for authenticity, McNaughton is an experienced, assured hand at directing in his own right. Aided by skilled DP Rachel Morrison (Fruitvale Station), he crafts a vibrant visual palate which highlights the utter isolation of the deep, black woods and its myriad troubled inhabitants
Overall, The Harvest is a far cry from the style which first brought McNaughton to the forefront of outre cinema. That being said, the film has enough of a singular voice and a palpable atmosphere that it’s able to become more than the sum of its rather familiar parts.
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