Midwest Movie Magic: Harvest Lake

This is an updated version of a review originally written for The Film Yap.

As soon as this film opens, you’ll feel like you’ve seen the setup a million times before. Horny kids, a lakeside setting, a sinister force lurking in the surrounding forest. It seems like a nostalgic embrace of Friday the 13th and The Evil Dead. But that’s just how Harvest Lake seduces you. Although it treads upon familiar territory, the film ultimately thrusts viewers into a unique and unsettling world.

The beginning feels much like the opening of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, with four twentysomethings barreling down the road in a ramshackle van. (Of course, this idyllic summer afternoon drive is bound to become a nightmare.)

Apparently opposites attract in this group of characters. There’s Ben (Dan Nye), a friendly frat boy-type; his girlfriend Cat (Tristan Risk), a quirky sexpot; Jennifer (Ellie Church), the “good girl;” and Josh (Jason Crowe), the sensitive friend she brings along to distract her from Ben and Cat’s constant air of sexual desire.

The motley crew is out for a weekend at the lake to celebrate Ben’s birthday. However, they’re quickly hypnotized by a presence in the woods. The plants and fungi spring to surreal life, sending them all into a strange sort of sexual trance.

This is an intriguing funhouse reflection of the sexual tension already apparent in the group. Before the plants start oozing pheromones, Cat tries to persuade Jennifer into having a threesome with her and Ben. Meanwhile, Josh develops intense sexual chemistry with Mark (Kevin Roach), a mysterious man camping in the forest. Like the slasher flicks to which it pays homage, the film emerges as a potent blend of desire and dread.

In a press release, writer-director Scott Schirmer explained how the primal desires displayed in this genre rose to the surface of the screenplay.

“It quickly evolved into a movie that was more about sex and the id,” he said. “What happens when we let the id win? Can sex change us forever? Can it destroy us?”

The forest life serves an embodiment of the characters’ sexuality — a force that’s always hungry for more, to a seemingly dangerous degree. Designed by the Clockwerk Creature Company, the forest’s fungal creatures have a crude, tactile quality evocative of Rick Baker and Stan Winston’s work. You can practically feel the creatures’ slimy surfaces sticking to you like sap. Beautifully photographed and elegantly edited by Brian K. Williams, the film casts the same spell as its otherworldly setting.

Based in Bloomington, Indiana, Schirmer and Williams are rapidly rising through the ranks of the indie horror scene and becoming a regular presence at conventions like HorrorHound Weekend. But they’re not merely following horror film formulas and cranking out cash-grab flicks like the slasher films of the ’80s. Their films don’t revolve around traditional set pieces like foot chases through the forest. They tear down traditional genre trappings to deliver spectacles we haven’t seen before.

Produced by the company they founded in 2016, Bandit Motion Pictures, Harvest Lake is the first film in what seems to be their sex trilogy — a bizarre series of eccentric genre films that aren’t afraid to tap into our prurient curiosity. (Stay tuned for reviews of Plank Face and Space Babes from Outer Space.)

Harvest Lake is now available on Amazon Video and Vimeo on Demand. The release comes after the film’s festival run, which included screenings at the Nocturna Film Festival in Madrid, the Cinemafantastique International Genre Festival in Vancouver and the Obscura Film Festival in Berlin.

Harvest Lake has pulpy forest horror roots, but it also exudes a sharp edge of arthouse sophistication. This is a little indie gem that’s well worth supporting.

Sam Watermeier has been a film critic since practically before he was born, as he almost popped out of his mother's womb in a movie theater during the drawn-out conclusion of The Godfather Part III. Sam started professionally in 2009 at NUVO Newsweekly, not only contributing movie reviews but also profiles of local filmmakers and previews of Indy film festivals. He also writes reviews and commentaries for the Indy-based website The Film Yap. In 2015, Sam was inducted into the Indiana Film Journalists Association.

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