This was one of those spooky made-for-TV movies that I watched in my childhood during the 1970s. Over the long years between now and then, I’d forgotten almost all of it except for the title and a handful of images:
- A woman being crushed beneath a large, wooden door weighted with stones.
- The same woman seeing that same door being carried and reacting in horror to it.
- A little girl toying with a wedding ring.
It had something to do with a 17th-century witchcraft trial.
So, when I was buying a bunch of DVDs on Amazon recently and saw that this title was inexpensively available, I thought “Why not?” and added it to my cart.
The second thing is that the story is a takeoff on Rosemary’s Baby; it involves a woman who wants to be/becomes pregnant and is menaced by a coven of witches. Some characters and plot-points are similar, even if they misdirect one’s expectations. But the key difference is that this coven’s focus isn’t on the baby, and the heroine isn’t as much of an innocent victim of happenstance as Rosemary.
The movie begins with the reading of a will. Maggie Carey Porter (Hope Lange) is just about to inherit the Carey family’s ancestral farm in rural Massachusetts. Actually, her cousin inherits it first, but when he drives up from New York to have a look at the old place, he encounters a young blonde girl standing in the middle of the road and, as he swerves to miss her, hits a tree. His car bursts into flames while the girl stands there smiling.
Crowhaven Farm passes to Maggie next. She and her husband Ben (Paul Burke) arrive with a carload of stuff and a smart-alecky friend, intending to move in.
Right away, the house seems strangely familiar to Maggie, even though she’s never been there before. She knows about the secret entrance to the cellar behind the pantry shelves, and tells her friend that she also knew about the old well and the hidden passageway between two bedrooms upstairs (We don’t see her find these).
Her friend Felicia, a ditzy New-Age type, believes whole-heartedly in reincarnation, and Maggie herself is certain that she lived at the farm in a previous life.
Ben wants to stay. He thinks the place is great. He’s a not-very-successful artist (once you see his paintings, you can guess why), and Crowhaven seems like the perfect place for fresh inspiration. He’s already setting up a studio in the barn. Besides, he hopes that getting away from New York and their life there will do their marriage some good.
The Porters’ marriage is a shaky one. First and foremost, they’ve been married for seven years and have been trying to have a baby, but no luck so far. Maggie says that the problem isn’t a medical one, but Ben believes that it’s his fault; he not only takes their failed attempts at baby-making as a blow to his masculine pride, but is constantly suspicious that his wife will ditch him for some other man who can give her the child she so desperately wants.
Maggie reluctantly agrees to stay.
They meet the neighbors, mostly a partying bunch of weekenders from Boston and nearby Lowell. Among these people is an elderly gentleman named Harold Dane who knows a lot about the local history. Mr. Dane’s role here is similar to Maurice Evans’s in Rosemary’s Baby–he provides Maggie with crucial information about the witches’ coven, and pays dearly for it.
That first night when they meet, Dane tells Maggie and the other party guests about the witchcraft trials that occurred in the village in 1692, involving the Carey family. One witch was pressed to death, using a door weighted with heavy stones. This was a means of trying to extract a confession, but it could easily crush the person if they piled on too many stones; one of the accused Salem “witches” (whose name was Corey) was actually killed this way.
Although this story isn’t set in Salem, I notice that other historical Salem witch-trial names or close to them appear in this movie, and it’s obviously based on that event although many details diverge.
Maggie has already had brief visions/memories of herself as the witch being pressed beneath a door. She’s even seen the door, when the handyman (John Carradine) brings it up along with some of the other clutter when he’s clearing the basement. This is one of the scenes I remembered from childhood. Maggie orders the handyman to burn it.
The other neighbor who’ll be important to the story is a smarmy fellow from Lowell named Kevin Pierce. He gets Maggie a job at a law office in town and hits on her regularly. Ben is immediately suspicious and jealous, even though Maggie deflects every one of Kevin’s advances.
When she is forced to stay in Lowell overnight during a heavy storm, she stays at Kevin’s apartment (Kevin isn’t there), but doesn’t tell her husband because she knows how upset he’ll get about it.
After she’s had a number of disturbing glimpses into the past and a few other odd experiences on the farm, Maggie visits the local doctor. She talks to him about wanting a baby, and says that she’ll “give anything” to have one.
The doctor suggests the old canard that, if you adopt a child, a conceived child will soon follow. He even has a child in mind–not a baby, but a girl of 10 named Jennifer. She’s an orphan currently in the care of a terminally ill aunt, who is trying to find a suitable home for her.
The Porters meet Jennifer and Aunt Mercy Lewis and agree to have Jennifer stay with them for a few days while her aunt has some medical appointments in Boston. When Aunt Mercy commits suicide, the couple decides to continue looking after the little girl.
Astute viewers will know that this isn’t a good idea. Jennifer was the girl who caused the flaming car accident at the beginning of the movie. Even if you’d missed that opening scene, you’d still perceive that the kid is deeply creepy.
On the night of the big storm, when Maggie is Lowell, Jennifer uses the secret panel between the closet of her room and the master bedroom, appears at Ben’s bedside and asks if she can climb in with him. He takes it as a request for comfort from a frightened child, but her attitude toward him definitely isn’t child-like; the way she looks at him, gives him a kiss, and tells him she loves him is all very squicky to watch. Ben fortunately remains oblivious.
This little family, such as it is, and their friends go on well enough for several months. Ben finds success as an artist. Jennifer and the handyman behave creepily. Kevin continues to hit on Maggie.
Around Christmas-time, Maggie learns that she’s finally pregnant.
Mr. Dane gave Maggie some books about the witchcraft trials back in the autumn, but it isn’t until months later, after he tumbles down some stairs and breaks his neck, that she finally reads them. She should’ve done so long ago; everything is clearly laid out for her in these pages in a nice, old-fashioned font.
In the late 1600s, the couple who lived on Crowhaven Farm were one Meg Carey and her husband Daniel. Like Maggie and Ben, they were childless, until they joined the local coven and Meg made a deal with Satan: her soul for a baby.
When authorities began to investigate the charges of witchcraft and pressed Maggie to extract a confession, she named two other members of her coven: Mercy Lewis and Mercy’s niece Jennifer.
Were a lot of little Puritan girls named Jennifer?
Mercy and Jennifer were executed for witchcraft; Mercy was hanged and it was Jennifer, not Meg, who was crushed to death. Meg was set free to live out the rest of her life at Crowhaven in peace. No idea what happened to her husband.
A ghostly image of Meg’s face at the grave-site, looking exactly like her own, confirms to Maggie that they are actually the same person reincarnated. She also realizes that the late Mercy Lewis and the Jennifer she knows are the same as the 17th-century aunt and niece she betrayed.
That night, as she searches for Jennifer, she stumbles upon the coven dressed in Puritan clothes in a nearby Stonehenge-like ring of standing stones with an altar, sacrificing a sheep and enacting a ritual. They disappear when the sun rises. The dead sheep disappears too, but a little bit of blood remains on the rock that serves as the sacrificial altar.
Maggie can’t be sure whether or not it was all a dream, but the sight is enough to start her premature labor. She makes her way back to the farm and the worried Ben, and gives birth amid a haze of memories about Meg Carey’s trial.
When she wakes, there’s a nurse at the house and Ben is cooing over the baby, who is a bit small but all right.
Maggie is too weak to be moved, but the doctor encourages Ben to go ahead to leave for a few days for his one-man show in Boston as planned. Maggie begs him not to leave her, but Ben is sure he knows what’s best, and off he goes.
Alone at Crowhaven Farm, Maggie is now at the mercy of the coven. It’s not just Jennifer and Aunt Mercy, who isn’t dead–all the members of the coven are people she knows. The doctor. The nurse. Many of the neighbors. Even her friend Felicia, whom she’s known for years. They’ve been waiting a long time for Meg Carey to return to Crowhaven so they can punish her for her betrayal. Jennifer is especially angry since she died so young and will never know what it’s like to be a grown woman.
They take Maggie out to that same meadow where Meg Carey was pressed. The handyman has the door ready and waiting for her, and there’s a big pile of stones…
It’s during her second pressing that Meg/Maggie is given the choice that makes this story interesting.
Her first concern is for the life and safety of her newborn baby, but the coven isn’t interested in the baby one way or another. It’s not the offspring of Satan, and they don’t want it for a sacrifice. Although Maggie’s desire for a child is important to drive the plot, the baby itself isn’t once it’s born.
The coven offers Maggie a different bargain. She can die here and now, under the weight of the stones, or she can do what she did the last time: commit another betrayal and give them someone else’s soul in her place.
The choice Maggie makes and its ramifications are why I like Crowhaven Farm in spite of a certain awkwardness in its presentation. The ending reveals an unexpected complexity to the situation surrounding this woman; she first appears to be simply the victim of an evil plot, but she turns out to be a person who simply can’t keep up her side of a bargain, even with the devil. When Maggie said she would give anything for a child, she wasn’t just handing over her own soul.