Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Savage Harvest (1994)

A group of meat is taking a trip to the woods to clear out some of the property of an uncle of one of them. Uncle tells them an old legend: the land they are on is supposed to be cursed by an evil Cherokee shaman. Demons are trapped in some very special stones one the property, but are dormant until a descendant of the Cherokee elder who killed the shaman for his evil ways will visit the area. After that, touching the stones will leave one open to possession for one among a number of animal demons, and the area will be surrounded by a force field that can only be destroyed by summoning up and killing the boss demon whose name, I'm convinced, is Rat Magoo. But fortunately, none of uncle's visitors is a Cherokee elder descendant, right?

This being a horror movie and all, there's a slight problem with that, so the demons will awaken, and soon enough, the last unpossessed teenagers will kill off their former friends with a certain degree of enthusiasm. Let's hope Rat Magoo is easy to find and kill.

The shot on video Savage Harvest - not to be confused with the others movies called Savage Harvest - is the first film in the by now surprising long line of movies directed (and written, and produced, and edited, and etc.) by Eric Stanze. Stanze is by now something of an elder statesmen of ultra low/no budget horror, and even though I'm not always convinced by his films (especially those from his arty torture porn phase), I sure am by the tenaciousness his body of work shows, as well as his clear ambition to make his movies as good as he can afford with the budgets he can scrape together. In this respect, Stanze's body of work is a fine example for the direct line that runs from my beloved local/regional filmmaking of the 70s to modern indie horror.

Savage Harvest is obviously highly influenced by the first Evil Dead movie, just with a less talented cast, an often awkward script, and a director who isn't a mad genius but rather someone who shows signs of having the talent to become a decent workmanlike director pretty soon, and possibly for more.

The film's main weaknesses are just about where you'd expect them to be in a film of its kind: the acting is earnest, awkward and not very convincing, and the film's first half hour crawls by at a snail's pace, introducing character relations that won't be of any import later on, and letting a moustached guy drone on and on and on with exposition that will be repeated again later on in the movie anyway; it's as boring as humanly possible.

After the painful (felt) hours of introductions, the film rather surprisingly increases in speed, with one awkward yet fun demon attack after the next, and little room for tedium. While a lot of the film sounds and looks pretty bad - something I'm not going to blame Stanze for, but rather the circumstances of production - the editing is pretty slick for most of the time, and the film actually has a decent flow. Sure, the action may often be awkward and slightly ridiculous, but it is awkward and ridiculous in a rather charming manner. There are also some moments of actual imagination, like the scene in which the scorpion demon shows off its sting tongue, or how the vulture demon possessed woman spends most of the film walking behind the other characters and eating what's left of demons and humans alike. I'm also very fond of the way Stanze creates a surprisingly convincing barrier around the area of the minor slaughter through the power of cheap editing suite effects; that part of the film feels properly Weird, and is also evidence of the film's willingness to go the extra mile as long as it can afford it. Most other films of this level would have settled for letting their actors mime touching an invisible barrier.

And even the script, slow as it starts, shows flashes of something that's more than just competence. The film even manages to have a properly foreshadowed and even somewhat logical final plot twist that explains some of the film's elements that seemed rather problematic while they were happening on screen; every horror movie fan has suffered through a billion films with much better paid script writers fucking that sort of thing up, so this part of the film actually working is something I found myself particularly enamoured of.

Of course, to enjoy one's time with Savage Harvest, one still has to fight through a painful first thirty minutes, cope with bad acting and that cheap SOV look, but I for one have coped with worse things in movies for less pay-off.

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