Frank De Felitta
Review by Jenny Jediny
Posted on 15 October 2008
Source Key Video VHS
Categories 31 Days of Horror V
Oh, those country boys and their vigilante justice! Deep in the cornfields of Middle America, a murderous straw man - or something like one - lurks, waiting to exact revenge in Dark Night of the Scarecrow against a heedless posse. Country hicks, appearing in horror plots about as often as clueless, sex-obsessed suburban kids, are first perpetrators and then victims here, as justice finds them not in their county courtroom, but from beyond the grave.
Dark Night of the Scarecrow is the kind of movie I might have found creepy ages ago, if I had caught it on late-night television during middle school. Actually produced for CBS as an original made-for-TV movie, it’s something one might catalog as “classy horror;” there are more bumps in the night and eerie shadows than scythes gutting victims. (But certainly there is some restrained gutting to be found.) There’s also a pseudo-sophisticated literary feel to the plot with the hapless Bubba Ritter, a mentally challenged gentle giant much like Steinbeck’s Lennie Small—the whole town seems convinced however, that he’ll kill more than mice and small rabbits.
Bubba’s most vocal opponent isn’t a local authority (they seem strangely absent in this town) or the parents of his young friend Marylee, but instead - in what may be a casting first - the postmaster! Yes, Otis, the deranged, pith-helmet wearing postal worker, years ahead of the cultural stereotype now embodied by Seinfeld’s Newman, is portrayed by Charles Durning (perhaps better known as Doc Hopper, the man after Kermit the Frog’s legs in The Muppet Movie). Otis (somewhat perversely) obsesses over the friendship between Marylee and Bubba, so much so that he leaps at his chance to annihilate Bubba with a round of bullets after Marylee is taken unconscious to the local hospital. While it turns out that Marylee was merely the victim of a fainting spell, carried to safety by Bubba after a dog attack, the news comes too late—Bubba is dead and hanging bullet-ridden in the middle of a cornfield, where he hid from Otis and his men under a scarecrow’s guise.
Inevitably, Otis and his men will be hunted down by a scarecrow spectre after they weasel their way out of a prison sentence. The gang’s celebration over fried chicken is cut short though, when the scarecrow - held in a long shot, so we can’t make the figure out clearly - visits each man on the eve before his death. There is some pointing of names - is it Bubba’s ma, or the local prosecutor seeking justice? - but the accidental deaths continue to accrue, with nearly all incidents involving farming equipment.
For broadcast television, it’s actually quite bloody (at least for an early ’80s TV movie), especially the demise of Otis at the sharp ends of a pitchfork – the same tool used by the postman to claim self-defense for shooting Bubba. For the most part, none of this is very scary, although there’s a bit of eye-raising dialogue at the end of the film, as Marylee - who has been seeking Bubba the entire time, insisting he’s only playing hide-and-seek - connects with the scarecrow, calling him Bubba and asking if he wants to play a new game. It’s a nice cap to the whole affair, although it seems doubtful that the troublemaking child was manipulating the monster.
Somewhere in the mid-range of B-horror, Dark Night of the Scarecrow is disappointing if you legitimately seek straw man scares (there’s an entire untapped genre here, or I just haven’t been recommended a good scarecrow thriller—suggestions welcome). However, its fine atmosphere and old-fashioned approach to fear delivers proper, and very enjoyable seasonal chills.
Frank di Felitta
There is Other Justice Besides the Law
The Dead Don’t Die1975
The Brides Wore Blood1972
Girl in Room 2A1973
Nude for Satan1974
Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare1987
Brides of the Beast1968
Seven Deaths in the Cat’s Eye1973
The Curse of Bigfoot1976
Dark Night of the Scarecrow1981
Moon in Scorpio1987
The Legend of Hell House1973
Grave of the Vampire1974
Rana: The Legend of Shadow Lake1975
Attack of the Beast Creatures1985
Humanoids from the Deep1980