Long-delayed, director David Slade’s adaptation of Norman Partridge’s acclaimed novel Dark Harvest has finally been released. The film–which centers on a bloody crop-/community-prosperity ritual that a Midwestern, mid-20th Century town performs every Halloween night–has several admirable aspects. It boasts impressive cinematography: the view of the long, lone road leading from the remote hamlet and cutting through a cornfield gauntlet is nothing short of stunning. The film does a fine job of dramatizing what it’s like to grow up in such a strange hometown, and reaps added emotional impact by making Richie Shepard–younger brother of last year’s celebrated winner of the October 31st bogey-slaying “Run”–the protagonist (the source text focuses on a non-related character, Pete McCormick). Slade’s Dark Harvest also succeeds in planting the seeds of mystery and suspense, delaying the reveal of the town’s defining Big Secret until well into the film.
Unfortunately, though, the shortcomings overshadow the strengths here, and Dark Harvest ends up butchering Partridge’s novel. The film lacks charm; the teen characters are quite coarse in language and behavior, and the kills (not all of which are orchestrated by Sawtooth Jack, the cornfield-grown, pumpkinheaded monstrosity who comes stalking into town on Halloween night) prove exceedingly graphic. Despite its rural locale and year 1963 setting, the film fails to cloak its harsher, more modern sensibilities and feels like it is just wearing Americana drag. Partridge’s riff on Shirley-Jackson-style folk horror had a strong Twilight Zone vibe, whereas Slade’s film adopts the more dubious approach of a splattery pseudo-slasher.
With the October Boy/Sawtooth Jack, Partridge created a truly legendary horror character, a depiction that the film sadly does not capture. Yes, the cinematic Sawtooth’s flaming jack-o-lantern head is impressive, but his body grossly disappoints. Scoliotic and spindly-armed, the figure suggests an extraterrestrial more than an animate scarecrow. He has been stripped of language, emitting only an asthmatic wheeze as he staggers through the neighborhood savaging whoever crosses his path (the awful urgency of the Run–Sawtooth’s desperate quest to reach the town church by midnight–is completely lacking in the film). Worse, this Sawtooth Jack lacks the ingenuity that Partridge invests in the character, the demonstrated ability to outwit overzealous teen antagonists. Such distancing of Sawtooth as a mute, murderous Other renders the attempt to turn him into a sympathetic monster ultimately unconvincing.
No doubt, adapting the novel Dark Harvest was no easy task, and not just because of the special effects required to bring the fantastic Sawtooth to realistic life. Partridge’s richly poetic prose, with its lush similes and extended metaphors, does not translate readily to the screen, so a difference in aesthetic experience for the audience is perhaps inevitable. Still, Slade (working from Michael Gilio’s screenplay) could have adhered more closely to the book. Partridge’s novel is framed as a dramatic monologue, a form of address that naturally draws the reader in; the film might have made more strategic use of voiceover (which is limited to the opening moments), facilitating the delivery of the backstory of this Faustian town and its cabalistic Harvester’s Guild.
An instant classic of Halloween fiction, Partridge’s Dark Harvest is a novel to which fans happily return at October time (I myself have lost count of the number of times I’ve read it). Slade’s watchable but unmemorable film, adversely, is unlikely to enjoy such staying power; its Run promises to be more singular than annual for most viewers.