Horror movies have given us no shortage of overprotective mothers over the years, though Samantha Morton takes that archetype to new extremes in “The Harvest,” a powerful coming-of-ager with the potential both to scar and strengthen the psyches of an entire generation — if only it could find a distributor as daring as the folks who made it. Pitting two impressive teenage newcomers against an as-yet-unseen side of Morton creepy enough to rival Kathy Bates in “Misery,” this deeply unsettling child-endangerment drama marks director John McNaughton’s welcome left-field return to the bigscreen after an absence of nearly a dozen years.
Always a bit of an outsider owing to his gift for blending dark humor and taboo subjects, McNaughton made his name with “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” before entering the freeze-frame hall of fame with “Wild Things,” but has worked only in television since 2001. Though hardly an obvious project with which to return, “The Harvest” benefits enormously from his handling, resulting in an eccentric, character-rich chiller more akin to classic Stephen King (think “Stand by Me”) than anything being done in horror these days.
Adding to the film’s refreshingly timeless quality is a series of old-fashioned decisions that serve to set the tone, as McNaughton insists on shooting on celluloid, ordering a full orchestral score and working with first-rate actors instead of expendable nobodies. He also went with the best young thesps he could find to play tomboy Maryann (Natasha Calis) and bed-ridden Andy (Charlie Tahan), two teens whose mutual attraction has nothing to do with sex, but proves too strong to be easily discouraged by disapproving parents.
Morose and withdrawn following the death of her dad, Maryann moves to upstate New York to live with her grandparents (Peter Fonda and Leslie Lyles). Rather than making friends at school, she ventures out into the neighborhood, where she discovers Andy shut indoors by his mom, Katherine (Morton), a well-meaning pediatric doctor so concerned with her son’s health that she can turn positively monstrous. Pushing through the patch of corn outside his window — this personal “harvest” proves to be the red herring of the century — Maryann climbs into Andy’s room and introduces herself to the startled boy.
Katherine is beside herself at the intrusion, blaming her easily distracted husband (Michael Shannon, equally conflicted) and doing her best to make Maryann feel as unwelcome as possible. But the young lady doesn’t spook easily, and despite a few nail-biting close calls, she continues to visit her new friend. As it turns out, Andy has been home-schooled his entire life, and as his condition worsens, Katherine’s hyper-controlling behavior becomes increasingly erratic.
As acting challenges go, Katherine would be an exceptionally difficult role for any actress to play. From the kids’ p.o.v., she’s overbearing and entirely unreasonable, standing in the way of Maryann’s first friend in town — and the first friend Andy has ever had. What kind of mother does that? At first, Morton inspires nervous laughs, but once audiences witness just how severe her maternal instinct can get, the horror sets in.
Though Shannon’s character yearns for fatherly bonding opportunities, Katherine forbids the boy from going outdoors. When Andy defies her, she screws his window shut and confiscates his toys. Somehow, Morton manages to convey the humanity beneath it all, playing a woman desperate to extend the life of her dying son for as long as humanly possible — by any extremes necessary. With that single-minded objective, she bullies her husband into buying black-market drugs, then attacks him for making the moral compromises that these dealings demand.
None of this can prepare Maryann for the twists ahead. Her grandparents are understandably incredulous (giving Fonda a chance for to supply an amusing, unscripted “Far out!”). It’s a credit to first-timer writer Stephen Lancellotti that his script provides sufficient foundation to support the over-the-top third act, which McNaughton likens to a version of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” in which the bitter couple’s offstage child is made flesh.
That comparison suggests the helmer had adult audiences in mind when making the film, and there’s no denying that he takes “The Harvest” to an incredibly dark place (a throwback to the days when Disney deemed “The Watcher in the Woods” appropriate for family audiences). But given the underlying themes, adolescents will surely be the most receptive, especially those in the process of asserting their own identities vis-a-vis their parental figures. Assuming enough people see the film, this could be the performance for which Morton is remembered, bellowing like a bloodthirsty mama bear when her best laid plans go awry.
But it will also be the film that gave us Calis and Tahan, two young actors with incredible potential ahead. She’s can’t-look-away compelling, while he’s utterly convincing as a cripple struggling to experience a normal childhood. Nothing about the circumstances revealed in “The Harvest” could be called normal, and yet it’s a credit to a fertile imagination that the film proves so terrifyingly relatable.