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'The Harvest' Yields A Creepy Crop Of Mommy Mayhem

By Joel Wicklund in Arts & Entertainment on Apr 20, 2015 5:45PM

Michael Shannon, Charlie Tahan and Samantha Morton in "The Harvest." (Photo: IFC Films)

Though very different films in most regards, John McNaughton's The Harvest would make a good double feature with the recent word-of-mouth Australian hit, The Babadook. Both make motherhood the central theme of a horror tale and both feature excellent lead performances by actresses as women pushed to the brink of madness, if not well past it.

Where The Babadook took the supernatural road to portray a single mother overwhelmed by her circumstances, The Harvest makes its real-world surroundings the center of terror and its troubled mommy thinks she has things under control. Of course, she is bat-shit crazy as is her notion of "under control." Played with nerve-rattling intensity by Samantha Morton, physician and mother Katherine combines the God complex of an arrogant doctor with the warped, controlling maternal instincts of Piper Laurie in Carrie.

Katherine and her henpecked husband Richard (Michael Shannon, giving a subdued shade to his ever-present edginess) are treating young son Andy at home to try and save him from an unnamed but crippling and potentially fatal disease. It isn't clear at first why pediatrician Katherine and nurse Richard don't have their son in a proper hospital, but soon we find that Katherine has designed a radical treatment, which necessitates Richard procuring some black market drugs.

Their treatment goes well beyond ill-gotten pharmaceuticals, but further details would spoil a couple of decent twists the movie has up its sleeve. Untwisting those secrets for the viewer is Maryann (Natasha Calis), who has moved to town with her grandparents after the tragic death of her father. Maryann peeks inside her neighbors' home to find bedridden Andy (Charlie Tahan) and a friendship quickly develops.

For reasons both practical and psychotic, Katherine sees Maryann as a threat and in response she becomes more than a tad threatening herself. Morton imbues a simple line reading like, "Maryann, I need you to go home" with implications of real danger and violence.

The medical couple gets quite crazy indeed, though it's a credit to both Morton and Shannon that both parents remain believable and even sympathetic to a degree, even as their actions become truly monstrous. Morton has the bigger challenge in this regard, as we know something is way, way off about Katherine from the beginning.

In an interview with Chicagoist last fall, director John McNaughton said that what attracted him to Stephen Lancellotti's screenplay was that "Beneath the surface, this had the bones of a Grimm's fairytale." And while McNaughton never crosses over into gothic or fantasy territory stylistically, The Harvest merges coming-of-age fears with grisly suggestion in a way that does have a certain Hansel and Gretel vibe.

McNaughton's considerable skills haven't dulled after a dozen years between feature films (he has been working regularly in TV and theater). The director of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Mad Dog and Glory and the underrated Normal Life has always made the everyday discomforting in all the genres he's worked in. It's an approach horror could use more of. While McNaughton jacks up the suspense when needed, he knows a slow build can have a better payoff than a movie overloaded with easy jumps. Visually, he and cinematographer Rachel Morrison (Sound of My Voice, Fruitvale Station) play up the autumnal comfort of their settings, making the familiar unsettling as the plot grows darker.

The Harvest would have been better without short bookending baseball game scenes that seem more intended for a coming-of-age drama with no horror elements. And there are moments when the kids seem to belong to a much earlier generation than their own, though both Calis and Tahan are quite good in their parts. Peter Fonda, mainly solid as Maryann's grandfather, should also have not been given some fleeting lines that wink at the audience regarding the actor's counterculture past. They are too cute and take us out of the movie a little bit.

Taken as a whole, however, this is a first-class chiller and certainly several cuts above most contemporary horror...which brings us back to The Babadook. Both of these quality movies are being distributed in the U.S. by IFC Films, but while The Babadook was given a healthy publicity push that included a limited but heavily promoted theatrical release, The Harvest has practically been snuck out with little fanfare. Maybe marketers saw minimal box office potential, but even its video-on-demand release seems to have been handled as an afterthought. (With both McNaughton and Shannon having deep Chicago connections, you also hope at least one of the city's specialty film venues will book some screenings down the line.)

The VOD market is increasingly essential to the survival of low-budget, independent films as blockbusters claim ownership of multiplexes. But in a world of endless online menus and video queues, a movie can be just as easily lost in a VOD void as a failed theatrical release. Maybe The Harvest was never going to get the buzz The Babadook has enjoyed, but it's hard for people to discover a movie when they don't even know it exists.

The Harvest. Directed by John McNaughton. Screenplay by Stephen Lancellotti. Starring Samantha Morton, Michael Shannon, Natasha Calis, Charlie Tahan and Peter Fonda. 104 mins. No MPAA rating.

Available through Amazon Instant Video, iTunes, Xfinity On Demand and other video-on-demand services.