PAPERBACKS FROM HELL WEEK: The Dark Secret of Harvest Home (1978)

Thomas Tryon was an actor before he was an author. It nearly ruined him. While his biggest triumph as an actor was his Golden Globes winning role in The Cardinal, he was subject to the abuses of director Otto Preminger. An example? Preminger fired Tryon in front of his parents when they visited the film, only rehiring after he felt that the actor had been humiliated enough.

He vowed to never again be subject to such torture and tried to become a producer (he was the executive producer of Johnny Got His Gun in 1971). According to Grady Hendrix in Paperbacks from Hell (which this week is all about, so if you haven’t read it, you better start ordering now), “Tryon tried to become a producer, but his treatment for a movie about evil twins called The Other wasn’t getting any traction so he borrowed money from his family, locked himself away for 18 months and turned it into a novel. The Other was instantly heralded as a classic and Tryon hit the road, doing interviews and selling his book practically door to door. His reward was massive sales and critics falling all over themselves to proclaim it a masterpiece.”

His next book was called Harvest Home and it’s a sprawling rural horror in the same vein as Blood on Satan’s Claw or The Wicker Man. Both of these books — and the films they inspired — are forgotten. That’s why books like Paperbacks from Hell are so important — there’s a real richness in celebrating these books (and these films, which is why I write so much about them).

Hendrix claims that “you’ll see the DNA of almost everything Stephen King wrote before  The Stand” in the works of Tryon. So why are his books and movies now forgotten? I don’t have the answer.

I can tell you about The Dark Secret of Harvest Home, an NBC TV movie that first aired on January 23–24, 1978.

Directed by Leo Penn (father to Sean, Christoper and Michael, and director of many, many TV shows), the near 5-hour movie moves as slowly as the book at times, but it’s definitely worth watching. Broken into two nights, the real craziness doesn’t really start happening until the second part.

Nick Constantine (David Ackroyd, who played Dr. Nicholas Conrad in the 1970’s TV movie ripoff of Iron Man, Exo-Man), his wife Beth (Joanna Miles, Bug) and their daughter Kate (Rosanna Arquette, Desperately Seeking Susan) are living the kind of dreary life that I imagine everyone in New York City does. Nick cheats on her and drinks away his problems as he struggles in the advertising industry. Beth stays in therapy every day of the week. And their daughter has such a bad case of asthma, she can’t even stay outside for long. Yet they decide to relocate to a Connecticut village called Cornwall Coombe after falling in love with it on a trip.

Sure, the villagers only do things the old ways, not using modern farming equipment or communicating with the outside world. Sure, they celebrate weird festivals all year long and are obsessed with corn. But come on — the couple’s romance is back, Kate is cured and everyone is just so nice!

Kate even has a love interest — Worthy (Michael O’Keefe, Caddyshack), who wants to leave the town behind and go to college.  He’s been saving money so he can escape, but as Kate becomes more and more part of the town, he sees that their love can’t survive.

Then, there’s Robert and Maggie Dodd, their neighbors. They once lived in the modern world and have also decided to come here. Robert is blind and listens to Donald Pleasence reading from several plays. And oh, hello, here’s Justin and Sophie Hook, who will be this year’s Harvest Lord and Corn Maiden in the Corn Play. And most importantly, here’s Bette Davis (if I have to explain who she is, stop reading now) playing Widow Fortune, the town’s herbal healer and most important person. Davis claims that she wanted this role since she read the book and she’s a force in this — perfectly sweet at times and infused with menace at others.

Nick increasingly becomes obsessed with learning the secrets of the town, particularly why one grave — that of a suicide victim — is outside the cemetery. Things get worse when Worthy busts into church and curses the corn and someone called Mother before running away. And then he gets seduced by Tamar, a widow who has a clairvoyant daughter who picks each year’s Harvest Lord (she’s played by Tracey Gold from TV’s Growing Pains).

So what is Harvest Home? Its “who no man may see nor woman tell,” a pagan fertility rite connected to the earth mother. Nick is now obsessed with it and his marriage is falling apart all over again. His wife just wants to get pregnant again and he can’t figure out why.

Worthy is hiding, but a letter to Nick is intercepted. A posse goes to get him and they hang his corpse in a field as a scarecrow before burning it on Kindling Night. At this point, there’s no normal in this town. Nick tries to escape and turns to his blind neighbor Robert, who tells him that Harvest Home is happening. He explains that he was blinded trying to learn the secret and that Nick should just run.

Instead, he goes to save his wife and daughter. The ritual scene that follows is lunacy and worth sitting through this entire movie. To Nick’s horror, he learns that his daughter is the new Corn Maiden. He is forced to watch as the Harvest Lord has sex with her, ending with the man’s throat being cut as he is sacrificed to the earth. Nick is caught, blinded and his tongue is cut out, much like his friend Jack Stump (Rene Auberjonois, Eyes of Laura Mars and so many other roles). He is trapped in the town now, forever stuck, his virility reduced to being dependant on his pregnant wife and daughter, who are now part of the pagan secret that is Harvest Home.

There’s a cut down commerical release of the film, but there’s no way to get this on DVD without finding a bootleg. It’s worth the search, however. The last ten minutes of the film are perfect.

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