Premiering in 1981 on prime time television (CBS) on a Saturday around Halloween time, DARK NIGHT OF THE SCARECROW made some impression on the youngsters and everyone else who happened to catch it. I remember the following Monday at school, everyone talking about it in an almost stunned kind of manner, so discussing it actually seemed to relieve some of the fear and unsettling imagery brought upon our impressionable minds. Even years later, this film always came up in conversations, and it’s hard to find a made-for-TV horror flick with a stronger reputation, so its impending DVD release was a long time coming. Now VCI remedies its unavailability by giving the many DARK NIGHT OF THE SCARECROW fans something to scream about, and in plenty of time for Halloween.
In a very small, rural American town, little Marylee Williams (Tonya Crowe) is best friends with Bubba Ritter (Larry Drake), an oversized 36-year-old mentally disabled man who is innocent and childlike in nature. After Bubba warns her not to, Marylee sneaks into the backyard of a neighbor only to get attacked by their vicious canine. Hysterical, Bubba delivers the girl to the parents, and word around the town is he is responsible for her death. Avoiding the law, mail carrier Otis P. Hazelrigg (Charles Durning) gathers a posse of his redneck friends (Lane Smith, Claude Earl Jones, Robert F. Lyons) to hunt down Bubba, who is ducking for cover in the guise of a field scarecrow. Relentlessly, the men massacre the helpless Bubba with their shotguns, after which they learn that Marylee is alive and that her bodily injuries have nothing to do with the man they just killed in cold blood. A joke of a trial finds the four murderers innocent (it was deemed self defense as Bubba had a pitchfork planted in his hand) and they are set free, but someone, or something from beyond the grave is not going to let this go that easily, and vengeance is not far behind!
DARK NIGHT OF THE SCARECROW transcends itself from being just another TV movie of the week, but rather, something that could easily have been an acclaimed theatrical release. Smart direction and writing which builds up the suspense nicely, along with a cast full of accomplished characters actors make this one a gem. The movie weaves an intriguing tale, quickly setting up the fact that a helpless, wrongly accused character has been murdered, with the culprits getting off scot-free, with the inevitable revenge about to take place. The film is ambiguous (until the very end) as to whether it’s the supernatural (Bubba returning from the dead) or one of the many crossed characters killing off the culprits in inventively violent ways (with the unexplained presence of the scarecrow a given before their demise). Is the avenger the justice-seeking district attorney (Tom Taylor), Bubba’s embittered elderly mother (marvelously played by Marlon Brando’s older sister Jocelyn, who has one of the best lines, “there’s other justice in this world besides a law”) or little Marylee, who doesn’t want to accept the fact that her best friend is gone.
Modern horror filmmakers, with their push-button approach and techno idealisms about getting scares across, should take a lesson from DARK NIGHT OF THE SCARECROW. Sometimes simplicity works best, as do strong characters and a good feel for building brooding tension. Well-used sound effects (noisy cicadas, squealing hogs, gusting winds, etc.), some clever transition shots (a body brought to a violent off-screen death cuts to a glob of strawberry preserves being slapped on a white plate) and an eerie score by Doug Lackey are other facets of this resourceful yet tight production. Charles Durning is always great whether he's doing comedy or drama, and this is no exception. The conniving, heartless and murderous character of Otis P. Hazelrigg is the heart of the movie, and Durning plays him to absolute perfection (and he’s never not seen wearing his Postal attire). Larry Drake is also great as Bubba (though he’s given little screen time) and of course would go on to notable fame for playing another mentally disabled character (on TV’s “L.A. Law”) and also had parts in 1990s genre films (DARKMAN, DR. GIGGLES).
Packaged with genuine endorsements (quotes) from director Stuart Gordon, writer Ray Bradbury and even Vincent Price (“Mar-vel-ous! I was terrified”), DARK NIGHT OF THE SCARECROW finally arrives on DVD courtesy of VCI Entertainment, with some welcomed extras. Presented in its original full frame television aspect ratio, the film looks spectacular and much better than it did during the original CBS airing. The transfer is sharp and clean (with very little grain), colors are vivid and fleshtones are extremely natural. According to the commentary, there’s at least one extra shot in this restored version, which also includes a boosted 5.1 Surround track in addition to the original mono. Optional English and Spanish subtitles are provided.
Director Frank De Felitta and screenwriter J.D. Feigelson are on hand for a running commentary, fondly recalling the shoot, pointing out which background sets were actual locations and which ones were built, and they share a few anecdotes about the actors as well. Both gentlemen are self complimentary and pad themselves and each other on the back for what’s up on the screen, and in the case of SCARECROW, it’s perfectly understandable. The other extra is the original CBS Network World Premiere promo which is a great bonus for fans and collectors of vintage television commercials and promos (which seems to be the rage on youtube). (George R. Reis)
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