[REVIEW] HARVEST LAKE (2016)

 

 

 

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Indiana-based filmmaker Scott Schirmer’s film FOUND made a big impact on the independent horror scene when it started playing festivals in 2013. FOUND was a unique take on some very familiar material, a story about a young teenager who discovers his older brother is a serial killer.  Technically solid and willing to take on uncomfortable and taboo concepts and imagery, it’s no surprise that the film had many horror fans anxious to see what Schirmer would do next. After working as producer and editor on Arthur Cullipher’s HEADLESS and Shane Beasley and Leya Taylor’s THE LEGEND OF WASCO (both released in 2015), Schirmer has returned to writing and directing with HARVEST LAKE, and it’s probably safe to say no one could have seen where Schirmer was going with his latest film.

 

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The setup is familiar: four young friends head out into the woods for a party weekend. Josh (Jason Crowe) is the birthday boy, and his girlfriend Cat (Tristan Risk, who — full disclosure — is an occasional contributor to Daily Grindhouse) has a special birthday surprise planned for him. Cat’s former roommate Jennifer (Ellie Church) and her friend Ben (Dan Nye) have been invited along, and when they arrive at the cabin Cat invites Mark (Kevin Roach), a camper staying in the woods, to join them for dinner. And before dark falls, the situation takes a few unexpected turns. First Cat explains to Jennifer her plans for Josh’s birthday surprise, then the four friends discover strange plants in the woods and something in the lake that seem to hold an erotic influence over them. The weekend, then, does not go as planned.

 

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On its surface, HARVEST LAKE is a take on the “cabin in the woods” horror trope, but one with some distinct tweaks to the formula. Instead of a monster or killers lurking in the woods, the “creatures” here are cleverly designed plants that exert some kind of sexual mind control over anyone who wanders into the woods. These plants, created by Schirmer’s FOUND and HEADLESS collaborators Clockwerk Creature Company as well as prolific Ohio-based horror filmmaker Dustin Mills, are excellent examples of what inventive genre filmmakers can do with practical effects on a budget. Also like FOUND, this is technically impressive for a low-budget independent production. It looks great and the sound is mixed well and used to great effect in creating the film’s dreamy but ominous atmosphere.

 

 

Despite its technical impressiveness and interesting concept, though, HARVEST LAKE never quite feels like it reaches the potential that concept promises. It gets closest during its insane finale, but other than a surprisingly matter-of-fact gay sex scene, the action here never really pushes the boundaries of what we’re used to seeing in independent horror cinema. There are moments where the film feints toward a hybrid of Lovecraftian horror and eroticism, but again until the final minutes of the film it feels like Schirmer and his game cast — once things get really crazy, they all really do go for it — hold back on really committing to the concept. It’s unclear how much of that is due to artistic choice and how much may be due to budgetary restrictions. After all, a microbudget can only buy so many dripping, phallic tentacles.

 

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That said, HARVEST LAKE is still unquestionably a much different beast than the typical indie zombie or slasher movie. This is a low-budget horror movie not afraid to include moments of eerie calm, and its commitment to practical creature effects is admirable and exciting. Schirmer’s approach to homosexual characters is hugely refreshing: they’re not uncomfortable stereotypes, they’re not entirely defined by their sexuality, and the film doesn’t blanch at depicting gay sex. That’s virtually nonexistent outside of genre cinema on this level that’s not specifically marketed to a gay audience. Ultimately, HARVEST LAKE is more proof that Scott Schirmer and his collaborators at Forbidden Films and Mostly Harmless Pictures are capable, passionate filmmakers willing to take chances and deliver something unexpected.

 

 

— JASON COFFMAN.

 

 

 

 

 

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Jason Coffman

Jason Coffman

Unrepentant cinephile. Contributor to Daily Grindhouse and Film Monthly. Member of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle. Co-director, Chicago Cinema Society. Attempted filmmaker. Proud owner of 35mm prints of Andy Milligan's GURU, THE MAD MONK and Zalman King's TWO MOON JUNCTION.
Jason Coffman
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