Certain films seem destined to drive their own cottage industries. If Tobe Hooper and his hippy pals had realized what an impact The Texas Chainsaw Massacre would have on the movie macabre, they might have protected their investment a little better. Same goes for John Carpenter and the modern slasher film (yes, we'll include Jason V and the Friday the 13th thing just to be fair) and George Romero and his zombie stomp. Another person whose particular brand of boo launched a thousand indie scripts is none other than Sam Raimi. His original Evil Dead movie has spawned so many imitators that you'd swear no one previously had ever considered a haunted wood/ demonic possession saga. Of course, most of these inspired spin-offs are pure and utter trash, unable to capture Raimi's imagination, invention or inherent ability to scare. The closest anyone has come to replicating the Dead dynamic is Eric Stanze. In 1993, when he was 21 years old, he made Savage Harvest, and while a little clunky in places, it is one of the best examples of copycat creepiness ever made.
When a relative asks for help cleaning up around his property, Karen calls together a few of her friends and they head out for a weekend of camping and scavenging. When they arrive, they notice something strange - Aunt Linda is nowhere to be found. As they set up their tents, odd Uncle George comes along and tells a weird story about ancient Native American dark magic rituals, demonic forces, and possessed stones. He warns the group not to touch these tainted rocks, as they contain the souls of demons who want to possess the living. Within hours, some of the party members are missing, and when they go out looking for their lost pals, the gang comes across a disgusting monster with mayhem on its mind. It turns out that the ancient myth has become a reality, and as the stones slowly take over the campers, it is up to the survivors to figure out how to stop this menace. It will involve confronting the Native American version of the Devil himself to prevent him from turning everyone into hungry Hellspawn. This is one Savage Harvest from which no one is safe.
Eric Stanze is a born filmmaker. There is no other way to describe it. From his less than effective serial killer saga Scrapbook to his highly inventive and disturbing sci-fi fable Ice from the Sun, he proves time and time again that the camera is practically an extension of his furtive and fetid thoughts. His compositions create tension and energy, his use of the technical aspects of moviemaking - editing, design and post-production - providing polish and professionalism. Unlike other homemade auteurs, Stanze seems consistently aware of how his scenes will play out in front of an audience, making sure to extend his range beyond his own personal parameters to those of the crowd who will be critiquing them. The result is a strange combination of mainstream and mannered, arcane and accessible that propels him high above other pretenders to the production throne. While his ideas may not always be successful, and his films fail to fully translate, he is doing what others in similar fiscal situations barely strive for: he wants to make real motion pictures.
Though it is a little too short and hampered by a bizarre plot stumble at the start of the second act, Savage Harvest is one of Stanze's best efforts. It is a gory, gratuitous amalgamation of the Evil Dead, ancient Indian burial rites, and some stellar directorial flare. The Native American angle makes his narrative novel, while the cribbing from Raimi's repugnant classic guarantees that there will be buckets of blood. Yet the best aspect of this 72-minute monster movie is Stanze's stellar direction. Visually arresting, never misguided or mistaken, and always pushing the plot forward, you can't help but feel you are in the capable hands of someone who knows what he's doing. Scares are never telegraphed, tension is built without reliance on formula or fraud and while his actors are amateurs at best, there is a real attempt at creating characters that we care about. Stanze doesn't settle for one-dimensional placeholders - he makes sure his victims are viable personalities. This means his movies have presence and a palpable sense of dread. When combined with the technical elements, this makes for a fine fright film.
It is not perfect, however. About 30 minutes in, Uncle George shows up with his box of rocks and his Native American legend and suddenly we are saddled with what seems like 10 minutes of outright exposition. Stanze tries to doctor it up with flashbacks, montages and other vision-based vitality, but it can't help but play like the forming of a fear foundation. As the characters sit around and ask the standard leading questions ("Why is it happening here?", "How can it be stopped") we sit and wonder when the action is going to start. Much to our surprise, the answer is A - friggin' - SAP. Indeed, once we learn of the demons and the death and the possible possessions, we are immediately thrust into a nonsensical scene where one of the group has gone missing (though they were there a second ago) and two of the more stout-hearted lads must go looking for her. It is a very awkward transition, one that makes it feel as if a few scenes are missing. It's not long before we get our first sensational shock moment, and soon the claret is covering everything. If you like your movies nice and juicy, Savage Harvest will really pour on the putrid. We get a nasty head impaling, a couple of disembowelings and an equal amount of head woundage. The F/X are top-notch, delivering very disgusting imagery.
Yet perhaps the most unsettling aura given off by the film is how limited Stanze seems realizing his goals. This is obviously someone with a great gift, but having to go no budget to realize his concepts seems antithetical to what he wants on the screen. You can tell during certain moments that he wishes he had better actors (the bookending scenes with our "heroine" could use someone with more spark). In other instances, his limited sets give him away (a lot of people in his films have movie posters - the SAME movie posters - on their residential walls). And then there are times when something surreal or supernatural has to happen, and all Stanze can do is turn the image inside out, giving us solarized negative representations of easily identifiable action. The mind boggles at what this moviemaker could do with a larger budget (Ice from the Sun seems to be an indication) and if CGI and other high-end effects were within his grasp. Yet since his fiscal issues restrict what he can accomplish, Savage Harvest feels equally hampered. It is something very strange and esoteric - it's as if we can tune into the director's disappointment and empathize right along with him.
Still, Savage Harvest is a smart, scary thriller. It offers up a unique take on that Necronomicon-based genre classic and manages to do the impossible within said homage - it makes you forget the film being fleeced. Gorehounds will go gaga for the mutilation and slaughter, while people predisposed to cinematography and technical prowess will value Stanze's efforts. Aside from its obvious delights, films like these prove that cinema is as organic an art form as painting or poetry. Individuals can go to school for years, learning the basics of camera and composition, what lens to use on a tight close-up and how to achieve a controlled dissolve without destroying your mise-en-scene. Yet what befuddles most amateur moviemakers is how to turn their ideas into images, and said images into a compelling narrative. Sadly, so many fail at what appears to be a straightforward stratagem that there has to be some manner of divine intervention to make it all work. Eric Stanze is so blessed. Here's hoping someone gives him a chance to fully realize his aesthetic aims.
Presented in a 1.33:1 full screen image, Savage Harvest looks far better than its meager budget would suggest. The colors are cool and earthy, the details deliciously dense and disgusting, and the overall look is powerful and visually arresting. There are some minor moments of grain, an occasional fuzzy facet (the exposition scene by the lake has an odd amount of haze to it) and a few editing flubs here and there. Still, when considering that some mainstream independent movies look like they were made by monkeys utilizing pre-used videotape, the optical component of this film is outstanding.
A tad more troubling is the aural presentation. Though Image gives us a decent Dolby Digital Mono mix, the music and foley are constantly cranked up too high, obliterating everything in its path. Equally disturbing are the numerous dialogue scenes. Sometimes, everything is easily discernible. Other times you can't hear what the characters are conversing about. It is obvious that much of this problem lies in the original elements. No professional company would purposefully under-modulate the script while hyper-amplifying the chaos. Such a setup stinks of camcorder recording and should have been addressed in a complete remaster of the movie.
Stanze is not afraid to talk about his movies, and Image offers up three different commentaries featuring the director, his crew and members of his cast. The first track is from 2000, and features Stanze and pal/producer DJ Vivona. Both are highly critical of the movie (Stanze calling it "his worst" effort) and they love to pick out the problems in all facets of the filmmaking. They both mention a substantive making-of documentary and point to it as the source for some of their conclusions. Sadly, it is not included here (it is obviously part of an older digital package).
The other two discussions are new, dating from May of 2005. Stanze is up again, and this time he is joined by actor William Clifton and friend/filmmaker Jason Christ (who directed the Savage Harvest sequel). Far looser and lighter than the first commentary, Stanze describes how he came to 'like' this first film, and reminiscence about what it was like to be so young, so inexperience, and so pressed for time. From falling asleep at the wheel while driving a cast member home to the gonzo, guerilla filmmaking used to capture actual flood footage from a devastating natural disaster in 1993, Stanze seems more settled about Savage Harvest, and his pals pick up on that.
By far the most fun is found on the cast conversation. With Ramona Midgett, Rebecca Kennebeck and associate producer Jessica Wyman, it is a catty, comical look at the film. While a little too much time is spent on fashion faux pas ("What on EARTH was I thinking?" is quoted a lot) and the uncomfortable conditions, what we get is the distinct impression of individuals who love what they did/ still do. For them, this wasn't a job - it was an important part of their everyday life.
The rest of the added content is a little weak. The video for the group Hotel Faux Pas (whose music plays throughout the movie) is your standard performance based boredom, while the gallery gives us a far too brief collection of production stills. The Behind the Scenes segment is short (9 mins) and does not include a lot of narrative. Mostly, it's just backstage stuff - watching Stanze and the gang set up and shoot a scene. There is a wonderful collection of trailers, each one interesting and engaging, but that's all.
Highly Recommended and well worth your time, Savage Harvest is an understated little horror romp that uses gore and visionary greatness to make up for some less than stellar filmic facets. Stanze has gone on to make a few other films, including China White Serpentine and his latest, the child killer chiller Deadwood Park. With each production his confidence has grown along with his aptitude, transforming what should be minor independent horror movies into epic works of obvious genius. Fingers-crossed, he will one day be recognized for the untapped talent that he is, and given a chance to show the mainstream Cineplex crowd just what kind of artist he is. Until that time, you can settle back with this homemade oeuvre and relish a real moviemaker attempting to fashion actual 'film'. Savage Harvest is as good a place as any to start. Though its basis is pure Evil Dead, it's delivery is undoubtedly the work of one Eric Stanze.
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