Directed by Frank De Felitta
Distributed by VCI Entertainment
As a horror-loving child that grew up during the 80s, I can’t help but wonder just how in the HELL did I ever miss seeing Dark Night of the Scarecrow until now? Originally airing on CBS in 1981 and subsequently re-aired in 1985, it seems like something that I should have known about, and I’ll be honest… I now feel like I’ve been jipped by not having this flick as part of my childhood experience at all.
If you’re like me and Dark Night of the Scarecrow is a movie that you missed out on for all these years, allow me to get you caught up with the rest of the class on what has to be the best made-for-television genre movie of the 1980s and even quite possibly one of the best all-time TV horror flicks, ranking right up there for me alongside some of my own personal favorites including Salem’s Lot, It, Trilogy of Terror and Gargoyles.
In the film we meet Bubba Ritter (Drake), who is a mentally handicapped 36-year-old that has more in common with the 9-year-olds in his small town than he does with the adults his own age. A gentle giant lacking the ability to harm another soul, he’s falsely accused of killing a young girl named Marylee (Crowe) when he tries to save her from a vicious dog attack. Always considered a social outcast and drain on his community, a group of hillbilly vigilantes led by closet alcoholic postal worker Otis Hazelrigg (Durning) quickly point their proverbial fingers at Bubba for the little girl’s death and hunt him down so that they can execute him and rid their town of his “plague.”
So Otis, along with gas station attendant Skeeter Norris (Lyons) and farmer cousins Philby (Jones) and Harliss (Smith) Hocker track down Bubba as he hides inside a scarecrow costume hanging from a post in the middle of a remote field. Once they see their opening to literally get away with murder, Otis and his cronies execute Bubba by shooting him 21 times as the poor guy defenselessly hangs onto the scarecrow post unable to escape.
After the execution Otis and the boys find out that Marylee actually survived her ordeal and that Bubba was never at fault for anything. Realizing the deep water they just got themselves into, the vigilantes quickly do their best to come up with a story and take a vow to keep quiet in order to avoid doing any jail time for their crime.
So when the foursome are freed after no witnesses to Bubba’s murder come forth, strange things begin to happen around their small town, and it’s evident that someone – or something – is on to their misdeeds, something unable to forgive them for the sins they’ve committed. One by one the men are haunted by a supernatural scarecrow only to eventually each be driven to their own grisly demise, and as Otis watches his friends being picked off, his mania kicks in and gradually begins to spiral out of control as he hunts down and eliminates anyone he thinks could possibly know what really happened to Bubba in that deserted field.
What Otis doesn’t know is that it’s not someone in town that’s been messing with him; it’s Bubba, who has now returned in the form of a scarecrow seeking justice for the wrongs committed against him and those he loves the most.
Honestly, I’m incredibly shocked that Dark Night of the Scarecrow ever made it onto the airwaves back in 1981 considering its incredibly dark subject material featuring references to child rape and some rather brutal death scenarios (if Bubba’s death scene doesn’t get under your skin, then nothing will) so it’s not exactly what I’d call “family programming” in the 80s. So immediately I’d like to tip my hat to CBS for taking a chance with making this movie and not butchering the controversial tones lying deep within this horrific tale of a vengeance-seeking scarecrow looking to even the score. It was a ballsy move and something I wish we’d see happen more on networks these days.
What’s even more incredible is the pedigree of talent assembled for Dark Night of the Scarecrow. Drake is a guy whom most genre fans know best as “Dr. Giggles”, but he’s an actor I’ve enjoyed from his work on NBC’s “LA Law” as Benny to his minor role in The Karate Kid as a racist drunk who tries to mess with Mr. Miyagi. Any time he pops up in something, it’s always cause for celebration because regardless of the quality of the project (and he’s been in a few horror stinkers, that’s for sure), it is always elevated regardless just because of Drake’s involvement.
The same could be said for Smith, who is another one of my all-time favorite character actors. From his roles in comedies like Son-in-Law, My Cousin Vinny, The Mighty Ducks (shut up, I totally went there), and The Distinguished Gentleman to his more serious performances in films like Red Dawn, Network and Places in the Heart to his extensive TV resume, which includes recurring roles on various shows such as “V,” “Good & Evil,” “Lois & Clark” and “King of the Hill”, one thing was always for certain: If Lane Smith was in something, it was bound to be entertaining, and Dark Night of the Scarecrow absolutely holds up his legacy of being one of the best character actors of his time.
Smith is once again a domineering presence here, and I love the fact that Harliss is a guy who just can NEVER put down a beer bottle. There should be a Dark Night of the Scarecrow drinking game that involves the amount of times we see Smith’s character with a brew in his hand, and I absolutely dig that kind of commitment to a character.
Durning, a revered veteran actor, always adds class to anything he shows up in, and I loved watching his character becoming more and more unhinged throughout Dark Night of the Scarecrow. The shot of him lurking behind a skeleton mask in a window as he stalks young Marylee has got to be one of THE best shots of the entire movie. He played so much of his maniacal tendencies in his eyes (and his hair – watch closely) that I actually got chills as he stared down a defenseless Bubba on the scarecrow post. A true powerhouse of an actor, Durning is definitely the engine that drives Dark Night of the Scarecrow.
I’m surprised that a movie- let alone a made-for-television movie at that- which is now celebrating its 30th anniversary managed to not only feel timeless but still managed to creep me out and kept me so engrossed at times that I would actually forget to blink. That’s an incredible rarity these days, and I think that’s a testament to the work of director Frank De Felitta and his entire cast, which managed to raise the bar infinitely higher with their work in Dark Night of the Scarecrow. It’s a movie that after just one viewing has been made an immediate Halloween classic in my house, and I look forward to watching it over and over and … well, over again (as I tend to do with fantastic little classic horror flicks like this).
In terms of the Blu-ray presentation of Dark Night of the Scarecrow, it’s not a movie I’ve ever seen before on any format (VHS, DVD or on TV originally) so I’m not exactly sure just how many improvements have been made here on the Blu. But as someone who watches a lot of classic horror flicks (many that are still not available on Blu-ray or haven’t even had a DVD release since the late 90s/early 00s because studios just don’t think there’s a demand), I feel confident in saying that I’ve seen a lot of crappy transfers so I can usually figure out if something looks decent or not to the average viewers out there.
And I would have to say that what we get on the Dark Night of the Scarecrow Blu-ray actually looks pretty great. The movie was shot in 1.33:1 so the flick is presented on the Blu in pillar boxed 16:9, which really didn’t bother me at all because the image quality is intact, which is something I prefer any day over stretching out a film just to give the illusion of a bigger image.
In terms of bonus features, it seems like they reused only two extras presented on last year’s DVD release of Dark Night of the Scarecrow – the commentary track with director De Felitta and writer JD Feigelson and the CBS Network World Premiere Promo (which I advise holding off on watching until after seeing the flick if you’re a newbie because it is spoiler-heavy) – and gave fans of the classic a lot more to enjoy with the Blu-ray by also including a new production documentary, a reunion Q&A filmed with cast members Crowe and Drake and writer Feigelson, the 1985 rebroadcast promo and an extensive behind-the-scenes photo gallery as well.
The production doc is the real treat here on the Dark Night of the Scarecrow Blu-ray. Both promos are fun (the 85 version is just an updated twist on the 81 original promo), and I loved going through all the stills. In terms of bonus features you could want for a made-for-television movie of the 80s, it’s hard to imagine you’d be able to get better than what you get on VCI Entertainment’s release of the flick here since supplemental material wasn’t nearly all the rage back then as it is now.
The Dark Night of the Scarecrow Blu-ray was just an incredible experience for this writer all around. A haunting story coupled with engaging performances by all cast members (even young Crowe holds her own against her older counterparts), I feel like I just won the horror lottery by discovering this gem; and it’s a movie I look forward to revisiting many, many times in the future.
4 1/2 out of 5
4 out of 5