I first came across Dark Night of the Scarecrow on TBS while channel surfing sometime in the early 90’s. I saw it was a horror movie with Larry Drake, whom I loved in Darkman and Dr. Giggles (but mainstream audiences knew from L.A. Law) and I knew I had to watch it. The opening of the film and the music set a sinister tone which culminated with a dog attacking a young girl. I was uncharacteristically disturbed and had to change the channel. The memory stuck with me and I always planned to catch up with this film. Flash forward a quarter-century to yesterday afternoon, and I finally watched the entire thing and it has instantly become one of my favorite films.
The local good ol’ boys club, led by local mail man Otis P. Hazelrigg (the late Charles Durning, Rescue Me, Everybody Loves Raymond) aren’t too pleased that Bubba is hanging out with young Marylee Williams (Tonya Crowe, Knots Landing) and decide their going to put an end to it. After the before mentioned dog attack, Bubba is blamed, and hunted down by the makeshift posse. He dresses up as a scarecrow to hide from the group and is gunned shot twenty some times by the four of them. After their murder, they find out too late that Bubba Ritter saved Marylee. They cover up their mistake by putting a pitchfork in Bubba’s arms to make it seem like self-defense. Small town politics allows them to get away with it, but Bubba’s mom Mrs. Ritter (Jocelyn Brando, yes it’s Marlon’s sister, also in Dallas and Mommie Dearest) tells them there is other justice in this world. They scoff at her, but it turns out she’s right. Each one begins to see the scarecrow on their lawn, and shortly after they are killed.
Upon re-watching Dark Night of the Scarecrow, the dog scene didn’t bother me quite as much, and I chalked it up the pristine DVD transfer from distributor VCI Entertainment. There is something about the grainy, poor film quality of the TV/VHS era that adds to the unsettling nature of old horror film. Because of this, I had a feeling that Dark Night of the Scarecrow was going to be disappointing to watch on a modern format. I was so wrong. The bloodshot eyes of Larry Drake pleading helplessly before the firing squad sold me on this film. Dark Night of the Scarecrow is a movie where a lot of people are deeply unwell and the story unfolds beautifully and organically because of it.
Written by J.D. Feigelson (Wes Craven’s Chiller) and directed by Frank De Felitta (writer of Audrey Rose and The Entity), Dark Night of the Scarecrow is a masterclass of southern gothic. The pedigree of craftsmanship and storytelling the cast and crew brought is phenomenal, especially for a made for TV film. Veteran character actors Lane Smith (Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, V), Claude Earl Jones (Bride of Re-Animator, Police Story), and Robert F. Lyons (Death Wish II, Murphy’s Law) all bring an air of believable small town evil to their roles as Otis’s cohorts. Speaking of Otis, Charles Durning kills it. He’s essentially the main character of the film and the writing gives him a great deal to work with. He’s a man whose demons and alcoholism have gotten the best of him and these vices take their toll as the story unfolds.
Although this film would usher in the “killer scarecrow” subgenre of horror films, this is primarily a ghost story, and a very well told one. The dark heart of the story is Marylee Williams, the poor girl whose protector is killed. She has trouble processing his death, especially since she believes he’s sending messages from beyond the grave. Though this is a horror movie and it is obvious that Bubba is back for revenge, the film casts a lot of doubt on her tale and who the killer is. It’s much more interesting because of it’s ambiguity, until the finale puts all doubts to rest. The final shot of her with her friend is tragic, beautiful, and creepy all at once and is a perfect ending to this film. When I finished watching Dark Night of the Scarecrow, I was a bit angry with myself for not having done so sooner. This is one I’ll revisit each Halloween season and a must own in any discerning fan’s horror collection.
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