Classics of Pagan Cinema: The Dark Secret of Harvest Home

The Dark Secret of Harvest Home is a folk horror film that often appears on message boards where people post about movies they can only half-remember and never seem to find. Originally an NBC miniseries aired in 1978, it contains some daring sexual elements people can’t quite believe they saw on television. But bootlegs of the original cut still exist, and their fragmentary memories are correct. This network television contribution to the canon is a live one, prefiguring 2019’s Midsommar and in some ways outshining 1973’s The Wicker Man.

Bette Davis as the Widow Fortune in Leo Penn’s 1978 miniseries THE DARK SECRET OF HARVEST HOME [Universal]

Ad man Nick Constantine (David Ackroyd) and his wife Beth (Joanna Miles) have a difficult life in Manhattan. Their marital troubles and asthmatic daughter Kate (a young Rosanna Arquette) are laid bare in a therapy session Beth seeks out. Beth’s family is unsupportive and even derisive of her seeking help in a way that seems emblematic of the decade in which the film was made. However, things are about to get worse.

Beth’s father (a minister she inexplicably refers to as “the padre” in conversation) dies suddenly, and the Constantines take their inheritance and set out for Cornwall Coombe, a small town in Connecticut. As is expected in folk horror, they arrive in their station wagon to find that the people of the village are a little old fashioned in their religious practices.

The first people the family meets explain that “seeding the ground is an act of love, and it must be done with the hand.” The people of Cornwall Coombe grow crops without modern machine intervention, saying vaguely that to use anything more sophisticated than a horse-drawn wagon would be “against the way.” The way is largely outlined and mysteriously enforced by a fearsome witchy figure called the Widow Fortune (Bette Davis at the height of her hagsploitation hotness). Nick is immediately uncomfortable with how powerful Widow Fortune seems to be, and with the deference paid to her.

Fortune’s power is amorphous and mighty. Kate’s asthma, typically treated with an early version of the albuterol inhaler, is more easily bettered by Fortune’s folk remedies. Both Kate and Beth are charmed by Fortune, her felicity of action and her forthright New England manners only add to the ambiance of the place they are coming to think of as their new home. In this way, Nick’s wife and daughter become part of the village while he remains an outsider.

Nick meets Robert Dodd (Stephen Joyce), a former college professor who is blind and almost entirely confined to his home (here again, the values of the 1970s are on display.) The clueless protagonist learns that one man a year is named Harvest Lord, a ceremonial title carrying some great honor and being connected in some way to the village’s main crop: corn. Robert’s injuries serve as a dark foreshadowing that this way of life might not be all it’s cracked up to be.

As in other classics of the genre such as Eye of the Devil and The Wicker Man, Nick becomes obsessed with obstructing or preventing the upcoming festival, called Harvest Home.

“God’s fine,” explains the Widow Fortune, “but it’s man’s invention. It’s the earth that’s the friend of womankind.” Fortune is positioning women as the gender that is closer to the earth, inextricably linked through fertility and the bearing of children, to the corporeal reality of an agricultural sex cult.

It is this corporeal reality; the earth, the soil, the corn, the sexuality and procreation, that makes up the meaty part of The Dark Secret of Harvest Home, and the parts most often cut from re-broadcast and reproduction in other media. It’s the part of folk horror the camera often pans away from: the cut scene in The Wicker Man when Willow MacGregor can be heard deflowering a teenage boy springs to mind. It is this component that is remembered most incompletely by those souls who search for this hard-to-find film. They recall it being vividly and distinctly corporeal — much more so than should have passed the censors’ tests at that time — and have a hard time validating that recollection.

“Plow the furrow! Let the new lord plow the furrow!” This is called out during a dramatization of the hierogamy between the Harvest Lord and the Corn Maiden as it is performed for the villagers. By this point, Nick knows what to expect. The audience knows what to expect. All that’s left is to guess how the director will find a way to keep from showing it. Director Leo Penn, however, doesn’t waste much time. He directs the teenaged Arquette in an orgiastic dance with a suggestive ear of corn, which Nick disrupts with a father’s shotgun spirit. Dodd finally reveals that his blindness is the price he paid for his own attempt to interfere with the plowing of the furrow.

“The furrow will be plowed! The corn will be made.” Widow Fortune warns Nick that he’s too late. His wife, the chosen Corn Maiden, is a key player in her own hierogamy, taking on the aspect of the goddess and accepting her lover, the Harvest Lord, while the women of the village attend in rhythmic chants. All in white, they assist her in cutting her consort’s throat with a scythe just moments after his climax.

Unlike The Wicker Man, The Dark Secret of Harvest Home stays with the Pagans long enough to show us that their ritual did indeed bear fruit: the corn harvest is heavy and Beth Constantine is roundly pregnant by the time the next festival rolls around. The half-remembered TV movie rewards the Pagans, punishes the cynic, and rolls the wheel forward with joy. Folks who doubt their memory should seek it out in the original cut and watch again; this classic is a rare and delicious win.

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