Sunday, November 12, 2023

You Reap What You Sow

Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping? Use them after your own honour and dignity. The less they deserve, the more merit is in your bounty.
--William Shakespeare, Hamlet

The word "pagan" derives from the latin word, "paganus/pagani," which means, literally, "peasant." Its original usage also connoted "bumpkin" or "hick," though significantly not "farmer" ("agricola"). At its most benign, it meant countryman or civilian. Its modern usage reminds us that Christianity was originally an urban religion. Wander out into the sticks if you're a good Christian, and you'll run into a bunch of bumpkins who still practice the old religions. That's the root of folk horror right there. When you combine this with an America that still occasionally dreams of itself as an agrarian society, you can see how paganism and Americana get inextricably woven together. The people out in the country may think of themselves as god-fearing Christians, but the old ways still linger. Particularly around Halloween. In Dark Harvest (2023, directed by David Slade), a Halloween-y movie if ever there was one, this gets a treatment that's equal parts nostalgia and deconstruction. Like the inhabitants of Summerisle in The Wicker Man, the farmers make a sacrifice to their crop, but they stage it as an all American tradition, like football and fast cars. It's a film that inhabits an archetype, one that would be familiar to Stephen King or Shirley Jackson or (pointedly) Ray Bradbury. It's part "Children of the Corn", part "The Lottery," part Dark Carnival. Certainly, novelist Norman Partridge knew the signposts on the back country roads he was traveling when he wrote the novel on which this is based. And so does Director David Slade.

Every year on Halloween, the young men of Bradbury, a farming community in an unnamed state, send their boys out into the fields to hunt for Sawtooth Jack, the October Boy. If they catch him and kill him before he gets to the old church downtown, their crops will flourish. If they fail, then disaster will strike. The boy who manages to defeat Sawtooth Jack is rewarded with $20,000 and a new Corvette. The winners invariably leave town for the wider world with their windfall. The winner in 1962 was Jim Shepard, who dutifully took his reward and headed out, leaving behind his parents and his younger brother, Richie. Because his brother won the previous year, Richie is exempt from participating in the 1963 hunt. This galls him, because he has always dwelt in the shadow of his more popular, more successful brother. Jim was a football hero and well liked by everyone. Richie is a delinquent, who hangs around his leather-jacketed friends smoking cigarettes. Richie doesn't want to skip his turn to hunt Sawtooth Jack. He wants to show the world that he's as good as his brother. Better, even. This rouses the ire of his peers and draws the eye of the brutal town sheriff, Ricks, who enforces the norms of the hunt. But Richie isn't the only person who wants into the hunt even though they're not allowed. The new girl at the movie theater wants in, too. Girls aren't allowed to hunt, which galls her, and she's black, which draws ire all on its own. Richie's parents have their own reasons for wanting Richie to stay home on Halloween. Soon enough, Richie and Kelly begin to piece together what really happens at the end of the hunt. They learn, to their sorrow, who Sawtooth Jack really is...

There's a scene in this film during the main hunt that made me sit up and take notice of what it was doing. This is a film that knows exactly the audience to whom it is speaking, and duly provides that audience with red meat. In the scene in question, Sawtooth Jack catches one of the kids trying to take shelter from him in a tornado shelter. A dozen or so of his friends are already inside and they're closing the door. Jack grabs the boy from behind with a hand draped over his head gripping the top of his face and pulls his head above his jaw clean off. And then he wades into the shelter and the audience is treated to a veritable geyser of blood. There's another couple of set-pieces that are about as grisly even if they're not nearly so baroque. Whatever its other flaws might be, Dark Harvest knows deep in its bones that it has to throw some Christians to the lions to satisfy its audience. Once it does this, it can do whatever it wants with theme and meaning for the rest of the film. It's got a money shot. It rewards its paying audience. Everything else is gravy. And yet, this seems self-defeating. The premise of the film requires us to believe that one or more of the teen characters on the hunt can kill Sawtooth Jack on their own, while this scene demonstrates that Sawtooth Jack is not a straw monster (or just an ambulatory pinata, given that his heart is stuffed with Halloween treats). It's one of the film's most vexing contradictions.

There's a patina of nostalgia layered over this film. It has a color grade to suggest that it takes place in the past, while its social structures and norms clearly come from another age. It's not a slave to this, however. It casts a gimlet eye at racism and classism, while suggesting--strongly--that some traditions are worth discarding by new generations. In this regard, this film is aligned with the radical horror movies of the early 1970s, even if it doesn't have the grit of those films. This film's construction of America is fundamentally paranoid, in which the American dream is paid for with the blood of the young. This film takes place in 1963, on Halloween. Two days afterward, South Vietnamese dictator Ngô Đình Diệm would be assassinated. There was a plot to assassinate President John F. Kennedy in Chicago the same week, though that plot was thwarted. Three weeks later, Kennedy was shot in Dallas instead. This started the chain of events that led to America's entry into the Vietnam War. The notion that America is preserved by the blood of the young is a key part of this film's specific time. But not only that. America has not learned this lesson. Nevermind the subsequent wars since 1963, we currently live in a world where daily mass shootings are tolerated by the power structures of America in the name of preserving the American Dream. How many children does it take to water the crops? That's the central horror of Dark Harvest and it's not subtle about it.

The main storyline for our young heroes is structured as an archetype, too, and you could be forgiven for viewing Richie and Kelly as variants of Bonnie and Clyde or Charlie Starkweather and Caril Fugate. They are certainly avatars of disobedience, though neither of them is as violently deviant as those other deviant couples. Their trespasses against the social order are more nuanced. They're interracial, which in 1963 was as bad as serial murder to the enforcers of American civilization, and they refute the authority of the representatives of law and order. Like Bonnie and Clyde, however, they come to a bad end, with Richie truly taking his brother's place and with Kelly driving off into an unknown great wide open beyond the town limits. This isn't a film with a happy ending, but how could it be? America is still eating its children sixty years later.

This has a pretty good monster, but if I'm honest, it's not my favorite pumpkin-headed monster in cinema (that would be Stan Winston's Pumpkinhead in the film of the same name). Director David Slade knows how to film him, though, and Sawtooth Jack is convincing enough to be scary. There's an atavistic sense of religious allegory in Sawtooth Jack's creation, too, given that he's hung from a cross like a crucified man until he rises from the dead. The end of Jack's hunt finds the boys of Bradbury literally feasting from his flesh. In spite of this, the ritual still seems to come from older traditions than Christianity, perhaps because Christianity is a thieving magpie when it comes to its mythological imagery. The pumpkin head is suggestive of the festival of Samhain, the precursor of Halloween. Because this is a radical horror movie rather than a reactionary one, Sawtooth Jack isn't the real monster, though. It's us. We're the monsters. Richie's parents know this. Richie's mother cannot stand the idea that another of her sons will be offered up to the old gods for sacrifice and kills herself. Officer Ricks is the archetype of a petty tyrant who uses superstition as the bulwark of his power. The unnamed farmer who tends to Sawtooth Jack at the end of the film--more than the pastor at the town's Christian church--is the town's shaman. These characters hold more danger for Richie and Kelly than Sawtooth Jack ever does. And when Sawtooth Jack's secret is revealed to them, it's clear that the film is speaking through Richie's father when it demands that it all burn down. Bradbury--and by extension, America--deserves its curse and the just deserts it entails.

This year's October Horror Movie Challenge has run it's course, but I have a long way to go in writing about it. I participated in my friend, Aaron Christensen's annual fundraiser during this year's challenge. Aaron chose the Women's Reproductive Rights Assistance Project as this year's recipient for our community's largess, so if you've got a few bucks lying around, here's a donation link for the donor drive. You know what to do.

I haven't kept up with blogging the challenge for various real-world reasons. These numbers are out of date. I finished the challenge with 32 films total and 17 new to me films. If you want to see the total shake out, I posted a list at Letterboxd. I'll be posting reviews for a while in any event...

My total progress:
New to me films: 17
Total films: 31

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