Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Review: Harvest Lake

Ever since the first scary stories were told around campfires, the genre has always been fueled by the intrinsic connection between fear and titillation. This libido-baiting is perhaps at its most effective and fascinating when dealing with the idea that true sexual ecstasy can only be found in the otherworldly, monstrous, and grotesque.  The ultimate kink.  It’s the reason many early boogie-persons (how’s that for PC?) took the form of Incubi and Succubi creeping into your bedroom at night for illicit, nightmarish encounters.  It’s the orgasm metaphor of Mina’s enthrallment to Dracula after that first bite.  It’s the heart of the Hellraiser franchise.  One of my favorite treatments is an old comic story called Jennifer, which was the inspiration for Dario Argento’s only moment of greatness since the 90’s.  Hell, it’s why there’s tentacle porn.  It’s also the central thrust (uh huh huh huh) of Harvest Lake.
Synopsis: Five friends fall under the seductive influence of a libidinous, otherworldly presence that threatens to change their lives forever.  
Harvest Lake comes to us from the formidable combination of Forbidden Films and Mostly Harmless Pictures.  Considering the track record of this creative collective (Found, Headless, Time To Kill, etc.), expectations are understandably high.  Harvest Lake does not disappoint.  It also isn’t at all what I was expecting. When Scott Schirmer (director) and Brian Williams (Director of Photography) came on the Picking Brains podcast and told Brad and I that they were making a “psychosexual erotic horror movie,” my mind went in sleazier directions.  If I hear “erotic horror,” I think Jess Franco.  I think Misty Mundae.  I think about that white-eyed, leather-clad demon chick that did the old Redemption Cinema DVD intros.  Don’t act like you don’t remember.  Those were awesome. 
Anyway, unless you’re new around here, you know that I have no problem whatsoever with sleaze. I’m a fan, in fact.   However, this isn’t that kind of movie.  Yes, the plot of the film is VERY sexual and there is a LOT of sexual activity in the film.  It does not, however, use its sex as a gimmick or simply for the sake of gratuitous T&A.  No, Harvest Lake wields its sex like a weapon.  It is the stream that the story itself rides along on.  Harvest Lake reminded me of Cronenberg’s Shivers in the way it uses sexuality to intensify the threat, making it more intimate and disturbing.
Also like that film, Harvest Lake is, deep down, a creature feature.  But the way it manifests said creature is varied and inspired.  Very rarely do we get a good look at the actual creature(s?).  Instead, most of the time we see the threat either through the lake itself, which functions as a proxy for whatever the hell it is, or the people under the monster’s influence.  It’s all very Lovecraftian, with the tentacled creature of unknown origin driving people to madness and mania through its hijacking of their primal urges.  That’s right, our unfortunate campers are getting it on with tentacle monsters.  Answering the Booty Call of Cthulhu, if you will.  It all culminates in the most bizarrely beautiful scene that you’re likely to behold for a good, long while.  
On the technical end, Brian Williams deserves a tremendous amount of credit.  Harvest Lake is an absolutely gorgeous film.  Not only did they choose a beautiful location to shoot in, but it’s perfectly photographed.  One of the things I’ve chided movies for in the last 15 years or so is the franticness of the visuals.  With average shot lengths of 3 seconds and cameras that never stop moving just for the sake of moving, it’s nice to see a director and cinematographer set up outstanding shots and then just let them speak for themselves.  Brian and Scott had the good sense to trust in their images enough to not resort to the cheap “shaky cam and overkill editing” tricks that plague the current movie landscape.  Between the cinematography and the editing, it’s a refreshing throwback to a style that many of today’s filmmakers sadly couldn’t pull off.
The acting also deserves special discussion.  There are a total of 7 people in Harvest Lake, with only 5 having dialogue and significant screen time.  With such a small cast, a weak link would have been immediately apparent and a huge detriment to the flick.  Luckily, there isn’t one.  I knew what to expect from Ellie Church and Tristan Risk; the cream of the current horror actress crop.  I’ve never seen a bad performance from either, and they both just keep getting better.  I was less familiar with the guys, who pleasantly surprised me.  I had only seen Kevin Roach in a couple of shorts before (The Confession of Fred Krueger, Bloody Hooker Bang Bang), and he turned in a hell of a performance.  Dan Nye and Jason Crowe were new to me, but both were excellent.  Not only was everyone effective in their individual roles, but they had the kind of on-screen chemistry that makes an ensemble cast like this more than the sum of its parts.
Issues with the flick?  Yeah, I’ve got one or two.  A couple scenes could have used a little tightening up.  There was a momentary sound-sync issue that will only bother eagle-eyed, over-analytical pricks like me. But those are small quibbles and pretty insignificant when talking about a flick this damn good.
Sex and horror have always been two great tastes that taste great together.  I mean, is there any more potent combination than tits and blood?  The “carnally debauched by the beast” trope has always been one of the most intriguing, but I’ve never seen it handled quite this way before.  In a genre where it seems there is truly nothing new under the sun, Harvest Lake took a classic idea, spun it in an original direction, and showed me things I have never seen before.  That is the highest praise I can possibly give a film.  It is exceptionally well executed; from the effects to the acting to the impressive visuals.  I think you’ll dig it as much as I did.  I’m not saying you’re gonna be running to bang the lake monster necessarily, but for the discerning independent horror fan, I highly recommend letting Harvest Lake seduce you too.  Nathan says check it out.
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