Delving again into my beloved Folk Horror today. Looking back, I should have just done a Folk Horror February. Oh well. Maybe next year. For now though, I thought we’d have a look at a forgotten classic that doesn’t get talked about enough, The Dark Secret Of Harvest Home.
This was a 1979 NBC miniseries with a noteworthy cast, not the least of which was Bette Davis. But we also had a very young Rosanna Arquette, René Auberjonois, a pre-Growing Pains Tracey Gold, Norman Lloyd, Joanna Miles, and Michael O’Keefe. Oh and you might recognize a mighty strappin’ John Calvin from his later appearance in Critters 3.
Okay yeah you might not.
First things first. This is relatively track-down-able on DVD. There’s also a $75 VHS on Amazon. I’d recommend the DVD myself as the only streaming version I could find was on The YouTubes, and its quality is less than ideal. Totally watchable, but could be loads better.
That said, at 3 hours 48 minutes, be ready for a slow burn. Things take a bit to start movin’ along, but once they do, the tension and creep factor both continue to pile up layer upon layer. It’s surprisingly effective for a TV miniseries.
Bette Davis is, of course, imminently watchable, and what makes her performance so chilling is its understatement. I mean, when she wanted to, the woman could masticate some setting, but in this case? Nary a splinter. And yet Widow Fortune is the dominant fixture of the entire community and story arc.
The community itself is a strange combination of elements, part matriarchal agrarian throwback, part “normal” closeknit community. They won’t use tractors or other modern farming methods, but they’re perfectly at home with cars, trucks, paved roads, alcohol, and electricity.
Like Harvest Home, the Thomas Tryon novel the miniseries is based on, the plot is divided into various stages throughout the season, beginning more or less with the crowning of The Young Lord and culminating in the Harvest Home festival. If Tryon’s name sounds familiar, he also wrote the creepy as hell evil twin novel The Other.
Each Young Lord reigns for 7 years. During that time, he’s helped along with his farm and basically taken care of by the community, not entirely unlike the proverbial fatted calf. This is supposed to ensure good fortune and bounty for Cornwall Coombe (or just “The Coombe”). There are definitely some Wicker Man vibes at work here along with a little Shirley Jackson/”Lottery.” I’m confident that it had some sway over Ari Aster and Midsommar as well.
It might even be tempting to draw some connections to Stephen King and “The Children Of The Corn,” but that might be pushing things a bit. Harvest Home was published in 1973, Night Shift in 1978. It’s entirely possible that they never crossed paths before that.
Anyway, into all of this arrives the Constantine family—Nick, his wife Beth, and their daughter Kate. The marriage is going through a rough patch what with Nick’s one-time infidelity. They’ve decided to buy a house in The Coombe and make a new start. How are they able to just pick up and go like this? Well thanks fer askin’ cuz it’s one of the most unintentionally funny sequences of rising action I’ve ever had the pleasure of bearing witness to.
First of all, Beth and Nick have an argument which proceeds to ramp up in volume. Finally Kate rushes in and shrieks at them to stop. This sets off her asthma. After that’s taken care of, the phone rings. Beth’s father has died. This leaves her with a big ol’ chunk of inheritance money. All of this takes up about 90 seconds of screen time, and we’re off to the races.
There are also a few subplots involving a nearby forest which is guarded by the ne’erdowell Soakes lads, the local temptress named Tamar who has her sights set on Nick, and the mysterious death of one Grace Everdeen.
Nick is, of course, suspicious of the Coombe’s residents, “The Ways,” and Widow Fortune in particular. He does not embrace The Ways and is nosing around about the Everdeen lass. Conversely, Beth is slowly and maybe a little reluctantly won over to The Ways whilst their daughter Kate wholeheartedly embraces everything about The Coombe.
It’s also worth paying attention to names. The first big celebration is the Agnes Fair. Agnes Of Rome was a 4th centry catholic martyr and the patron saint of girls, virgins, and chastity. Well now. The lastest Young Lord is Jimmy Minerva, Minerva being the Roman equivalent of Athena, goddess of wisdom.
I won’t go into any further details for those who want to make an evening of this one. On the other hand, if you’re even a little familiar with the qualities and characteristics of Folk Horror, it won’t be tough to sort out how all of this is gonna go down. That said, getting there is still a fun and surprisingly spooky little trip.
And of course, make thee the corn.