Sunday, October 3, 2010

31 days, 31 faves: Dark Night of the Scarecrow

Way back in the prolific horror year of 1981, a made-for-television movie came out that can certainly be considered one of the best of its kind. Not only are there not a lot of good movies out there about scarecrows, but let's be frank -there are only a smattering of really good tv horror movies as it is. This one gave me the heebie-jeebies when I was younger.

Dark Night of the Scarecrow is a not just a horror movie, it's a tale of injustice and intolerance.
Of prejudice and damaged mind-sets. But it's also a really well crafted and truly edgy film for its time, particularly for television.

Bubba (Larry Drake, "Dr. Giggles" to you youngins) is a hapless hulk of a man, thirty six years old but with the mind of a six year old. He spends his afternoons frolicking in the fields with the young children of the neighborhood, one in particular has become a special friend - Marylee. Now before you go all pedophile on me, you have to know that though Bubba's thought process is slow, his heart is genuine. It would never occur to him to harm anyone, in any way. Certainly, he is a child himself. Singing songs and exchanging flowers are his main source of fun.

Meanwhile, the townsfolk (led by bastard-for-hire postman Otis, played with vigor by the always seemingly intense Charles Durning) have a hard-on about giving Bubba his due. It's plain to see that they just don't like Bubba because he's a simpleton. Determined to catch him in some kind of compromising position with his little friend Marylee, Otis and Co. lay in wait for something to happen.

When Marylee sneaks into a neighbors yard and gets attacked by their dog (honestly a very un-scary black labrador), Bubba shows up at Marylee's house, carrying her and crying that he "didn't do it!" Naturally this just fuels the neighborhood fire and Mr. Postman and his cronies take off after Bubba, gathering all the town losers as they go. Their only intent is to exact revenge on Marylee's "killer".

Bubba's mother, at the same time, has heard Bubba's story and of course believes her son. She explains that they are going to play 'the hiding game' and the next thing you know the townsfolk, with their trusty hound dogs, have tracked Bubba to an empty cornfield where he has been disguised as a scarecrow (what else did you expect with the movie's title). But Otis sees through Bubba's disguise and soon after, he and the other men empty their shotguns into poor Bubba.

Directly after (and I'm talking not even a minute passes), the guys get a call over the radio that Marylee is fine. Just a little shaken up. Naturally they are all appalled, yet frightened at the same time, considering they just murdered an innocent man. To make things appear the way they want them in order to not be charged, they stick a pitchfork in Bubba's hand - making it seem like Bubba came after them, which is completely implausible. But that's their story and they're sticking to it. Regardless, they end up in court.
Though a totally shallow tale, the men end up beating the charges due to lack of evidence.
Bubba's mother warns them in the courtroom that there are "other kinds of justice".

Indeed there is. One by one, the conscience-stricken men become victims of an unseen assailant. Just to see the men practically piss their pants is nearly enough revenge as far as I'm concerned, but the film takes it all the way, giving us killer-point-of-view camera angles, menacing footsteps, and dastardly accidents in order to prove that justice will be served.

Otis becomes utterly freaked out when, after confronting Marylee, she tells him she still sees Bubba and that she knows the true story of what happened. Furthermore, as Otis's friends all meet a gruesome death (come on, am I really spoiling anything here?) he tries to place the blame on Bubba's mother. In a fit of rage, he scares the living daylights out of her at her own home, clamping his hand over her mouth and warning her to stop her shenanigans (well, he didn't use that word, but I like to use it whenever I can). Unfortunately for Otis, the old woman had a bad heart, and expires with him still in the house.
He covers the evidence of the crime by burning the house down, and then drags one of the more unintelligent buddies of his to head to the cemetery to make sure Bubba is truly dead.

Whether they find him there or not is for you to find out when you see this little gem of a film. The best parts of the movie are when you see the scarecrow waaay out in the field....and you wonder, as the unfortunate men do as well, what the hell it's doing there. It's truly good stuff that puts you in mind of Jeepers Creepers - the moment when they see the Creeper hanging up on the pole like a scarecrow - that film seriously had to have ripped that moment off of Dark Night.

In the film, you never truly see the scarecrow killing anyone. The suspense of "what if?" joyfully gives us room to debate as to whether he is actually behind what is happening or not. But at the end....the final realize revenge has been served up, just like mama said.

These kind of films are so very rare these days, wherein the filmmakers build tension and uncertainty until a conclusion is finally given. And of course, there is very little blood here, just a bit here and there. You can't be going all Hostel on a television audience, now can you? But believe me when I say you won't miss it.


lazlo azavaar said...

This one IS a goodie. It's up there, in my book, with Salems Lot (the original), for all time scariest Tv movies.

The Mike said...

Just saw this for the first time today, very impressed. I'm gonna write about it soon, because I love this type of adult-based horror. There's something about horrors in which those with a lifetime of experiences are still scared out of their wits - something the teen based horrors of recent years miss out on.

Good stuff, ma'am.

B.R. said...

Agreed. Teenage slasher films(with the exception of Halloween, of course) are as rancid and sour as last month's milk. When are horror movies gonna grow up again?

Will Errickson said...

Watched this last night & really dug it. Somehow I missed it as a kid, only heard about it in the last few years. Amazing that fans were able to get it onto DVD. And it was directed by Frank DeFilitta, a bestselling horror author of the '70s who had big success with AUDREY ROSE and THE ENTITY.