Dark Night of the Scarecrow
What has this girl done that is driving the town mad? What is the terrible act people are about to commit? And who is the only person who can save her?
Year of Release: 1981
Rated: Not Rated
Running Time: 96 minutes (1:36)
Director: Frank De Felitta
Charles Durning ... Otis P. Hazelrigg
Robert F. Lyons ... Skeeter Norris
Claude Earl Jones ... Philby
Lane Smith ... Harless Hocker
Tonya Crowe ... Marylee Williams
Larry Drake ... Bubba Ritter
Jocelyn Brando ... Mrs. Ritter
Tom Taylor ... D.A. Sam Willock
Robert J. Koster ... The Scarecrow (uncredited)
When young Marylee Williams is found viciously mauled, all hell breaks loose in her small rural town. Officious postmaster Otis P. Hazelrigg leads a gang of bigots in pursuit of the suspect: her mentally challenged friend Bubba Ritter. Finding him hiding inside a scarecrow, they exact brutal mob "justice"... only to discover a tragic mistake! Now a strange apparition stalks the land seeking each of them out, as the legend of the Scarecrow begins.
Dark Night of the Scarecrow, remindin' us that a rural settin' an a lack of proper understandin' of the Hawaiian culture makes for a deadly combination when folks find out a 38-year-old man's bein' leid in an alfalfa field by a pre-teen girl.
An speakin' of things that bring out the shotguns, it's finally happened - Bambi Pankins is officially Bambi Mastrude, an for those who weren't able to attend, I gotta say, it was everything I thought it'd be. Groom's side was completely deserted cept for me, Billy Hilliard, Cleave Furguson, Sadie Bonebreak, an Sadie's neurotic other half, while the bride's side was overflowin' into the aisle on account of Bambi's 200 closest friends from high school; comprised primarily of women who looked like the "before" picture in all those rip-off dental center ads on TV, an every guy who played varsity football from 1988 - 1994. When Reverend Dollarhide got a look at the pews I thought he was gonna condemn every last one of us to Hell right then an there, but Edgar managed to pay 'im off before he noticed the spandex revolution goin' on next to the porcelain Baby Jesus drinkin' fountain. You're prolly wonderin' why *I* was there in the first place, an I can assure you it had nothin' to do with Trisha Suggs an a confessional - that's nothin' but a vicious rumor started by bitter old women with too many cats. No sir, reason I was there is cause I had a suspicion that when the time came an Reverend Dollarhide asked the congregation if anyone objected to the union, Bambi's father, Abel, was liable to stand up an ruin everything like a vegan at a 4th of July barbecue. Pretty sure I already told everybody about Abel tryin' to bribe *me* into marryin' 'er a few weeks ago, but he was still so P.O.'d about Edgar joinin' the family that he wouldn't even walk Bambi down the aisle, an a man doesn't show up to a weddin' he disagrees with that strongly for the crappy catering. Fortunately me an Billy had a plan: we were gonna sit as close to Abel as possible, wait for the big question, an jump 'im when he stood up to unload his piece like Pee Wee Herman in a porno theater. Yup, that was the plan alright, an a finer plan I'd never concocted. What I hadn't planned on was the two ex-cheerleaders who crossed over to our side of the church to wiggle around in Billy's lap like a coupla Jell-O molds in an earthquake. Time was runnin' out an Billy was up to his eyeballs in pom-poms, so like usual I hadda take charge an, well, basically it happened like this:
"If anyone knows why these two... um, 'people' should not be wed, spit it out now before I get any sicker," Dollarhide retched from the pulpit.
"Ah..." I was just a second too late gettin' ahold of Abel beore he was able to spit out half a pronoun, but I think I covered myself pretty well.
"Choo!" I added. "Goodness Abel, that's quite a cold you've got there, we best get you outside for some fresh air!" Mean old bastard stomped on my foot an purt'near bit off my pinky finger when I tried draggin' 'im out, but Cleave caught onto my plan an cross checked 'im before he could continue his speech. Unfortunately before Cleave could subdue 'im he grabbed ahold of some gal's makeup kit, which most normal people'd call a tackle box, an dropped 'im like a a premature baby in the Home-Ec restroom until finally Sadie got 'im in a headlock.
"Let me go you big bull-dy--," I hadda cover Abel's mouth again for his own protection at that point.
"Dozer! You big bulldozer, that's what he was gonna say. Now don't go rippin' his face off in the sight of God, Sadie, this's ugly enough as it is!" I pleaded til she grudgingly hauled Abel outta there.
"Abel's just a little overwhelmed is all, please continue, Reverend," I lied with my most statesman-like smile.
"Didn't I ban you from comin' in here?" he squinted, finally recognizin' me.
"Ya know, I believe you did. I'd best be on my way to check on the reception arrangements," I yelled over my shoulder as I bolted out the door. Unfortunately by the time I got to the parkin' log Sadie'd already laid Abel out right in front of God an the smokers.
"Now why'd you hafta go an do that?" I asked despite my total lack of surprise.
"He made fun of my dress," she explained, obviously feeling completely vindicated.
"It does kinda clash with your loggin' suspenders," I mumbled.
"You wanna help me get him in the Ramcharger, or would you rather join him on the concrete?" she asked, approximately half an inch from my face.
"Have I ever told you orange is *really* your color?" I apologized, an off we went, with Abel "passed out" from all the excitement.
We dumped Abel on his porch swing an circled back to hit the refreshment booth at the reception before anybody called the cops, an after that everything went pretty smoothly. Drank my weight in Pole Cat beer, lost one of my shoes, an woke up in the back floorboard of the Topaz with Donna "the sauna" Driscoll droolin' on me from the seat above, but other'n that I had a pretty good time.
All-in-all it was a nice day for a white trash wedding, cause we're just startin' to get into that time of year where it's no longer hotter'n ham an cheese hot pocket filling anymore an you can feel the first signs of Halloween season startin' to trickle in, so I figured it'd be a good time to dust off one of the all-time greatest made-for-TV classics of the '80s: Dark Night of the Scarecrow. I'm not entirely sure what's supposed to be so frightenin' about a scarecrow unless maybe it's the fact that they're always hangin' on crosses like they've just been sacrificed to atone for our environmental sins in an effort to appease Earth First or somethin', but I'm sure if we all give 'im a chance, that sleazeball Charles Durning'll do somethin' disgustin' enough to work up a proper motive to rile up the strawman. In the meantime, I've harvested a few tantalizin' made-for-TV tidbits for you to digest on the subject, so if you'll take a minute to review 'em in preparation for our feature presentation, I'll see about gettin' to the point shortly. First, if you work for the postal service, it's perfectly legal to pound on somebody's front door an boss 'em around on the grounds that you're there on official government business. Second, 28 rounds of ammunition matchin' the models of your four suspects' recently fired weapons is hardly considered evidence in the face of overwhelming judicial laziness. An third, nothin' screams "vigilante justice" like a red polka-dot baseball cap.
The movie begins with the lobotomized Dr. Giggles (Bubba) singin' an playin' on a prairie where a little house is known to reside, only this pre-teen predator (Marylee) is makin' unwanted sexual advances towards 'im in exchange for a flower wreath an generally makin' 'im pretty durn uncomfortable. That's just the tip of the iceberg though, cause a little ways away mean ole letter carrier Charles Durning sees the whole thing through a set of binoculars an gets this look on his face like he's rememberin' the scene from Frankenstein where the monster runs outta flower petals an hasta improvise. Chuck's what you might call a "concerned citizen," so he drives over to visit with this guy who looks like the unholy union of Morton Downey Jr. an Clu Gulager (Harless) so he can blame the victim an start suggestin' somebody needs to either put the clubba on Bubba permanently or teach 'im to be somethin' respectable like a piano prodigy. Meanwhile, Marylee's dragged Bubba to look at the Lowe's lawn an garden display in some wimp's backyard, an next thing you know she's bein' torn apart by a rabid bird dog an Bubba hasta go bustin' through the fence like Lawrence Taylor on a linebacker blitz to peel Quick Jaw McGraw off 'er. Bubba lugs 'er home but has a hard time convincin' the girl's mama he wasn't the one that chewed up 'er drumsticks, an when word reaches Chuck that Bubba's gone cannibal he assembles the D-Team (Harless, Philby, an Skeeter) so he can ride around in the bed of Harless' truck wearin' a General Patton helmet in search of retards to conquer. Needless to say, Bubba's runnin' for his life through the woods lookin' like a big goofy Dennis the Menace til he finally makes it home an gets told by his mama to go hide while she kicks some redneck hiney. Mama Bubba is P.O.'d, so when Chuck shows up an starts struttin' around 'er front porch like Ric Flair after six lines of cocaine an tries tellin' 'er she hasta cooperate with his investigation because the postmaster is currently the highest rankin' public official on duty, she tells Chuck where he can stick his Sears catalog an slams the door in his doughy face. Unfortunately, the rubes' trackin' dogs pick up the scent of the feeble-minded an lead 'em to a scarecrow standin' in the middle of a field, an when Chuck gets eyeball-to-eyeball with it an realizes Bubba's hidin' inside he an the Hayseed Mafia execute 'im rangeland style. Then Harless' boss calls on the CB radio an tells 'im that the girl's gonna be just fine an that Bubba probably saved 'er life an everybody gets this look on their face like they just walked in on their mamas havin' sex in full bondage gear an Chuck hasta plant a pitchfolk on Bubba's corpse like they're filmin' some kinda horrible mash-up of Andy Griffith an The Shield.
Next thing we're in court where Chuck's on the stand explainin' how it was self defense an that they had no choice but to fire 147 hollow-point rounds directly into the retarded man's body at point-blank range or else he'da really settled their hash, an after careful consideration the judge sees the wisdom in this testimony an lets everybody off scot-free while Mama Bubba wails like an old Muslim woman at the funeral a sadistic dictator. Later that night, Marylee wakes up to find 'er window open an decides to sneak over to Bubba's house to see how he's holdin' up, cept when Mama Bubba finds 'er she don't have the heart to tell 'er he's gone to the big McDonald's ball room in the sky an so the creepy little girl goes to the location of Bubba's execution an tells his mama not to worry cause he's just playin' "the hiding game." Then things really start gettin' Twilight Zoney, cause the next mornin' a bullet-riddled scarecrow shows up in Harless' field an he's so freaked out by it that he hasta run into town an tell his accomplices that Bubba's scarecrow's back from the grave an lookin' to harvest the Grand Wizard's brain. Chuck calls bullhonky on that an tells Harless it was prolly just the DA tryin' to rattle 'im an immediately starts treatin' everybody like a buncha one-night stands he wishes he'd never had an tells 'em to get the heck outta there before people start gettin' the wrong idea. This don't help as much as you might think, as is evidenced by the fact that Harless hasta down a six pack on the way home just to keep his nerves steady, only now the scarecrow's gone with nothin' but a church hood ornament standin' in its place an pretty quick the woodchipper kicks on in the barn an Harless ends up fallin' outta the hayloft into its chompers an gettin' processed into Smucker's premium preserves. Life's kinda fickle sometimes, cause the next mornin' Chuck hasta hear about it from the old farts stayin' at Large Marge's boarding house, an as you can imagine Philby an Skeeter're startin' to wonder if maybe their names aren't all written on a sheet of paper in Uma Thurman's purse. Chuck's way too hungover for this, so he takes Philby an Skeeter out to Harless' barn to do some investigatin' only to discover the chipper was turned off by somebody after the fact (cause the gas tank's still full) an therefore this wasn't just an accident or Harless plannin' the world's most disgustin' suicide.
Next mornin' - scarecrow's standin' in the pasture next to Philby's grain plant; fortunately he manages to maintain his dignity completely as he jogs into his wheat field like the neighborhood fat kid chasin' an ice cream truck before creatin' a crop circle with his fanny an starin' wide-eyed up at the Secretary of Agrikillture. Now it's Philby's turn to come puffin' into town with pit stains that look like the openin' silhouette from Alfred Hitchcock Presents under both arms an he tells Chuck the cornstalker's hangin' out next to his place, only when they get out there he ain't in Kansas anymore an Philby tells Chuck that if he don't take care of the situation he's gonna go squeal like Ned Beatty to the police about what happened. So now Chuck hasta sneak into Mama Bubba's place to negotiate a peace treaty, but accidentally scares 'er to death in the process an ends up havin' to leave the gas runnin' on 'er stove an blow the place up so it'll look like a classic case of spontaneous old lady combustion when the police detectives show up. This doesn't exactly endear Chuck an his friends to the Lord of the Harvest, an the followin' evenin' Philby's pigs start carryin' on like Paula Deen just pulled into the lot with a knife in one hand an a fork in the other. So Philby goes out to check on Porky an Petunia, cept when he gets to the pen he spots somebody headin' into his office an decides to ride the situation out inside his grain silo an danged if the processin' equipment don't turn on an entomb 'im in a mountain of corn flakes. I really thought he'd be able to eat his way out, but once that panic sets in an your bowels seize up like a Chinese wheel bearing you're basically a goner. By mornin' Chuck's finally startin' to come around to accept the possibility of He Who Gawks Behind the Rows, but first he's gotta have a strawman argument with Skeeter about it until the two of 'em end up in the cemetery diggin' up Bubba's grave in the middle of the night. Sure enough, Bubba's in the box along with his lincoln logs, Mr. Potato Head, an Fisher Price bubble mower, an the implications of that cause Skeeter to take off runnin' through the cemetery like a necrophiliac that just found 'imself in a flashlight beam until Chuck's able to track 'im down an slap some sense into 'im. Course Skeeter's pretty well cracked by the time Chuck gets 'im back in the grave to shut the coffin, an once that's taken care of he proceeds to widen said crack with his shovel an fill the grave in with Skeeter inside. Think I prolly oughta can the chatter right here, but rest assured - Chuck's got some things to answer for, an the pumpkin patch never forgets.
Alrighty, well, like most made-for-TV Horror flicks, Dark Night of the Scarecrow is fairly tame and follows a more subdued, classical formula where it concerns its horrors - relying primarily on atmosphere to create its scares. That said, the original script remained almost entirely intact after being picked up for production by CBS, and the film was never toned down to fit into a TV time slot or to appease the censors - what you see is the way it was originally written and envisioned. For audiences in October of 1981 it really hit the sweet spot in terms of being the kinda movie that could muster a few scares, but still be viewed by the entire family, and that, no doubt, is why so many people have such fond memories of it. The thing I find funny about it is that, at its core, it's basically the exact same story as I Spit on Your Grave, just with murder swapped in for rape, and all the particularly graphic material pushed off-screen or left out. Of course that concept has been used time and again both before and since, but we're dealing with a classic case of an end product that becomes greater than the sum of its parts, and much of the flick's success comes down to how well the little things were executed. The scarecrow gimmick on the other hand was something fresh in 1981, and although I think Scarecrows from 1988 is the best of the subgenre, Dark Night of the Scarecrow is the title that deserves the credit for taking what should have been an obvious idea and bringing it to life. The new millennium has produced a coupla dozen unwatchable takes on the idea, but there's no question in my mind which title will endure and which ones will pass from pawn shop to pawn shop forever relegated to the $1 bin, because Dark Night holds up well even 37 years later, while the newer iterations seldom hold up after 37 minutes. It's also an excellent flick to include in your Halloween rotation, and one that, despite having been filmed in June, really has an authentic Fall aesthetic and feel about it; so again - the movie's success basically comes back to atmosphere. It's difficult to explain what makes the movie as good as it is, and in fact, the writer had that exact same problem while pitching the script - he'd pass it around to the usual low-level suspects who would provide a one to two sentence synopsis to management, and for quite a while nobody bit. Eventually the guy got somebody at CBS to actually read the entire script, but it wasn't until then that he finally got a greenlight. That it cannot be summed up concisely in a single sentence is not in and of itself a positive (or negative) trait, but it's one that can make the flick a hard sale to the average Joe, and for that reason it's a movie that you've really just gotta watch for yourself.
I can prolly get it nailed down a little better if we go into specifics, so let's see if we can't do a little cornhuskin' and find out what makes this thing tick. The story isn't all that original until you factor in the supernatural scarecrow, because at the end of the day it's really just your standard revenge flick. Some of the plot devices are questionable as well, particularly the arraignment that ends with all four vigilantes being released inside five minutes due to a "lack of evidence." There's a mountain of goddamned evidence for cripes sake, but ultimately we *need* the slimeballs to go free, otherwise we've got no movie. Still, all they had to do was make the judge crooked and add him to the revenge list - presto, plothole closed, but that's not what happened. There's also that line Jocelyn Brando drops to Charles Durning's character about knowing "what you are" after noticing the way he looks at Marylee, but it never goes anywhere. I guess you could say they were being subtle, but I see that kinda thing as a loose end that didn't really need to be in the script at all if they weren't going to do anything with it. Still, we've got a killer scarecrow rammin' pitchforks through old fat guys and buryin' others to death in grain silos, so the big picture's still pretty cool even if it's got a coupla logistical problems. The acting on the other hand is excellent, and features what may be the best performance of Larry Drake's career as the dim, but lovable Bubba. I don't claim to be an expert in the arts or anything, but I've gotta believe that is a *really* difficult part to play, and Drake absolutely nails it in every respect. His body language, facial expressions, and vocal pitch are all utterly believable, and - more importantly - he elicits a great deal of sympathy for the character and makes the audience both genuinely care about him and absolutely loathe his persecutors. Not that he has to, because we've also got Charles Durning in peak form as the nasty, bitter postmaster, as well as Lane Smith, Claude Earl Jones, and Robert Lyons rounding out the vigilante death squad. Lyons is particularly good when called upon to go completely to pieces at the climax, but the entire cast is exemplary - including Tonya Crowe as the sweet little girl with a secret, and Jocelyn (sister of Marlon) Brando doing a great job as Bubba's mother, who seems to understand that the judge's gavel is the least of the slimeballs' problems.
Here's who matters and why: Charles Durning (Bleeding Hearts, Scavenger Killers, iMurders, When a Stranger Calls I & II, Solarbabies, The Final Countdown, The Fury), Robert F. Lyons (The Burning Dead, Pray for Morning, Ripper Man, 10 to Midnight), Claude Earl Jones (Bride of Re-Animator, Battlestar Galactica 1978, Cherry 2000, Impulse 1984, Evilspeak, She Freak), Lane Smith (Alien Nation: The Udara Legacy, Prison, V), Larry Drake (Dr. Giggles, The Secrets of Emily Blair, Dead Air, Attack of the Gryphon, Dark Asylum, Timequest, The Beast, Darkman I & II), Jocelyn Brando (Starflight: The Plane that Couldn't Land), Tom Taylor (Maniac Cop), Richard McKenzie (Ghost in the Machine, Child of Darkness Child of Light), Ivy Jones (Scissors, the Slayer, Audrey Rose), James Tartan (I Dismember Mama), Ed Call (A Nightmare on Elm Street, Fatal Games), Alice Nunn (Trick or Treat 1986, Delusion, The Fury, Snakes), John Steadman (The Hills Have Eyes, Fade to Black, Summer of Fear), Dave Adams (Timemaster, Roswell, Chopper Chicks in Zombietown), Ivy Bethune (Back to the Future, Will to Die, Scissors, Eyes of Fire, This House Possessed), Dennis Robertson (Madhouse, Genesis II, Marooned), Robert J. Koster (The Incredible Melting Man), Kevin Schumm (Mac and Me, Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared Syn, Halloween III, The Food of the Gods).
Bein' a made-for-TV flick as it was we've got a pretty good-sized list of mainstream credits for all the normal folks out there as well, and they are as follows: Charles Durning (Doc Hopper in The Muppet Movie, Pappy O' Daniel in O Brother Where Art Thou?, Lt. Wm Snyder in The Sting), Lane Smith (Jim Trotter in My Cousin Vinnie, Grantland Rice in The Legend of Bagger Vance, Perry White on Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman), Tonya Crowe (Olivia Cunningham on Knot's Landing), Larry Drake (voiced Pops on Johnny Bravo, played Benny Stulwicz on L.A. Law), Jocelyn Brando (Katie Bannion in The Big Heat), Alice Nunn (Large Marge in Pee Wee's Big Adventure), John Steadman (Old Timer in Things are Tough All Over).
The special effects are minimal given that the flick was made for TV, and mostly consist of a little blood when two of the characters are killed, and Jocelyn Brando's exploding house. The blood is a little bright in the daylight death sequence, but looks fine at night, and as you could probably guess - the scene involving the woodchipper all takes place off-screen. The exploding house is pretty pitiful, and yeilds little more than a fireball about a quarter of the size it should be, without any debris or anything being scattered through the air. So the special effects are definitely the film's weak point, but considering the movie consciously makes the choice to emphasize atmopshere and the unseen, that's not unexpected and doesn't prove to be all that damaging to the flick's score. The shooting locations are another area where the movie really shines, and *needs* to, due to its structuring. Principal photography took place in Piru, California, which, much to the filmmakers chagrin, consisted of a lot of local folks who had already done their fair share of negotiating filming rates, as the town had been used several times before for various movies and TV shows. Still, the costs were worth it, because the town exudes an atmosphere perfectly in tune with what it is - a small, rural slice of Americana with attractive meadows, range land, a hog farm/grain processing plant, and your classic backwater diner complete with dead animals on the walls (you gotta have those or you can never consider yourself a respectable greasy spoon). Just as important, or maybe more important, is the fantastic cinematography of Vincent Martinelli, who captures it all magnificently, at just the right time of day, and with excellent use of the crane shot. All these things make up fully half of the flick's superb atmosphere, and both the talent scouts and cinematographer deserve all the credit in the world. The soundtrack, while occasionally hokey and bearing the trademark sound of a made-for-TV flick, is effective. Early on we get a lot of tense violin action which not only sets the mood perfectly, but also fits in with the rural aesthetic, but after awhile it shifts gears, mellows out, and tags in the synthesizer. Both instruments serve to enhance the film's atmosphere, but I personally think it's the synth pieces that bring it together and make clear that what we're dealing with in the movie is something supernatural. Bizarrely, Glenn Paxton (who composed the soundtrack) and Martinelli who ran the camera didn't really go on to have stellar careers, and I consider that odd because it is primarily they who create the movie's signature atmosphere. Kind of a bummer, really. Overall, it's pretty tame, but it's probably the best made-for-TV flick of the '80s, and it's one that really plays well when its audience isn't looking for a lot of grisly special effects. We're talkin' grand-daddy of the killer scarecrow flicks, folks, so be sure to check this one out.