Scarecrows (1988)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2015-06-03 04:28

Written by: Richard Jefferies & William Wesley, Larry Stamper, Marcus Crowder, & Stephen Gerard
Directed by: William Wesley
Starring: Ted Vernon, Michael David Simms, and Richard Vidan

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman

"If I were a crow, I'd be somewhere else."

It’s not all that surprising that the 80s inspired not one, but two killer scarecrow movies, but it is perhaps somewhat surprising that the second effort, William Wesley’s Scarecrows, is a dark parable about greed that somehow involves paratroopers heisting millions of dollars. Loglines don’t come much wackier, and rarely are they more succinct: this is a Killer Scarecrow Movie in every sense of the term, where the chief concern isn’t how many people will survive (spoiler: not a whole hell of a lot) but rather how gruesomely its cast will be dispatched (further spoilers: pretty goddamn gruesomely). I would say this utter lack of pretense also marks it a perfect representative for 80s slashers, but it’s too odd and mean-spirited—ultimately, Scarecrows is a rather strange beast despite some surface level familiarity.

Not that they’re exactly essential, but here are the details: a group of paramilitary soldiers have absconded with Camp Pendleton’s $3 million payroll and have hijacked a plane for a getaway vehicle. Avarice being the root of all evil and all that, one of the troopers decides he’s going to claim the money for himself by setting off a grenade and parachuting right the fuck out of dodge. While he does manage to escape, his fellow thieves thwart his grenade plot and parachute down in pursuit, only to land in a spooky, backwoods haunt dotted with abandoned shacks, vintage cars, and menacing scarecrows. It’s almost as if karma and fate have conspired to drop these twisted beings into an abyss where no one will ever miss them once the supernatural landscape comes to life to claim their souls.

With an 83-minute runtime, doesn’t have much time to spare, but that doesn’t mean it rushes right to filling its gore quotient. Before soaking the screen in eviscerated bodies, Wesley establishes a dusky, autumnal atmosphere. Moonlight bathes corn stalks, decrepit buildings, and dusty dirt paths. Viewers find themselves just as disoriented as the characters, as Wesley’s camera burrows deep into the claustrophobic heart of this Mexican wilderness, where light sources are at a premium. The interior of the plane aside, this is Wesley’s sole location for the duration of Scarecrows, and he makes the most of it by transforming it into a demented backwoods hayride that’s sprung to life.

Wesley also craftily reveals his central conceit. Early shots (including a decent jump scare) hint that the scarecrows are alive, but he parcels out the reveals over the course of a film: here’s a shot of a scarecrow’s eyes creepily tracking an unsuspecting victim, here’s another scarecrow brandishing a weapon. One of the money bags hangs in a tree but only spills forth blood and guts when it’s opened. Clearly, these soldiers have stumbled onto some bad voodoo. It isn’t until one of their ranks—who was presumed to be dead—staggers back into their midst with a vacant stare that they begin to suspect that their transgressions are being met with some preternatural punishment. Once his body begins to swiftly decay and splits open to reveal that his innards have been replaced by straw and money, there’s no doubt.

There’s also little doubt that Scarecrows is going to take the simple hack-and-slash route. Sure, it delivers plenty of stabbings via various farm implements (knives, pitchforks, sickles, saws, etc.), but there’s a playful undercurrent to its grisly proceedings. By featuring a disreputable set of bandits and buffoons (despite facing a most ignoble death at the hands of killer scarecrows, one idiot only laments the loss of his harmonica) as the main characters (only a kidnapped pilot and his daughter are remotely sympathetic), the film practically invites viewers to delight in watching them get carved up by a mysterious cadre of scarecrows. Wesley and his co-writers are even coy about providing any sort of explanation: a picture prominently hangs featuring three men that may or may not be somehow related to the killer straw-men wreaking havoc, but, otherwise, it’s refreshingly elliptical (an eventual remake will definitely feature some kind of overstuffed prologue to fill in all of the gaps here).

All you need to know is that these killer scarecrows exist to slaughter whatever crosses their path. No one is spared from one form of trauma or another, including characters that most slasher films would find some empathy for. Even the precocious dog has a moment that can best be described as “pretty fucking gross” just before the film’s credits reveal that it’s been dedicated to the memory of lead actor Ted Vernon’s brother and sister. I don’t know if I’ve ever been more uncomfortable at laughing at a dedication before, and it cements just how warped Scarecrows winds up feeling. Most films might come off as tone deaf here, but Scarecrows is such a blasé exercise in splatter that it manages to get away with it: you’re equal parts grossed out, kind of appalled, yet completely in awe of the hand-crafted effects, costumes, and set design.

Scarecrows is very much a virtually homegrown, grassroots production whose shortcomings become part of its charm (consider a choice bit of dialogue where a character ponders the existence of “demonic demons”). No one cares about the logic underpinning a hayride—we only demand that they deliver thrills via gruesome imagery, and Scarecrows delivers it in spades. Fans who have been carrying a torch for it (but not too closely, for obvious reasons) should feel vindicated by Scream Factory’s lavish Blu-ray special edition. A remarkable upgrade from the previous bare bones DVD release, it features two commentaries (one pairs Wesley with producer Cami Winikoff, while another stitches together interviews with co-writer Richard Jeffries, composer Terry Pulmeri and director of photograph Peter Deming), interviews with Vernon and effects supervisor Norm Cabrera, a storyboard, a stills gallery, and the film’s original trailer.

Considering the film’s humble roots as a late-80s direct-to-video title, this edition is quite a triumph and might as well double as a crown for Scarecrows, which is arguably the king of this eccentric little sub-genre.

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