John McNaughton comes back out to play
It’s been nearly 30 years since director John McNaughton announced himself to the world with Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, which gifted us Michael Rooker, and far too long since he returned to the horror genre. So that’s reason enough to celebrate his latest film, The Harvest, which after a triumphant premiere at last year’s FrightFest is finally getting a UK release under the new title Can’t Come Out to Play. Whatever the reasons for the name change (perhaps to avoid confusion with the 1992 thriller starring Miguel Ferrer and Leilana Sarelle, or simply to sound less arty), McNaughton’s return to the genre is a welcome one.
After an opening in which a little league pitcher is almost killed by a fluke baseball strike to the chest, we meet Dr Young (Samantha Morton), and later her husband, a nurse (Michael Shannon), and sickly child Andy (Charlie Tahan), who alternates between his bed and a wheelchair due to some undefined illness. Active audiences will smell a rat early on, wondering if Andy is really ill: in horror movies, we’re attuned to the idea of Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy (the most famous example probably being in The Sixth Sense), and the fact that Morton seems to be channelling Annie Wilkes from Misery is enough to keep us on the lookout for signs that all is not well in Dr Young’s head. But McNaughton and screenwriter Stephen Lancellotti are much too clever to let us put it all together in the first few minutes, and as the story unfolds, it soon becomes clear that there is more to the Young family than meets the eye.
The inciting incident occurs when teenager Maryann (Natasha Calis, mesmerising) moves into the area following the death of her parents, striking up a friendship with Andy, of which his mother strongly, if mysteriously, disapproves. But having left her own friends behind in her old neighbourhood, Maryann won’t take no for an answer, and before long she is encouraging Andy to embrace his love of baseball by playing a little catch in the front yard, an infraction that results in a distinctly Annie Wilkes-style outburst from Dr Young.
Lancellotti’s screenplay really is a devious construction, and McNaughton – who, Wild Things and a few decent episodes of ground-breaking cop show Homicide: Life on the Street aside, has never really fulfilled the promise of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer – ensures that every storytelling box is ticked before shooting a single frame of film. Can’t Come Out to Play reminded me, in an abstract sort of way, of Bernard Rose’s underseen Paperhouse, which I consider high praise. Some may find its slow-burn style a little old-fashioned, but at the best of times, “old-fashioned” can be synonymous with “timeless.” Let’s hope more scripts of this calibre come McNaughton’s way soon: he’s one director who doesn’t come out to play often enough.
David Hughes (@DavidHughesTwit)
CAN’T COME OUT TO PLAY is available to stream or download here