Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981)

Dark Night of the Scarecrow

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In a small, rural farming town, 36-year-old developmentally disabled Bubba Ritter is not the town’s favored son. The local postman, Otis Hazelrigg, in particular, seems to have it out for him, and has convinced himself and three other townsfolk that Bubba is dangerous and something needs to be done about him. Bubba’s only friend in the world is a young girl named Marylee, another point of contention for Hazelrigg. So when one day the young girl is reported dead and Bubba is fingered as her assailant, Otis and his cohorts waste no time jumping into action to chase him down. They corner him in a field where he’s tried to disguise himself as a scarecrow. Helpless and immoble they shoot him down like a dog, only realizing about five seconds too late that — Oops! — Marylee’s not dead, she was actually attacked by a dog, and Bubba rushing to her aid saved her life. The District Attorney tries to charge the four men with murder, but thanks to a combination of some Good-Ol-Boy mentality and Otis blatantly perjuring himself on the stand they get off scott-free. Or at least they think they do, until each one of them starts noticing a very familiar looking scarecrow suddenly appearing in their fields….

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Dark Night of the Scarecrow was recommended to me some time ago, and I’ve only just now gotten around to it. The film is a 1981 made for TV horror movie whose claim to fame was that it was the first horror film to use the imagery of the scarecrow for it’s antagonist (although depending on how you look at it, it may be more accurate to say, it’s protagonist). The film was originally written and conceived as a theatrical film before being picked up by CBS, but don’t let the ‘Made for TV’ moniker scare you off. This is actually a very effective and well constructed horror movie despite the content limitations imposed by broadcast television. In fact, it may be the best one I think I’ve seen. There are certainly parts of it that are not going to appeal to some viewers, but overall I think that most people will agree that the movie ends up being a very solid, light-horror outing, and after seeing all the praise online, I can see why it gets so much positive attention.

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One of the film’s greatest strengths lies within the caliber of it’s cast. The movie may be headlined by Charles Durning as the despicable, bigoted and self important postman, but just about all the other main characters are prolific veteran TV and film actors, and each one of them put in excellent performances. Robert F. Lyons has been in everything from I Dream of Jeannie to Criminal Minds. Lane Smith is probably best known for Red Dawn and The Mighty Ducks. And Claude Earl Jones was in Evilspeak, Little House on the Prairie, and even Bride of Re-Animator. Hell, even young Tonya Crowe, who was only ten-years-old at the time, had already been in five TV films at that point, and several TV series, including a recurring role on Knots Landing, and even she was great. I can’t come up with any complaints about that girl’s performance. I think that may be a first. She now currently holds my self-imposed title of “Least Annoying Kid in Film.” I didn’t think I’d ever give it out, but here we are. I can now, finally, die in peace.

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The movie also manages to maintain a very tense atmosphere throughout its entire runtime. From nearly the very beginning, when we spot Otis spying on Bubba and Marylee, we know something sinister is afoot, and the tension just slowly begins to mount, minute by minute, as the story progresses, only finally letting up at the very end of the final scene. Most of that is thanks to how well the story and characters are constructed, and the ever looming presence of the unknown. You see, despite billing itself as a supernatural horror, for the vast majority of the film’s runtime it actually plays out more like a psychological horror film. It starts with seeing Otis and knowing he’s up to no good, but not being entirely sure how far he’s willing to go until he gets there. But then the scarecrow starts showing up in the fields and even the viewer can’t initially be sure whether or not it’s Bubba back for revenge, a third party like the District Attorney out for a little payback, or if the guilt of what the men did is finally eating away at them. Sure, their deaths could be explained away as freak accidents, just as the men tried to claim Bubba’s was, but there’s just enough looming questions to give one pause, and until the last few frames even the viewer can’t be entirely sure what’s going on, and the specter of the unknown even starts to chip away at evil Otis’s self-assured confidence, to the point where he becomes so paranoid he starts to blame Marylee for the deaths of his co-conspirators.

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Dude, you’re the murderer here. Quite projecting.

One thing that really surprised me about the movie was just how violent the film ended up being without actually being able to show you any actual violence. For the most part they end up cutting away before you end up seeing the really nasty parts. The most gruesome death they’re able to show you on camera is Philby’s slow suffocation in a grain mill, and even that has parts they cut away from. But another man gets bashed in the head with a shovel, and the first man suffers perhaps the most brutal death via an ill-placed loft edge and a large wood chipper. I’m actually kind of glad they couldn’t show that last one. I’ve seen Fargo, I know what kind of a mess that had to have made. I’ll stick to my imagination, thanks. In fact, the only actual blood you see comes at the beginning and end, the first time being when Bubba is shot full of holes, and the second being when Otis is stabbed full of holes at the end by the scarecrow, which I’m sure was an intentional callback and meant to act as a bit of a bookend. But other than those two instances, the film is mostly blood-free.

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Harless realized only too late about the validity of those safety railings the insurance company had tried to talk him into installing.

Many of the reviews I’ve seen online about Dark Night of the Scarecrow seem steeped in nostalgia, with people talking about how good the film is after having seen it as a child or teenager. But I am neither of those things and I find myself concurring with many of them that this film is probably one of the best TV horror films ever made. It has a lingering, creepy atmosphere, strong acting, well thought out characters, and a solidly constructed and layered plot with elements and themes that are still, sadly, quite relevant today. That said, it’s not perfect. The film is a classic example of a ‘slow burn’, which I know may turn a lot of people off to it, but even taking that into consideration, the pacing can still feel a little off at times, especially in the beginning, where certain scenes can feel a bit artificially extended. Did we really need to see several shots of the men following Bubba’s trail through the woods when they themselves state, before they even begin running after him, that he’s heading towards his home? Couldn’t they, I don’t know, just driven to his house? Wouldn’t that have made more sense? I certainly think so. Thankfully instances like that taper off by the half-hour mark, but they do still noticeably impede the flow. But even with those small issues, I still think the film is a strong horror outing. If you’re a fan of atmosphere, like steady paced films and don’t mind the lack of blood, then Dark Night of the Scarecrow is an excellent way to spend 90-minutes, especially for those with children who tend to be squeamish. But if you’re looking for a film with more action, then you might walk away feeling underwhelmed.

Dark Night of the Scarecrow is available on a variety of streaming services, including free on Tubi TV.

It is also available on DVD and Bluray.

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Michi

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