Reviewed by The Foywonder
Starring Charles Durning, Lane Smith, Larry Drake, Tonya Crowe, Jocelyn Brando, Claude Earl Jones, Robert F. Lyons
Directed by Frank De Felitta
You know the story. You watched something as a little kid and thought it was awesome. Decades pass, you see it again through adult eyes and it doesn’t hold up. Sometimes the memories are better than the reality. That cartoon you watched every day as a child is utterly unwatchable as an adult. That movie you watched repeatedly in your youth bores you or insults your intelligence today. Yes, you know the story. Dark Night of the Scarecrow, thankfully, is not that story. The remarkable story here is that of an earnest little 1981 made-for-television spookshow that still holds up nearly thirty years later.
Dark Night of the Scarecrow takes place in a quaint farming community where denizens have country-fied names like Skeeter, Philby, Bubba, Marylee, Harless Hocker, and Otis P. Hazelrigg. Mentally challenged adult Bubba Ritter (the future Dr. Giggles, Larry Drake) plays in the field with Marylee (Tonya Crowe), neither aware that local mailman Otis P. Hazelrigg (Charles Durning) watches them with binoculars from afar, seething that the fully grown man-child be allowed anywhere near this delicate young girl. The subtle script only hints at Hazelrigg’s motivations: Some sort of incident clearly went down in the past with seemingly timid Bubba injuring someone, not to mention Bubba’s mother’s insinuation that Hazelrigg is a potential pedophile lusting after Marylee.
Marylee gets mauled by a vicious dog while playing with Bubba. False word has spread that Bubba killed Marylee. Hazelrigg rounds up three local hayseeds to form a lynch mob. Terrified, Bubba runs home to momma; she tells him to play “the hiding game” until everything is sorted out. Bubba attempts to hide by dressing up and playing scarecrow in the field where the four hateful hicks find him and gun him down execution style. No sooner has the rain of gunfire subsided than word comes over the CB that Marylee is badly injured but not dead and that Bubba is actually the one who saved her from the dog attack. Hazelrigg puts a pitchfork in Bubba’s hand, and the quartet claim self-defense.
Some time passes. Acquitted due to lack of evidence, the remorseless murderers are arrogantly defiant, even celebratory, in the face of the district attorney vowing to prove their guilt and the anguished cries of injustice from mother Ritter. But then the scarecrow begins to appear in their fields – death follows.
Are the deaths murder or accidents? Is it all just a coincidence, or is someone targeting them? Is it the district attorney going to extreme lengths to coerce a confession? Is it Bubba’s mother getting the divine justice she promised them? What about little Marylee, having developed a serious case of creepy child syndrome following her attack and telling people Bubba is still alive, still playing the hiding game? Or, as Hazelrigg refuses to believe, could it be Bubba’s spirit back to gain retribution from beyond the grave? The only thing for certain is that everything Hazelrigg does from this point to get them out of their predicament just digs his grave that much deeper.
Spooky is not a term you often hear used to describe today’s horror movies. This is not a horror movie that is going to make you jump out of your seat. This is not a horror movie that relies on gory kills. The characters with one exception are all adults, not dumb teenagers or horny college kids. Dark Night of the Scarecrow is the very antithesis of today’s horror movies and could probably never be effectively remade because it would end up an I Know What You Did Last Summer clone with young people being slaughtered by a slasher dressed like a scarecrow instead of the “Twilight Zone”-ish campfire story ripe with subtlety, mood, atmosphere, and delicious irony.
The planting of the pitchfork in Bubba’s dead hand is immediately followed by a sweeping, unearthly wind that blows through as the four killers stand silently before the dead man crucified in scarecrow garb; this few seconds of eerie calm does more to establish a true sense of something ominous to come than all the basement dank in every Saw movie combined. Moments like that are the reason this little TV movie from 1981 that had fallen into the cracks of obscurity still holds up today and will continue to hold up for years to come even as most of today’s disposable horror movies fade into their own deserved obscurity. If you’ve never seen Dark Night of the Scarecrow, you owe it to yourself to seek out this spooky masterpiece.
VCI Entertainment have done us all a favor by releasing a digitally restored print of Dark Night of the Scarecrow so that this wonderful film can be rediscovered. VCI even dug up the original CBS Network World Premiere Promo that aired right before the October 24, 1981 premiere broadcast.
The only other extra on the DVD is a bit of a mixed bag from my perspective. Writer J.D. Feigelson and director Frank De Felitta team up for a commentary track that too often boils down to Feigelson laying out the intent of a particular scene before deferring to De Felitta, who responds with a short answer affirmative. De Felitta is somewhere in the neighborhood of 90 years old, and it would appear he needed to be led at times. Between that and the infrequent long pauses, I found the commentary a tad on the dry side. Though there are some interesting nuggets of information such as Charles Durning’s initial reluctance to take the Hazelrigg role because he wasn’t keen on playing a character with no redeeming values and a brief debate as to whether or not Dark Night of the Scarecrow is the first movie to feature someone falling victim to a woodchipper.
4 1/2 out of 5
2 out of 5