Harvesters DVD Review
Written by Eric Strauss
DVD released by Timewarp Films & Key East Entertainment
Directed by Joe Ripple
Written by Don Dohler
2001, Region 1 (NTSC), 90 minutes, Not Rated
DVD released on December 4th, 2001
Donna Sherman as Frankie Falzone
George Stover as Herbert Peelman
Patty Cipoletti as Nicole Torson
Steven King as Jake Peelman
Micci L. SamPeri as Spikes
Leanna Chamish as Betty Peelman
There are many types of horror films. The best are big-budget extravaganzas with outstanding direction, writing and acting — many of these transcend the genre, as with The Silence of the Lambs, Sleepy Hollow or Alien. Then there are the best of the genre films, perhaps not finding mainstream success, but demonstrating ample craftsmanship and quality — Halloween, one of the finest slashers, or the menacing Hellraiser.
At the bottom of the barrel are the failures, many with numbers at the end of the title, or catchy slogans with words like ...Takes Manhattan. Think of Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers, a feature-length film surpassed in quality by the 17-minute documentary found on the Anchor Bay DVD.
Somewhere between the two are the large majority of horror films, the "if you like the type" category: Ambitious, but flawed From Hell. The violent but sometimes awkward giallo of Dario Argento. The gorefests of Lucio Fulci. Scream, where the nudges and winks hide some clever scares. Effects extravaganzas like Maniac or The Prowler.
And off to one side are the films of a certain breed: the straight-to-video-style classics made on a shoestring budget, knowing their limitations but ambitious enough to do the most with what they have. Finding one of these gems is often a treasured experience, the day a passing glance at the bottom shelf at the video store yielded Night of the Demons, or the late night when cable insomnia landed the remote on Night of the Creeps. But even these studio films rise above the another class when it comes to budget, casting and even directing: the independents.
So perhaps one of the great experiences a horror movie fan can have is finding a film so small, so far beneath the radar screen, that not only does it provide entertainment, it provides a certain pride in the discovery.
At the recent Horrorfind weekend in Baltimore, two such films could be found. One was the eerie, but sadly distributor-hampered In the Dark, based on the Richard Laymon novel of the same name, which was screened one afternoon in the movie room.
The other was across the hall from the movie room, on display at a table manned by its director, producer and assorted cast members, there to screen an upcoming film. That movie is Harvesters, the first feature from Maryland-based Timewarp Films.
While some independent horror films take a serious tone, like In the Dark, others are more tongue-in-cheek, and Harvesters fits into the latter category.
Understand, this is not a masterpiece in the conventional sense. Harvesters and the folks who made it will not win an Oscar, or even a Palm d'Or. This is the kind of movie where some actors play it dead straight, others ham it up and still others are lucky if they can call themselves "actors" and keep a straight face. This is the kind of movie where some effects look almost real, while others couldn't be more fake if the ketchup bottle was on-screen. This is the kind of movie where the director is one of the stars, several crew members have roles, and when two actors share a last name, you can't be sure which one got the other the job. This is a film so awkward in a way, that not only does it use CGI for its helicopter, it uses CGI for a car. And a house. And more.
But none of this changes one simple fact: Harvesters is an absolute delight.
The film poses some interesting questions: What would happen if a band of psychotic robbers collides with a family of crazed organ thieves? (Organs as in kidneys, livers, etc., not the things in churches.) And, more importantly, who would you root for?
Frankie Falzone (played by Donna Sherman) and her gang are on the run from a pair of dogged U.S. marshals (played by the first-time director, Joe Ripple, and Patty Cipoletti). While fleeing the aftermath of a botched store hold-up, they kidnap a young woman on the road, and force her to take them to her home, where they can hide. But if the bandits think they'll be safe at the Peelman household, they've got another thing coming. And that thing could be a pitchfork, sharp tree branch or meat cleaver.
Saying more about the plot is both unnecessary and unfair — writer and self-proclaimed "cult producer" Don Dohler has hit on a good twist to his bloodshed and mayhem, and though there is little actual harvesting done, the film uses the odd environment of the Peelman household to its advantage.
But when watching a film like this, the question of plot takes a back seat to three other questions: Creativity, which has already been addressed, and the two biggies.
Is there blood?
And, equally important, is there skin?
The answer to both is yes.
First, the skin, simply because outside of an early scene in a strip club, the only nudity in this film provides one of the most memorable scenes, as pretty Erin Palmisano, playing younger Peelman daughter Amy, redefines the term "bloodbath."
File this one in the has-to-be-seen-to-be-believed department, maybe not quite on the same shelf as Barbara Crampton on the slab in Re-Animator, or the severed-arm scene in Guts of a Virgin, but at least in the same room.
As for the rest of the blood, this is where the film takes an odd turn. Effects, credited to Sean Quinn, range from syrup-on-the-cut-throat bad to that-pitchfork-had-to-hurt good. But in a strange twist, many of the gore effects are done with CGI. And while many of the kills are cleverly done with makeup and prosthetic tree limbs, for instance, some "simple" kills, like gunshots, are done with computers. Those CGI effects are not of such poor quality as to detract from the film, but unfortunately are not so seamless as to avoid notice. And their heavy use raises an interesting question of budgeting and quality: Which gives the most bang for the buck, computer-generated bloodshed, or the traditional makeup kind? Either way, or both, really, there is enough gore here to satisfy the most rabid slasher fan.
As for the acting, well, that's a mixed bag. Palmisano and Jaime Kalman, portraying the college coed Peelman daughters, both play it straight and handle themselves well. Though their similar looks cause a certain amount of confusion (they may be "sisters," but they're hard to tell apart at times), they are both unquestionably cute, capable and fun to watch at work. In addition, they shift well from the "beauty queen" look their characters are derided for, to the menace and physicality of the two killers they turn out to be.
As the Peelman parents, George Stover and Timewarp poster girl Leanna Chamish opt for more over-the-top performances, but both likewise carry them off in a fun and appropriate fashion. Stover has a true professional air about him, while Chamish gets many a laugh with her bizarre homemaker-from-hell portrayal.
Among the other main cast members, Sherman is solid, if a bit understated at times, as the lesbian ex-Marine Frankie, but her cohorts (played by Donna DeVilbiss, Micci SamPeri and David Parker) as well as a Peelman cousin played by Steven King do not fare as well, though they certainly put forth the effort.
As the marshals, director Ripple (who has an acting background) and Cipoletti are sometimes inconsistent in terms of performance quality, but overall do quite well playing the film's good guys.
The supporting cast is highlighted by attractive Katie Whicker as a pre-credits (and lineless) Peelman victim, but many of the others, including the denizens of the strip club, range from passable at best to truly awful.
Remember, however, that the quality of the performances, and everything else on the DVD, have attached that basic caveat: This is not MGM, this is not Paramount, this is not even Latent Image. This is a small studio doing the best it can, with limited resources, and even if none of these actors will be starring alongside Denzel Washington or Tom Cruise in the future, the best of the bunch certainly give performances that are a credit to their skills (in some cases, to their potential for more) and to the film. They are entertaining, not distracting, and that is what counts.
So what to make of this diamond in the rough? It's a simple thing, really. The movie entertains. Whether it is in some genuine suspense or some so-bad-it's-good unintentional humor, the movie is — if you like the type — 90 minutes well spent. Given its limitations (perhaps an unfair turn of phrase), Harvesters nevertheless scores where it counts: This is an enjoyable film, with enthusiastic acting, a reasonable quality of production in both the film itself and DVD and good, if not great, visual effects. The odds are, the average person who saw this DVD on a shelf would pass it by. And if that person were a horror fan — particularly the kind who enjoys campy fun — he would be making a big mistake.
Video and Audio:
The full-frame image is a bit of a disappointment. The image is soft and there are ample amounts of digital noise, particularly in the nighttime scenes. The source material suffers from the low-budget nature of the film, with the dark scenes often underlit and the daylight scenes sometimes too bright or washed-out. To Timewarp's credit, however, there are many scenes where the crisp image and bright colors are the equal of any DVD on the market made from similar source material.
The two-channel audio fares somewhat better than the video, giving the film solid sound quality. Dialogue is never drowned out by music or the few effects, and any flaws (such as when effects are obviously added in) are part of the original audio, not the DVD mix.
The main extra on the DVD is a 28-minute featurette on the making of Harvesters. featuring behind-the-scenes footage (mostly shot by co-star Chamish) and including commentary from writer/producer/director of photography/editor Dohler, director/actor Ripple and effects chief Quinn. The featurette is quite good, offering a nice look behind the scenes of this low-budget film, including the candid admissions that most of the participants — even Dohler, with several film productions under his belt - hold down day jobs. (And playing a marshal apparently isn't too much of a stretch for Ripple, a real-life police detective.) Well worth watching (after the movie of course, since as with any such featurette, there are plenty of spoilers).
The film also contains a 2-minute teaser, which does its job as far as making viewers want to see the film, though it overstates the "harvesting" angle, and a 2-minute trailer, which focuses on the gore, and thus, gives far too much away.
As an aside, this sort of extras treatment on a tiny studio's debut feature is yet one more reason why Paramount ought to be ashamed of its bare-bones track record.