DARK NIGHT OF THE SCARECROW
Directed by Frank De Felitta
1981 - 96 Minutes/Fullscreen
DVD Provided by VCI Entertainment
Review by Mark Engle
For most horror fans, the actual idea of a Made-for-Television movie in the last twenty years is the kiss of death. There are exceptions, of course, when taking into account actual television series with horrific overtones or yet another Stephen King mini-series, i.e. remake. Keep in mind I didn't say they were great, but they still manage to become events that are profitable and successful enough to be discussed the next day at the office. And, of course, every genre fan is familiar with ScyFy Channel's weekly made for cable horror opus that splashes cartoonish flat CGI behind and in front of non-actors and those trying to stay in the game after success has dwindled into failure time and time again. So let us travel back another decade or so when every television movie or mini-series was an event. It was a time of ROOTS and SHOGUN. A much simpler era where it wasn't just a fan of samurai cinema that took notice, but everyone knew what it was, regardless if they planned to watch it or not. And this was also true with horror. We had SALEM'S LOT, THE NIGHT STALKER, TRILOGY OF TERROR, THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN, GARGOYLES and so on. Each became an event that was advertised over and over, with the excitement growing as the night grew closer or the mini-series was getting to that final episode. And in that quagmire of creepy goodness was DARK NIGHT OF THE SCARECROW.
This terror tale of revenge starts off with Bubba Ritter (Larry Drake) playing in the fields with young Marylee (Tonya Crowe). Even sitting in the grass, Bubba is a large man in comparison to his playmate, but it soon becomes obvious that Marylee has a much larger I.Q. Being a simpleton, he enjoys playing games, singing songs and worries about getting into trouble. And that happens to Bubba when they head back into town and he has to protect his little friend from an attack dog. Bloodied and mangled, he carries Marylee to her home where mom screams and several town folks think that poor dumb Bubba finally killed the little girl. Within minutes, four gentlemen, the leader being self-righteous postal worker Otis P. Hazelrigg (Charles Durning), are on the hunt, with dogs, shotguns and all. They finally corner Bubba hiding in a cornfield pretending to be the scarecrow as per his mother's instructions to play the hiding game, "like they had to do once before." This time it doesn't work and poor old Bubba is shot in the chest several times by this local ignorant vigilante posse.
Turns out, however, that little Marylee wasn't dead, Bubba didn't put up a fight, and murder chargers are brought upon the four men. Since Otis put a pitch fork in the hands of our scarecrow, they claim self-defense and are let go due to lack of evidence. Most of the town's population doesn't have a problem with this decision and life seems to move on back into the normal small town pattern. That is until one of our posse notices a scarecrow out in his empty field. It soon becomes apparent that someone is messing with these good ole boys and it isn't going to be pretty. Meanwhile, Marylee gets closer to Momma Ritter (played by the manly sister to Marlon, Jocelyn Brando) and starts claiming that Bubba may be dead, but she still sees him. When one of the four thugs turns up dead, minced in his own grinder, it isn't good for anyone. Otis, purely evil (think Newman from Seinfeld, but without a drop of comedy), tries to turn the tables on Momma and Marylee, while his little congregation gets picked off one-by-one. People are going to die, good and bad, as the atmosphere builds and the ghostly slasher overtones become more apparent. Is Bubba somehow still alive? Is he back from the dead as a vengeful spirit? Or do Momma Ritter and Marylee have their own scheme boiling for some home cooked revenge?
Director Frank De Felitta, better known as the author of the best-selling novels Audrey Rose and The Entity, uses the viewer’s own logic voiced by others within the script. This conflicts with dreaded images and quick glances of atmosphere that keep the viewer guessing while rooting for the possibility that Bubba is back to wreak scarecrow havoc upon those who did him wrong. There isn't really any gore for the Slasher styled deaths, but each is handled with grandiose theatrics via a large dose of grisly macabre. When Harless Hocker (Lane Smith) ends up in his own grinder, you get the screams and sound effects, and then a cut away to a large spoonful of red gooey strawberry jam plopping onto a clean plate to start off the next scene. As each victim feels hunted, we get quick cutaways to images of someone approaching in the distance resembling what could be a scarecrow. Noises are used to good effect with large footsteps stomping on dried cornstalks in the dark, metal farm equipment is clanged via the wind or possibly some ghostly apparition, and so on. The audience’s imagination and fear is put on high alert along with those hunted, but, of course, the outcome is a much happier place for the viewer than those who done Bubba wrong.
The acting is all pretty top notch with a cast of recognizable veteran character actors. Charles Durning is wonderfully over the top, seeming to have some sort of personal vendetta towards Bubba and a self-righteous contempt for anyone in the town. Larry Drake, better known to most genre fans as the ominous evil mob boss Robert Durant from THE DARKMAN films, puts on the one of the best Lenny from OF MICE AND MEN since Lon Chaney Jr. as Bubba. Brando's sister, despite the very manly look, has a natural small town grandma attitude. The rest of the hunted gang, Robert F. Lyons (DEATH WISH II) as Skeeter, Claude Earl Jones (EVILSPEAK, MIRACLE MILE) as Philby, and Lane Smith (PRISON, NETWORK) as Hocker hit all the right small town arrogant, superstitious fears, as if they walked right out of Mayberry U.S.A. And last but not least is the young Tonya Crowe as Marylee who was nominated for an Emmy for her role here, but did not win (she had been nominated nine times and won for her role on Knots Landing just two years prior). Not too shabby for someone who was only about 10 years old at the time.
This DVD likely being their big Halloween release for the season, VCI
couldn’t have done a better job. The print is pristine with clear
picture, colors and solid blacks, and boasting 5.1 Digital Surround
Sound. Extras include a writer and director commentary and, for us nostalgic
folks, the original CBS World Premiere Promo that played just before
the movie started, with original theme and all. Boy, did it bring back
memories of an era of television events sadly long gone. If you want
some good Halloween goosebumps, then rush out and pick up DARK
NIGHT OF THE SCARECROW. Don't just take my word for it, read
the endorsements on the DVD case from the likes of Stuart Gordon, Ray
Bradbury, and even Vincent Price!