Old 10-07-2011, 03:40 PM
Dark Night of The Scarecrow (1981)

This one is for you, count. Happy Birthday.

Human and deformed serial killers. Possessed dolls and puppets. Machines and ordinary objects moving on their own by mysterious forces. Supernaturally possessed scarecrows. Scarecrows? Yes, living scarecrows can now be added as another subgenre. This is a made-for-TV movie that inspired several scarecrow movies down the line. It ultimately features some well-known actors, is praised by iconic horror stars and filmmakers, and is one particular TV-movie from the early `80’s that has many devoted fans since it originally played on television. Even professional film critic Leonard Maltin bothered to give it a watch and regards it as above average. I will admit this right away. Having finally seen it, I’m not in love with it. I liked it and enjoyed it. I can certainly see why others saw something in it. This film has a following, because it was better than your ordinary TV-movie and supposed to be considerably scary. Is it really better than most TV-movies, and is it scary? Follow me into the cornfield and you’ll find out soon enough. Hey, you creepy little children. This is not a review of your latest straight-to-video sequel. Go away.

The movie is set in a small town in the country. We are introduced to Marylee and Bubba. Marylee is a preteen girl and Bubba is a mentally-challenged man-child. Marylee is friends with Bubba and very much attached to him. Bubba does not know any better is not a threat to her. He may as well be a child. He is also played by established television star, Larry Drake, from “L.A. Law.” Some adults in town frown upon their friendship. To them, he is the thirty-six year old adult he physically he is. One adult in particular, named Otis, is waiting for the opportunity to form a mob and stomp onto Bubba’s mother’s property to do something about him. Otis is the mailman and he is played by Charles Durning, a stage and screen actor who has too many TV series, TV-movies and feature films to mention here.

Otis’ opportunity to make an example out of Bubba arrives when Marylee gets hurt. It doesn’t matter that it was Marylee who trespassed into a neighbor’s backyard and got mauled by a dog. And it doesn’t matter that Bubba knew trespassing was a bad idea and rescued her. As soon as Otis finds out that Marylee has been harmed, he jumps to conclusions and forms a mob with three other men. They are Harless, Philby and Skeeter. Harless and Philby both own farms, and Skeeter is a mechanic working at the local gas station. All four men track Bubba down and find him disguised as a scarecrow in a field. They are armed with guns and rifles, and they shoot him. The timing couldn’t be more tragic. One minute after Bubba has been gunned down, they receive a call on the radio. Marylee was only mauled by a dog and will be okay. Bubba was not responsible.

Having killed an innocent man, the four men go to court. With no witnesses to deny that they didn’t show Bubba mercy, they are free men. Bubba’s mother and the prosecuting lawyer are both torn over this injustice. But this is only the beginning. Soon enough, one of the guilty farmers sees a mysterious scarecrow raised up in his pasture and the paranoia begins. Otis is the leader of the bunch and he tries to keep as much composure as possible as, one by one, their little group is being killed off in mysterious accidents. He reasons that the lawyer or Bubba’s mother might be trying to stir up the group. Could either of them be doing such a thing? Or is Bubba’s spirit still out there and seeking revenge?

When the guilty parties find themselves being targeted and eventually killed, the scarecrow is never physically seen. It is kind of like the shark from “Jaws.” We have to wait until the very end to see the scarecrow in action. And also like “Jaws,” it heightens the suspense. There is something a little bit scarier about seeing from the would-be scarecrow’s point of view and hearing it when it scurries about on the ground. Is that to say that movie is scary and suspenseful? It is certainly suspenseful, but I found it far from scary. Scary is hard to come by, especially after you’ve seen enough – and especially too many - horror movies. It is suspenseful when it counts and there are effective set-pieces involving farming equipment.

Overall, the film is well-written, well-acted and well-directed. It isn’t a bodycount movie. The characters, along with their fear and paranoia, come first and the violence comes later. We don’t wait too long for the first guilty party to bite it. And after that, the film isn’t in a rush to kill the remaining guilty parties either. It takes its time and spreads out the suspense for good measure. It is also a TV-movie, so it isn’t in a position to get away with a lot of theatrics. However, this is a TV-movie from the early `80’s. VHS was only around for a few years, and the mega-media of the internet and iProducts were still two decades away from expanding and contaminating everything we know. Oh, how I miss simpler times. TV-movies had more power back then and were treated like special occasions. Not all of them were great, but some of them turned out to be like the previously reviewed “Don’t Go To Sleep” and this movie. And as a TV-movie, it’s not bad. Not bad at all. It is directed with more flair than the safe and predictable TV-movies on the Lifetime channel. And hell, I’ll bet that it is better directed than every crappy movie on the Syfy channel. As a TV-movie, it still has certain limitations and doesn’t get away with R-rated violence. However, the filmmakers find ways to play around the violence and prove that gore isn’t always necessary to get the point across.

Larry Drake, playing the central character, doesn’t have a lot to do. He is killed in the beginning. After this movie, he would play maniacal roles in “Dr. Giggles” and the straight-to-video effort “Dark Asylum.” Here, he does not play such a role. He plays a gentle soul placed in a bad situation. It was his responsibility to come across as a believable mentally-challenged person, and not overplay it, and he does a respectable job. Charles Durning, as the lead guilty party, commands the screen with an excellent performance. One more notable actor is the late Lane Smith. He plays Harless and gives a solid performance. Like Durning, he did a lot of work in TV-movies and TV-series, as well as some feature films. He stars in another genre film called “Prison” from 1988, but I know him best as Perry White from “Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman” on TV.

The iconic horror film stars and filmmakers who praise this movie are Stuart Gordon, Vincent Price and Ray Bradbury. Stuart Gordon is known for directing “Re-Animator” and other weird movies. Price is famous for, well, chewing the scenery in excellent fashion, and playing eccentric characters as well as mad geniuses in nearly every film on his resume. As for Bradbury, he has worked on B-movies from the 1950’s and various suspense films.

I really wanted to like this movie more than I did. It is a terrific TV-movie and an above-average horror movie. It is suspenseful and perhaps a little bit scary at the very least. It was a pleasant surprise and did something a little bit different. My issue with it is that the scarecrow-and-paranoia angle only carries it so far. As effective as it is, it falls a little bit short in the end. I take no issue with the inevitable shortcuts it made being a TV-movie, but it is possible that plays a factor in it falling short. With that said, it is a good scarecrow movie, and that is especially complimentary being the first one ever made.

**1/2 out of 4
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Old 10-07-2011, 04:03 PM
Ha, thanks! Yeah, this is a personal favorite of mine. I don't think it's scary per se, but I haven't found any horror film to be truly frightening since I was a kid. Larry Drake does wonders with negligible screen time. In my opinion, the first 20 minutes are perfect. The pace does lag here and there. Boredom is never an issue, though. I love the atmosphere and the subtle streaks of menace that crop up at key intervals.

It won't be long before I own this baby on Blu-ray.
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Old 10-20-2011, 12:08 PM
I'm interested in seeing this, I see it all the time on Amazon.com. Would you say it is better than the other 80's flick "Scarecrows"? I liked that one, thought it worked for what it was. I have yet to find a really good scarecrow movie though...
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Old 10-20-2011, 02:28 PM
It's better than Scarecrows (a fun flick in and of itself). As far as I'm concerned, Dark Night is the best "killer scarecrow" vehicle on the market.
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Old 10-20-2011, 05:23 PM
I also liked "Scarecrows." It's been a while since I've seen it, but I recall it being scary. "Scarecrows" has the advantage of being a more theatrical and R-rated take. "Dark Night..." is a definite TV-movie take, but that doesn't take a single thing away from the it. It does feel more theatrical than modern day TV-movies. I would say that "Scarecrows" is slightly better. "Dark Night..." is still effective on its own and deserves a watch.
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