Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Summer of Slash: Dark Night of the Scarecrow

Every now and then the slasher subgenre can blindside you. I would say that 80% of the time what you’re going to get is garbage that should just remain in oblivion for ever, but every now and then you’ll find a little-seen film that’s just begging to be discovered by a larger audience. Now, even some of the garbage that is found within that 80% of garbage I still find enjoyable and worth seeking out, for I can usually tolerate even the worst of slasher films if they’re cheesy enough (or if I have enough beer on hand, which helped me with last week’s entry Bloody Moon). However, somewhere in-between the worst offenders and the most polished of the popular slashers, and despite knowing what every slasher movie is going to do before I even press play, I am amazed by the fact that this subgenre can still offer up these little gems that surprise me. Network television might seem like an unlikely place to come across such a discovery, but in October of 1981, CBS premiered a TV movie that was part slasher and part ghost story, the eerie, atmospheric, and surprisingly effective Dark Night of the Scarecrow — it’s certainly in the upper echelon of slashers released in that oh-so-important (and overstuffed) year of horror, 1981

Ah 1981, I would first like to point everyone towards Tim Brayton’s discussion on this important year. I’ll wait...

So, yeah, there were the obvious slashers that had a quality to them like My Bloody Valentine, The Burning, and Friday the 13th, Part 2 (which, by estimation, still has the greatest Final Girl sequence in all of slasherdom). And there was also Halloween II, which was the box-office champion of horror movies that year. But there were also crummy cash-in jobs (which has been happening since Halloween’s success but really took off after the first Friday film) with the likes of Don’t Go Into the Woods, Night School, Graduation Day, and The Prowler; however, in the already-satiated market of slashers in 1981, there were still gems to discover: there were the cheesy Euro takes on the subgenre like the aforementioned Bloody Moon as well as films like Pieces, and Joe D’Amato’s hilariously awful Absurd; there were weird takes on the subgenre with the likes of supernatural slasher Evilspeak and the “killer kids” film Bloody Birthday; and then there were the gems like the super fun Hell Night  and Tobe Hooper’s Funhouse or the ultra-creepy Just Before Dawn (the king of the backwoods slashers).

And this is not even taking into account the myriad of other interesting and/or significant (some of the significant stuff is not-so-great or interesting and some of the interesting stuff isn't that significant) non-slasher horror films that saw their release in 1981 — films like: An American Werewolf in London, The Beyond, Burial Ground (okay, that’s one that I just really love), Dead & Buried, Deadly Blessing (an underrated Wes Craven film), The Evil Dead, Ghost Story, The House by the Cemetery, The Howling, Possession, and Strange Behavior.

Whew. That’s a packed year in theaters for the horror genre (although, the Euro stuff didn’t really open in America until a few years later), and Dark Night of the Scarecrow was originally intended to be a feature, so perhaps it’s a blessing in disguise that it was scooped up by CBS (smartly identifying the trends in the genre, hoping it would score them a big rating) so that it could distinguish itself  as a TV movie rather than running the risk of getting lost in the pack (although the subgenre showed no signs of slowing down by that point). It doesn’t matter, though, because looking at the film today and comparing it to all of the slasher titles listed above, Dark Night of the Scarecrow is definitely in the top tier.

The film concerns itself with the accidental death of a mentally challenged, gentle giant named Bubba Ritter (Larry Drake, playing a character that is obviously based on Lenny from Of Mice and Men). He has been accused of killing Marylee (Tonya Crowe) — a young girl that he is friends with. Enter the locals, led by self-proclaimed town general (he’s just a postmaster) Otis (Charles Durning), who want to go all vigilante because Otis has convinced them that Bubba is nothing but trouble and is the one responsible for the girl’s death. However, the truth is the girl did not die, and it is revealed that Bubba actually saved her life. But, unfortunately as is usually the case with these movies, this information doesn’t reach Otis and his mob until it’s too late — they’ve already killed Bubba, who has tried to hide from them by dressing up as a scarecrow in a field.

After Otis and his crew have unloaded into poor Bubba, the group begins to panic. But there isn’t enough evidence during their trial to convict the four of Bubba’s murder, so they’re acquitted. Now, it doesn’t take a horror maven to figure what’s going to happen next: Bubba is going to exact his revenge from beyond the grave! Only, Dark Night of the Scarecrow kind of hints at multiple interpretations of the film’s events. On one hand, you can view the material as being a straight forward supernatural/slasher hybrid where Bubba has come back from the dead and is responsible for killing these people. You could also view it as another Friday the 13th type film where Bubba’s mother is the one doing the killing. However, there is enough ambiguity in this sneaky little thriller that suggests it could also be that Bubba’s spirit is communicating with Marylee, telling her, from beyond the grave, to do his bidding. It’s nice to see a horror movie — a slasher movie no less — go for such ambiguity.

I often caught myself jotting down in my notes the phrase, “for a TV movie...,” and I just had to stop after the 20th time of writing it down because the “TV movie” moniker (which certainly was synonymous with "lesser than" in 1981) is so misleading. Dark Night of the Scarecrow isn’t effective simply because it was "just" a TV movie that is of surprisingly good quality; no, it’s an effective and well made horror movie that happened to premiere on television. And because of it’s brilliantly executed “less-is-more” approach, it’s certainly better than a lot of the hack stuff that was coming out at the time.

Knowing that he couldn’t put a lot of the kind of gory death scenes in his film that had made Friday the 13th so popular just a year prior (although the bloodless kills is pretty intense stuff...for a TV movie made in 1981), De Felitta went all-in on nuance and atmosphere. De Felitta (who had written the novel Audrey Rose prior to this) peppers his film with some great atmosphere, especially in the scenes that show the eerily quiet fields with the solitary scarecrow staked to the ground or the way the Otis and his gang of vigilantes slowly lose their guilt-ridden minds. But I especially liked the way De Felitta used sound in his film (especially at the end, which is a wonderfully executed setpiece) whether it’s the cawing of a crow, the crunching of wheat, the clinking of the tiller, the ominous sound of a wood chipper, or the sound crickets acting as a presage for death — it’s created with great care all in the name of mood, and that kind of effort is something I’ll always appreciate when it comes to slasher films (there’s even a death scene that is very well staged in a silo that predates the exact same scene found in Witness by four years! Although I doubt Peter Weir saw this film).

The pacing might be a tad slow for fans of modern horror movies, and certainly the lack of gore will diminish the film further in the minds of those who solely associate horror with gore (even though there isn’t any gore, the intent of the murders certainly are gruesome, especially for a TV movie). And, yes, there are some pretty silly “made-for-TV” moments (the trial scene is pretty awful, complete with community theater actor playing a lawyer, whose sole interpretation of how to play a lawyer is to yell, “OBJECT, OBJECT...I OBJECT, YOUR HONOR!” over and over) that could make some think the film is “lesser” than its theatrical cohorts. But, if you give yourself over to its ambiguous narrative and well executed, nuanced and creepy atmosphere, Dark Night of the Scarecrow is actually a pretty brilliant little slasher movie that is extremely rewarding for fans of the subgenre.


  1. Thank you for highlighting SCARECROW, Kevin. I have't seen this since 1981, but still remember how eerie it was, particularly when they kill Drake while he's hiding. I'm not sure I finished watching it because of how creeped out I was.

    1. Yeah, Bubba's death is pretty creepy. It's a shame that the director really didn't do much after this aside from the pretty banal thriller Scissors starring Sharron Stone and Ronny Cox.

  2. I checked this one out after reading your nice piece here. It is pretty enjoyable, and flew by once it was put on. I too was surprised at how visceral Bubba's execution was (even if the rest of the film is largely bloodless since it was for TV), and then had quite a laugh at the courtroom scene. Got to give them credit though; usually films of this type just have the murders go unsolved (until retribution) while this tried to realistically depict small town justice. 'A' for effort here, thanks for highlighting.