Friday, March 04, 2011

CULT TV-MOVIE REVIEW: Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981)

When I reviewed Satan's School for Girls (1973) earlier in the week, I opined that the 1970s likely represented the greatest decade for made-for-tv horror movies.  I still assert that's a fair statement, but it's only right to note that the 1980s produced quite a few genre high-points as well. 

Exhibit A may well be Joe Wizan and Frank De Felitta's exemplary Dark Night of the Scarecrow, a horror gem which originally aired on October 24, 1981 (just in time for Halloween...), on the CBS Saturday Night Movies

This TV-movie is not only cleverly-written and emotionally affecting, but visually accomplished as well, a legitimately cinematic trick-or-treat effort that would play well even on the big screen.

In short, Dark Night of the Scarecrow is a good, old-fashion comeuppance, or "revenge from beyond the grave" story; the very kind that longtime reader of EC Comics will recognize, enjoy and cherish. 

In this case, the milieu in which the cosmic scales of justice are righted is the American South, specifically "Bogan County," Texas.

As Dark Night of the Scarecrow's narrative begins, a surly, unpleasant post office letter carrier, Otis Hazelrigg (Charles Durning) complains to some of his redneck buddies about Bubba Ritter (Larry Drake), a mentally-challenged local boy who has been seen playing with a pre-adolescent girl, Marylee (Tonya Crowe), his best friend. 

Otis is certain -- absolutely certain -- that harmless Bubba is going to hurt, rape or kill the child.  Obsessed with Bubba, Otis mulls over doing something "permanent" to stop him.

When Marylee is injured by a fierce guard dog in a neighbor's yard, Bubba carries the bloodied girl home to her worried parents, crying that "Bubba didn't do it."   Despite his innocence, word quickly gets out that Bubba is responsible for Marylee's injuries, so Otis and three of buddies grab their rifles, hunting dogs, and a pick-up truck...and track the boy down like an animal. 

They eventually find the frightened Bubba, playing the "hiding game" in a local field; dressed as a scarecrow.   Otis and the others murder him, shooting Bubba at point-blank range twenty-one times.

Adding insult to injury, the judge in Bogan County -- part of the Good Old Boy network -- lets Otis and his buddies off scot free after Otis commits perjury under oath and claims that the murder was actually self-defense; that the handicapped Bubba was actually brandishing a weapon; a pitchfork that Otis himself planted on the corpse. 

Broken up and angry about the death of her son and this miscarriage of justice, Bubba's elderly mother warns Otis and his goons -- all so-called "men of the community" -- that "there's other justice in this world...beside the law."

The final stretch of Dark Night of the Scarecrow involves this "what you sow so shall you reap" dynamic. 

The scarecrow soon re-appears (in creepy, extreme long-shots) on the property of the murderers, an unmoving, lifeless symbol of a crime unpunished. 

Then, before long, each guilty man dies in what the legal authorities ultimately deem an "accident."  Harless Hocker (Lane Smith) ends up pulped in his wood chipper and Philby (Claude Earl Jones) is buried alive at the bottom of his grain solo.

Finally, Otis himself comes face-to-face with the scarecrow by darkest night in a lonely pumpkin patch...

What remains most remarkable and even poetic about Dark Night of the Scarecrow is the way in which director, Frank De Felitta, maintains the mystery and terror of the scarecrow/supernatural avenger. 

In each murder set-piece, for instance, the Scarecrow is never seen.  We only hear footsteps on the soundtrack, or get a brief P.O.V. stalk-shot.   

In one terrifying instance, we even see a hulking shadow inside Philby's house...just as the lights go off.  But otherwise, we never actually see the Scarecrow committing his just and bloody revenge against these redneck vigilantes.  Instead, we're left to wonder -- along with the intended victims -- if something supernatural is going on, and what it could possibly be.  Has Bubba returned from the dead?

Such questions are answered beautifully in the film's final two minutes, and specifically in a closing freeze frame that is both sad and as I wrote above, even poetic.  By this point in the drama, the menacing vigilantes are dead, and perpetually endangered Marylee is finally safe.  The director makes the decision to reveal his hand here; and the result is a memorable and shocking composition: one that acknowledges "otherworldly" justice but without the specter of fear or terror being involved.   It's a surprising, unconventional and almost lyrical moment in presentation; a perfect punctuation to a movie that has been -- in large part -- about human ugliness. 

Non-traditionally, Dark Night of the Scarecrow ends with beauty and a hand offered in love...the visual notion that friendship lasts, even beyond death.

But save for those valedictory moments, De Felitta commendably holds his fire throughout Dark Night of the Scarecrow.  The scarecrow is utilized to maximum effect throughout the film, but as just that: a scarecrow.  One who appears in the wide open fields, seemingly by magic, and stands there in long shot...unmoving. The scarecrow is a juggernaut waiting to come to life, waiting and waiting...

These shots are great because as viewers we expect the scarecrow to move, to come to life and burst into murderous action.  But De Felitta purposefully denies us that visual so that mystery is maintained and more than that, fear and anxiety build and build.  When will this avenging creature come to life?

The final shot, described above, relieves that mounting anxiety in an unexpected, emotional way, and it's all because of De Felitta's decision to not to reveal the Scarecrow in action, essentially a lumbering Jason Voorhees-type figure with a pitchfork.  Because we don't get that particular visual; the Scarecrow emerges as a larger more luminous threat in our psyches, in our fearful imaginations.

De Felitta proves an impressive director elsewhere too.  Rather than revealing the guard dog mauling Marylee, he cuts to a montage of garden gnomes, in close-up.  And he transitions from the wood chipper set-piece to a close-up of a bloody red ketchup dollop landing on Otis's plate.  In the former example, we get a metaphor for the townspeople. The gnomes, like the people of Bogan County, stand by unmoving and unaffected while an injustice is committed.  In the latter case, we get the idea that blood (or ketchup) is on Otis's hands (or plate...) because he was the ringleader who pushed the others to kill Bubba.

In terms of sub-text, Dark Night of the Scarecrow  really concerns racism -- or any "ism" that has taken hold of men who despise and deride any person who is different from the local norm. 

In this case, Otis and his brethren fear what Bubba -- a "physically grown" man might do to a local white girl  --  and set about to destroy him. They use the flimsiest of motivations to do so.  I

f this TV-movie were set in the Old South, the mentally-deficient Bubba might readily be replaced by an African-American.  But the point is absolutely the same.  Dark Night of the Scarecrow exposes the "good old boy mentality" and network that protects its own and seeks to destroy anyone who might look different, think differently, or not know his or her place in the established patriarchy.

The TV movie actually goes a bit deeper than that.  An almost throwaway line in the film marks Otis as a child molester, and there are some disturbing scenes in the film of Otis threatening the young Marylee.

But the important thing here is that Otis is guilty, we must assume, of the very crime that he pins on Bubba.  He is also "physically grown," after all, and apparently has worked out his unwholesome sexual urges before. 

So Dark Night of the Scarecrow gets at a critical point about these vigilantes.  Such folk often project their own behavior upon others; blaming others for crimes they themselves have committed.  It's all surprisingly nuanced, especially for a TV movie, and Charles Durning proves mesmerizing here as Otis Hazelrigg.  Never, ever does Durning reduce the character to cartoon dimensions.  Instead, Durning's Otis is a believable -- and terrifying -- face of hatred.

As I noted above, EC Comics also frequently traversed the realm of comeuppance "from beyond the grave."  I suspect this sort of story is so popular and long-lived because real life has never been, is not now, and likely never will be totally fair or just.   It's difficult to reconcile a belief in justice with the town's treatment of Bubba in Dark Night of the Scarecrow, for instance.  Hence the entrance of the "supernatural mechanism" in stories such as this one to fill that void. 

Dark Night of the Scarecrow expresses well the belief that justice is a universal constant, even if the scales of justice must be balanced outside the flawed auspices of man's law. 

But the great thing about this memorable TV-movie is that it goes one step further beyond meting out justice "eye for an eye"-style, to poetically suggest the beauty -- and endurance -- of good human qualities such as love and friendship.


  1. Such a fantastic film. It's just as good as any theatrical that came out at the time. I love it, and think of it as TV movie perfection!

    Plus, Charles Durning - Yikes!

    It's interesting to compare him here against another TV movie he made a few years earlier called Queen of the Stardust Ballroom, where he is the romantic lead! What a wonderful actor!

  2. Hi Amanda,

    I absolutely agree with your comment, on both fronts. Dark Night of the Scarecrow is fantastic, and as good (or better than...) many theatrical releases from the time.

    And yes, Durning is powerful -- seething -- in this role. A really great and menacing performance!!

    Thanks for the comment, my friend!


  3. I definitely want to see this now, John. I'm a long-time fan of both Charles Durning and Larry Drake. How did I miss this? Thanks for spotlighting, my friend.

  4. I got this as soon as it came out, remembering a completely different movie, but it's awesome anyway. Thanks for giving it the 'spect it deserves in your elegant prose, my friend! Something great and simple about these 70s tv horror films, they were made for the whole nation to see, from young to old, and as such they're as durable as gold.

  5. Thanks for the thoughtful review of this unheralded classic.Also,thanks for allowing me to relive my sci-fi and horror childhood through this great site.

  6. Hi Erich and jdigriz,

    Thank you both for such kind words about my review of Dark Night of the Scarecrow (and about this site, as well).

    Erich: I agree with you, this movie deserves to be considered a classic. Charles Durning really makes this more than a "revenge" cartoon, and the selection of expressive shots amps up the terror in a delightful and artistic way. I agree with you that this TV-movie deserves more respect!

    Jdigriz: Yep -- an unheralded classic! I agree completely. Thank you for your kind words about the blog, as well.

    All my best,

  7. Anonymous11:10 AM

    Hmm, projecting your crimes on another...

    Makes you think of TV evangelists of the last 20 years, doesn't it. Most of whom are, or afftect themselves to be, from the South.

  8. I'm late the commenting party, but this is a TV movie I have loved since I first saw it in the early 80's, and I know it affected many other kids my age as well, even though it was very easy to get this one mixed up with Scarecrows or Night of the Scarecrow and similar movies. I remember around '87-88 in 5th or 6th grade creating, along with a friend in art class, a comic book with basically the same story but definitely with a little more killin' and gore! We had independently seen the movie and were both impressed; perhaps we had seen a recent re-airing. I finally got the name of the movie straight and eventually found a way to watch it (and I definitely grabbed the new DVD when it came out). Even today I enjoy this movie, particularly its visual accomplishments which seem to deny its TV origins at every turn. Really a true classic of the TV horror/thriller genre.

    Another great TV movie article... thanks!

  9. Anonymous: I agree with you. I actually included a line in my review about TV evangelists like Ted Haggard, but then removed it on second thought. But you're absolutely right: that's exactly what this TV-movie is about. In a word: stunning hypocrisy.

    Hi Slasherfan: There are a lot of "scarecrow" movies out there, aren't there? I almost queued the wrong one, myself. But you are right: Dark Night of the Scarecrow distinguishes itself in terms of its visual accomplishments. It really could play theatrically, and play well, I think.

    Thank you both for thoughtful and insightful comments on this review.