Monday, July 24, 2017

"Throw Me Out the Window to a Starving Cat" - Blood Harvest (1987)

Some directors may be counted on for consistently producing high-quality films. Among the many regional filmmakers working in the U.S., one of the most consistently groundbreaking horror directors is Wisconsin's Bill Rebane. We have already covered The Capture of Bigfoot (1979) and The Game (1984) aka The Cold (also 1984) here, and now it is time to discuss another of his many underrated gems, Blood Harvest (1987) aka Nightmare (also 1987).

On IMDB, reviewer Michael_Elliott writes, "the low-budget leads to some less- than-wonderful performances....BLOOD HARVEST isn't a masterpiece and it's certainly not a classic. It's not even a 'good' movie." Reviewer rwagn writes, "There is so much wrong with this film that I can't begin to list everything....Every plot device is telegraphed and you've seen this a hundred times before and done much better." Also on IMDB, reviewer Bleeding-Skull writes the film off somewhat confusingly as "Pointless, dull film makes no sense. Not to mention a rip-off of Hellraiser."

As the discussion below will prove beyond a shadow of a doubt, Blood Harvest aka Nightmare is not pointless, is not dull, makes some sense, and is no way a rip-off of Hellraiser.

As only masterfully made films do, Nightmare begins in the middle of a relatively complex murder either perpetrated or witnessed by Tiny Tim in clown makeup. Mr. Tim is reciting a poem of his own devising with great gusto in his patented falsetto voice: "Gary and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water. Gary fell down and broke his crown, and Jill came tumbling after." As he recites the words, we watch as a tuxedo-clad man's body is lowered via a system of ropes and pulleys in a barn.

The scene flashes to the aftermath, as bodies are pulled from the barn by the police.

The film flashes forward even further to a bank auction of the barn, attended by dozens of farmers who have come only to loudly boo the auctioneer for trying to sell the property.
Elsewhere, in a small farmhouse, Tiny Tim in overalls watches a news report showing dramatic footage of the same bank auction.

Eventually, the movie proper begins as a middle-aged woman, Jill, walks home from college to the farm town of Gleason, carrying her suitcase the entire way. She enters a diner. Her first words in the film are "and he has muscles in all the right places." We realize Jill is not as middle-aged as she initially appeared; instead, she is a traditionally aged college girl. She wonders why everyone is treating her with disdain, then realizes it is because her father is the bank manager, and he is being blamed for the disturbing rash of farm bankruptcies and auctions.

In fact, when Jill reaches the family farmhouse, she finds it cruelly vandalized. There is even a papier mache effigy of her father hanging in the front hallway.

Even more disturbingly, she finds Tiny Tim inside the house holding flowers. "Who in the hell are you?" Jill asks. "And what are you doing in this house?"

"I've just come to welcome you home, Jill" he says.

Mr. Tim is not the home invader he appears to be, as Jill recognizes him a second later as Merv, though he corrects her: "Marvelous Mervo, at your service."

Jill is then surprised when Gary, a friend from town and Mervo's brother, saunters into the house to explain again that Jill's father, as bank manager, is being threatened because he is blamed for all the farm foreclosures in the area. Gary and Jill, childhood friends, are unable to keep their hands off each other, though Jill's boyfriend is the college football player with the muscles in all the right places.

After a nostalgic trip to her bedroom, decorated with Garfield and Schwarzenegger posters, Jill is frightened again by a brick smashing through a window. When she sees someone--we see clearly it is Mervo, though she does not--lurking in the barn, Jill goes outside. But instead of investigating the barn, she inexplicably walks into the forest, where she is stalked by camouflage-wearing paramilitary types. The audience recognizes them as harmless paintball players, though Jill and director Rebane believe they are more threatening than that.

Next transpires one of Mr. Rebane's signature comedy exchanges, as a paintball player drives Jill into town. Referring to a stray paintball shot, he asks, "How about I make up for it with a date?"

"Sorry, but I'm engaged," she says, walking away from his truck.

After a perfectly timed beat, he replies, "How about some meaningless sex?" Then he drives away, his punch line delivered flawlessly.

The film shifts into a higher gear as we follow Mervo carrying a plastic bag into a root cellar, where he has an old woman tied to a chair.

The film shifts back into lower gear when Jill brings Sheriff Buckley back to her family farmhouse to show him the vandalism and the effects of the brick through the window. In a Hitchcockian twist, the house is perfectly normal: no effigy, no vandalism, no broken window. Somehow, someone has managed to repair everything in the space of an afternoon. (One can only picture the evil perpetrator's phone call to the local window repair shop, begging for a replacement window on such short notice.)

Meanwhile, Mervo is alone in church, singing a hymn in full clown makeup--no doubt Mr. Rebane's scathing indictment of the organized clown industry. In a clue to the audience, Mervo sobs, "Oh, my parents, my parents, my parents."

Gary returns to Jill's house to explain the situation yet again. (The technical term for Gary's role, coined decades later, would be the mansplainer.) "Look, Jill, I don't think they're trying to hurt you. After my folks lost their farm, then the Peters, then the Andersens, and the rest, folks are just plain mad." Even though Jill has not been able to find her parents, Gary believes they just went out of town for a while to escape the relentless, but ultimately harmless, persecution.

As college-aged childhood friends well might, they run to their old treehouse to flirt, reminisce about the time her father caught them making out in the treehouse, and flash back to the incident of Gary's parents' murder, in their own barn years ago. "Merv took it hard," says Gary.

In order to remind us of the sinister opening scene showing a dead body, the soundtrack reprises Mr. Tim's rendition of "Gary and Jill Went Up the Hill to Fetch a Pail of Water."

Another threatening incident occurs when Jill takes a shower. A gloved hand--though not a clown-gloved hand--manipulates the water temperature, causing Jill some inconvenience.

To make matters more inconvenient, Mervo enters the house through the unlocked front door and makes Jill coffee.

Showing poor judgment, after Mervo serves the coffee, he attempts to grope Jill, shocking her. "What about me? Can't I make myself happy too?" the clown asks, then quickly leaves the house.

The next image shows a noose in the root cellar.

That night, Jill is disturbed by two stalking incidents, one by Mervo sitting on a swing outside--the clown is found by Sheriff Buckley and taken home--and another by a man who cuts the power to the house and slides open Jill's bedroom window while she is asleep. This second stalker is more ambitious and better prepared than Mervo, as he chloroforms Jill, rips open her nightgown, ties her up, and takes Polaroids of her exposed body.

These incidents fail to convince Jill to lock her doors or windows.

The next morning, she is surprised yet again by her college boyfriend Scott--played by TV's Peter Krause--entering her bedroom. "I'm so pleased it's you!" she says.

"What would you do if it weren't?" he asks. "Spread tuna fish all over me and throw me out the window to a starving cat?"

They make love on the living room floor while Gary watches from outside the window, clearly jealous.

When Scott heads to town to pick up some beer, he sees someone jumping around in the woods. Chasing the leaper to the barn, Scott is surprised with a baseball bat to the forehead.

It is time again for an appearance by the Marvelous Mervo, who startles Jill by popping up outside the kitchen window. Gary and Jill confront Mervo and he gives another soliloquy: "I don't hate Jill for what her father did to our parents, slaughtering all my friends like that." Jill does not understand what he is talking about.

Later that night, Jill's friend Sarah is stalked, shot with an arrow, suspended upside-down, and killed via throat-slashing in the barn by an assailant wearing panty hose over his head.

The filmmakers move into the third act with a mixture of uneasy comedy and suspense again worthy of Hitchcock. Jill is chloroformed again on her couch, her sleeping body dragged to the barn where her boyfriend Scott is still hanging upside-down above a bed of hay. The stalker's gloved hands fondle Jill while Scott looks on, helpless. Then a police siren interrupts the night, so the stalker is forced to carry Jill, still sleeping, all the way from the barn back to the house while the sheriff's car pulls into the driveway.

Showing his mastery of the film medium, Bill Rebane cuts from a shot of Scott's murdered body, still suspended upside-down but now with his throat cut open and bleeding into a bucket, with Mervo poring over a Polaroid of his presumably beloved pig Beulah, also cut open and bleeding into a bucket.


Jill is shocked when she goes to the refrigerator for a snack to find the bucket of Scott's blood propped askew inside the refrigerator. It falls out and sends a reasonably large quantity of blood spilling across the linoleum.

Suspiciously, Gary rushes in to the kitchen at that moment. Helpfully, he carries her to the bathtub, where he turns on the shower, sits in the tub with Jill, removes her shirt, and soaps her breasts, as any childhood friend would in a similar situation.

Then Gary strips and attempts to rape Jill on the couch as she sleeps, an activity which many childhood friends would not, in fact, perform.

The audience begins to suspect Gary is the stalker.

Waking up, Jill pushes Gary away. "I know how much you love me, but I belong to someone else now. Next to him and my parents, you're the one I care most about in the world."

After she sends Gary away, she is surprised yet again to find Tiny Tim, now without clown makeup, entering her house. He tells her he must show her something. He takes her to his house to explain what is going on. Gary and Merv's parents were not murdered but committed suicide due to the foreclosure. Gary made it look like murder so people would feel sorry for him and Merv.

Mr. Tim's explanation is cut short when Gary finds him and Jill together. Merv promises that Jill won't say anything, but a fight ensues between Gary and Merv.

The only way to stop the fight is to find a revolver and shoot Merv in the kidney. Jill does so.

His brother dead, Gary feels free to slip into happy psychopath mode. "It's perfect," he says. "Just you and me. Just like it was meant to be."

Jill is shocked that Gary is acting crazy, despite the recent incident in which he bathed her and nearly raped her.

"We'll get married," he continues, "and have a family. And a dog!"

Jill breaks free and runs back to her house. Mr. Rebane uses the opportunity to emulate Hitchcock again by showing Gary's shadow on the Wisconsin wallpaper.

Of course, Jill runs to the safest place imaginable--the barn. In slasher movie tradition, she stumbles upon the bodies of Scott, Sarah, and somebody else.

Gary blocks her way out of the barn and uses the opportunity for a final bit of mansplaining. "When you went away to college, I was very lonely for a long time. I never got over it. And then Mom and Dad lost the farm and my life changed again. I only had Mervin." When Jill returned with Scott, Gary realized "if you felt alone and isolated like me, you'd understand why I need you so much, and begin to need me back."

Jill uses the only tool at her disposal to distract Gary--her femininity. She tells him she will run away with him and frame Mervin. Then she bolts for the door, but immediately falls in the hay and is dragged backward.

Fortunately, Jill grabs a sharp farm implement and stabs it into Gary's arm.

Jill runs away, but after a confrontation in a barn where the pig Beulah is still bleeding out years later, Jill is recaptured and returned to the barn. When Gary is about to kill her, help comes from a surprising source--Merv, whose overalls mysteriously no longer sport a bullet hole in the kidney region.

Merv and Jill stumble out of the barn into the sunrise.

But Merv's imperviousness to bullets is apparently genetic, as the camera moves toward Gary's bleeding body. Gary is clearly breathing, and in the final shot he opens his eyes and turns his face toward the camera, seemingly about to say something but never getting the words out.

Blood Harvest/Nightmare is an inspired meeting of the minds of two of the twentieth century's most skilled, and also underappreciated, artists, filmmaker Bill Rebane and musician Tiny Tim. In fact, it is one of Mr. Rebane's last films, made two years before he suffered a stroke; the costs incurred forced him to close his studio. It is one of Mr. Tim's only films, and unfortunately the only one in which he has a major part. Mr. Tim emerges as probably the most effective actor in the film, able to both inspire sympathy and appear creepily psychopathic from scene to scene.

While at first glance this film might seem the rural equivalent of The Toolbox Murders (1978), another brilliant piece of art that is part slasher film and part psychological stalker film, Mr. Rebane spices his narrative with some unexpected puzzles, tricks, misdirections, and illogical events to heighten the suspense.

  • When Jill first sees Mervo in the film, she does not recognize him, though she is his neighbor and knows he likes to dress as a clown.
  • At night, when Jill is terrified by an unknown figure sitting on her swingset, she is unable to recognize the figure even though it has big frizzy hair, visible in silhouette from her window.
  • Despite daily break-ins and objects thrown through windows, Jill does not think to lock her doors or windows.
  • In a reversal of slasher film tropes, the film shows no nudity at the beginning, but in the middle section of the film Jill is frequently nude.
  • After Gary forces Jill to sit on his lap in the bathtub with the shower running, fondles her, strips her, and attempts to rape her on the family sofa, Jill is not suspicious of him, believing him to be a victim of misguided love but essentially harmless.
  • Mervo has an old woman tied up in a root cellar.

These cinematic misdirections serve to keep the audience on its collective toes, as it wonders about the identity of the killer.

In the end, Blood Harvest is so successful for one reason: emotion. Its characters, far from being emotionless sociopaths, are too emotional. Both Mervo and Gary are men who feel their emotions too strongly, and this is why they are outcasts, at least by Wisconsin standards. But we, the audience, feel their emotions as well, which is why we connect so deeply with these imperfect characters. Blood Harvest asks us to open our hearts, and it is supremely successful because, throughout its running time, we are willing, oh so willing, to do so.