I don’t like rituals, period. Whether straitlaced (Christian) or darkly purposed (Satanic), I just find them creepy…and off. So while I won’t stand on ceremony, I will watch, with fascination, films that trot out such pageantry. One of my favorites is a two part TV mini-series, The Dark Secret of Harvest Home (1978). Oh, and its horror, but I’m sure you already guessed that.
Originally airing on NBC Monday, January 23rd (in the NBC Monday Night at the Movies slot) and Tuesday the 24th, 1978, Dark Secret was up against the CBS juggernaut of M*A*S*H/One Day at a Time/Lou Grant. But while many were watching Hawkeye, Schneider, et al crack wise, something insidious was brewing over at The Peacock.
Pull out your yellowed copy of TV Guide and let’s have a look shall we?
THE DARK SECRET OF HARVEST HOME (Monday-Tuesday, 9pm, NBC)
A stressed out family decides to leave city life behind for the quiet, rural village of Cornwall Coombe. They soon encounter a series of strange events that may have them regretting their decision. Bette Davis, David Ackroyd star.
Nick Constantine (Ackroyd – Dark Angel), his wife Beth (Joanna Miles – Judge Dredd), and their daughter Kate (Rosanna Arquette – Pulp Fiction) go for a drive after receiving an inheritance due to a death in the family. They stumble upon the New England village of Cornwall Coombe, a place practically untouched by time. (Think Amish, but with way more TV actors.) Idyllic, tranquil, with a strong emphasis on community, the family falls in love with the colony. Next thing you know, they’ve bought a dream home for next to nothing, thanks to the Widow Fortune (Bette Davis – Burnt Offerings), the Coombe’s matriarch.
At first, everything is ideal. Nick is writing and painting, Beth makes fast friends, and teenaged Kate swoons over a local boy named Worthy (Michael O’Keefe – Caddyshack), a sturdy farmhand who dreams of a life outside the colony, which mainly focuses on growing and harvesting crops, especially corn. You see, up in the C.C., it’s all about the corn. Corn is their lease on life; their sustenance, currency, not to mention in church, their tithe to “Mother”. In short order, the Constantine family discovers that the Coombe community is a Pagan one, and while Beth and Kate adjust quite well to the quaint and peaceful way of life, Nick sees more. Much more. He finds out what happens to those who go “against the ways” of the colony, and soon learns it’s best to play nice with the villagers…
The Dark Secret of Harvest Home is based on the 1973 novel Harvest Home, by actor turned writer Tom Tryon. His first novel The Other was made into a low key, creepy 1972 film, and Dark Secret (I haven’t read the novel) expounds on the rural setting of The Other, this time through an outsider’s leery view. Some viewers have pointed out similarities to the seminal horror film The Wicker Man (1973); and while themes of deception and renewal run through both, Dark Secret’s protagonist is given many warnings (some overt, some cryptic) to conform or pay the consequences. That’s where the similarities end; Nick is genuinely welcomed by the colony, and they want him to fit in. (They may have plans for his wife and daughter though. Just saying.)
I was lucky enough to catch this as a kid during the original airing; and while the potency of certain images are still seared in my brainpan (and play exactly as I remembered them), what really works for me now is the teleplay’s commitment to the mythology created. Written by veteran TV scribes Jack Guss and Charles E. Israel, Dark Secret slowly builds (and unfurls) its narrative, adding chilling details along the way en route to the inevitable conclusion. Director Leo Penn creates an aura of palpable tension on Nick’s behalf; wherever he turns, his window of escape becomes harder to fit through. Penn (a well regarded veteran TV director and father of the famous progeny) et al have a lot of space to fill, and to their credit, they use the time wisely – every character introduced has a purpose and a place on the larger canvas being woven.
As for those indelible images from my youth; well, I wouldn’t want to give away anything to the uninitiated, but there are a few instances of sensory organs being altered that startled me as a youngster and are still effective today. All we see are the after effects, but the solid teleplay and Penn’s tight grip on the proceedings guarantee a thrill or two. The very nature of Paganism itself can be unsettling to some; the filmmakers play off that fear of the unknown (it’s a fractured religion, with a confusing ideology) to a great degree, and while practically every religion is supposedly benign in theory, the use of sacrifice to appease any god always gets under my skin.
Bette Davis said in interviews that she wanted to play Widow Fortune (pronounced “Widda” by a variety of Pepperidge Farms accents throughout the program) ever since reading Tryon’s novel; and she is terrific in the role, by turns stern and loving, cracking a nefarious smile when called for, always commanding the screen. It really is one of her best latter day roles. Ackroyd is a charming lead, and the supporting cast is filled out with such exemplary talent as Rene Auberjonois (Deep Space Nine), John Calvin (Critters 3), and Norman Lloyd (Jaws of Satan), not to mention a very young Tracey Gold (Growing Pains) as Missy, the uber-creepy clairvoyant kiddo. All lend an air of credibility to material that would come off as hokey in the wrong hands.
And let’s face it: you’re either on board with the premise, or not. If you’re reading this, however, the chances are pretty good that a little corn worshipping won’t impede your judgment – or have you go against the ways.
*Stay away from the heavily truncated version that was issued on VHS – rumor has it a certain actor wouldn’t sign off and was cut completely from the pressing. I won’t name names, but he must have been pretty teed off about it.*Next: It Came From The Tube: Halloween Edition