Directed by: Frank De Felitta
Written by: J.D. Feigelson
Starring: Charles Durning, Larry Drake, Jocelyn Brando, and Lane Smith.
Reviewed by: Wes R.
“Don’t worry, Mrs. Ritter. Bubba’s not gone. He’s just being silly! Don’t you know what he’s doing…
He’s playing the hiding game.”
He’s playing the hiding game.”
Made for TV movies generally don’t get much respect from me. Generally, they are of extremely poor quality, made on the cheap and on the quick and feature some of the worst writing and acting imaginable. Though a dying medium today (clinging to life only because Lifetime is still around) the TV movie was once quite popular with the public. Strangely enough, a number of these TV movies throughout the 1970s and 1980s were of the horror genre. Generally, there are only a handful that anyone holds in high regard: Trilogy of Terror, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, and 1981’s Dark Night of the Scarecrow. Could a made for TV movie that aired to capitalize on the popularity of the slasher sub-genre of the time be a worthy horror film? Or would it end up as yet another network TV failure?
In a small farming community, a little girl is allegedly mauled to death by a neighbor’s vicious dog. Her mentally challenged adult play pal is quickly and wrongly blamed for her death and is immediately hunted down and killed by a foursome of upset members of the community. It is soon learned that the child did not die in the attack, and that her playmate Bubba was actually the one that saved her from the animal. On trial for Bubba’s murder, the four defendants claim self defense and thanks to a lack of evidence, are let off the hook. Not long after the trial, a mysterious scarecrow begins appearing on each of the men’s property, wearing the same clothes and mask as the scarecrow that Bubba hid inside when the four men hunted him down and shot him. One by one, the men are stalked by a perpetrator donning the scarecrow outfit. But who could be behind the murders? Could it be Bubba’s grief-stricken mother? The town’s district attorney? Perhaps even Bubba’s young friend? Or has Bubba himself returned from beyond the grave to exact his own revenge with pitchfork in hand?
I have to admit, despite its stellar reputation amongst the horror fanbase, I was a bit skeptical of this one and my expectations were fairly low. After all, I consider most TV movies to be some of the lowest forms of entertainment due to their generally shoddy quality and often obvious attempts to cash in on a popular cinematic trend. However, this one's reputation is well warranted. Dark Night of the Scarecrow is an excellent horror film. While some television flicks are only around the 70 minute mark (due to having to be cut for commercial breaks), this one clocks in at a full feature-length 96 minutes. The film succeeds in creating a memorable boogeyman (that scarecrow mask has to be among the top 5 best slasher movie masks ever invented) and allowing his presence to be felt even when he's not in the frame. I can only imagine how typical TV audiences of 1981 reacted on the night of October 24 when this film originally aired on CBS. I'm sure it took many by surprise, and probably about the same amount dismissed it as "horror trash" and likely changed the channel. Their loss, as this is perfect viewing for the month of October, especially around Halloween (the film itself even features a Halloween party as part of the proceedings). This is one creepy little movie that is more effective than it probably has a right to be. I like that it's dark and straightforward, with little to no comic relief. It's also interesting to note that for a made for TV slasher film released in the wake of Halloween and Friday the 13th, the principal cast (i.e. the people being slashed) are not teenagers, but instead middle-aged to older men.
The movie has an interesting cast of several recognizable character actors, although here they are used as the primary leads. Including, Charles Durning (When a Stranger Calls), Robert F. Lyons (several 1980s Charles Bronson flicks), Lane Smith (My Cousin Vinny), Claude Earl Jones (Used Cars), and Larry Drake (Dr. Giggles) in an amazingly believable performance as Bubba. As expected from a gathering of notable character actors, the acting is well done. Probably the best performance of the movie comes from Jocelyn Brando (Marlon Brando’s older sister) who portrays Bubba’s heartbroken mother. Nightmare on Elm Street fans may recognize actor Ed Call (who portrayed Glen Lantz’s father), here playing the role of a snide defense attorney. The film is competently shot, even if there really isn’t any visual flair or style. This is just good, solid suspense horror filmmaking. A lot of the time, you’ll find slashers of this period that kind of drag on until the final half hour or so when a lot of the best action finally occurs, but I felt this one was fairly briskly paced the whole way through. The musical score by Glenn Paxton was fairly impressive. Rustic sounding at times to fit the small farm town aesthetic, the score also combines traditional piano with a few wild synth cues.
If you want blood and guts, you won’t find it here. For one thing, network TV movies are usually held to strict guidelines when it comes to violence and blood, and this was especially true during the era when slasher movies were being neutered of their goods by the MPAA. However, the lack of blood doesn’t bother me here. This is a slasher film that places an emphasis on mood, rather than the kills. The death scenes mean a bit more than your average mindless slasher. For wrongly taking the life of an innocent, it can be argued that each of the men who end up dying truly deserves what they get. So, much like the later Jason and Michael Myers flicks, you pretty much end up rooting for the killer. Though bloodless they may be, the death scenes aren’t without creativity. Being farmers, the killer finds ways to turn their occupation against them, but that’s all I’ll reveal for now. One unique thing about the stalking and death scenes was the director’s choice to sort of blur the lines of reality and the supernatural. The scarecrow himself is never physically seen during the death scenes, but from glimpses of its creepy appearance here and there early on (combined with the eerie wind effects and strawy, stompy footsteps, you feel his presence in each. This also gives each death scene a kind of supernatural, ghostly quality because you never see who or what is after the men. The scarecrow is merely implied. While it mostly plays as the type of slasher that closer resembles a mystery (where the ultimate identity of the killer is constantly guessed by the viewer from a valid pool of suspects), the film never completely dismisses the possibility that the supernatural is involved. I won't reveal the ending, but I will say it's a crowd-pleaser in my book and I'm actually a bit shocked that the network didn't ask for it to be changed.
For the last several years, this rare gem has easily been among the most sought-after titles still awaiting a DVD release. Fans, prepare to retire your worn out Key Video VHS tape, and toss out those not-exactly-legal DV-R versions you bought online or at a convention. The wait is over! VCI has finally released Dark Night of the Scarecrow on Region 1 DVD. They have truly done an outstanding job with the restored and remastered transfer. With the vibrancy of colors and the crispness of the transfer, it looks nothing short of amazing. Having never seen the movie before, I can’t comment on the quality of the VHS in comparison, but I can guarantee it didn’t look this nice on that format. While it still has an aged look to it, it definitely doesn’t look like a TV movie from 1981. Seriously, it looks that great. Though a Blu-Ray release was initially promised, fans are likely going to have to wait a bit on that one. No one should complain, however. In the current state of the world economy, when most studios and even genre-specific labels are reducing DVD release output, we are extremely lucky to have gotten this film released as it is. The disc isn’t packed with extras, although it does contain an original CBS TV advertisement, as well as an audio commentary with the writer and director. Made for TV movies may not have the best reputation, but take it from me, Dark Night of the Scarecrow is a worthy addition to genre and its place in the history of the slasher movie is fully warranted. If I could be so bold, it's quite possibly the best made for TV horror movie ever made (again realize, though, the bar has never been set terribly high). Support forgotten horror and pick this one up, immediately. If you call yourself a slasher fan, you pretty much have to. It's Essential!
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