Dark Night of the Scarecrow
- Director: Frank De Felitta
- Written by: J.D. Feigelson, Butler Handcock
- Running Time: 100 minutes
- Language: English
- MPAA Rating: UNRATED
- Cast: Charles Durning, Lane Smith, Larry Drake, Robert F. Lyons, Claude Earl Jones, Tonya Crowe, Jocelyn Brando, Tom Taylor, Richard McKenzie, Ivy Jones, James Tartan, Ed Call, John Steadman, Dave Adams, Ivy Bethune, Dennis Robertson, Jetta Scelza, Modi Frank, J.D. Feigelson, Robert J. Koster, Alice Nunn
Of all the weird horror sub-genres out there gathering dust in any number of video store bargain bins: killer Santa flicks, killer doll flicks, killer snowmen flicks, killer clown flicks; for me, there’s something particularly enticing about killer scarecrow flicks. Not sure why, but I just can’t get enough of them. I even reviewed a bunch of them over the past year including “Psycho Scarecrow”, “Dark Harvest 2: The Maize”, “Scarecrow Gone Wild” and “Night of the Scarecrow”, however, not reviewed by me, until now, was the grand-daddy of the killer scarecrow horror subgenre pictures, “Dark Night of the Scarecrow”, a film so celebrated that it continues to gain hardened fans with each passing year, and for good reason, it is literally (and unequivocally) a masterwork of horror.
Like “Pulp Fiction”, this is one of those rare films that seems to get everything just right. Equal scoops eerie, menacing and even poignant, director Frank De Felitta and writer J.D. Feigelson adroitly craft an unforgettable horror-suspenser that promises (even still) to stay with viewers long long after their initial screening. Just reading all the user comments on the imdb.com from folks who attest how much this film terrified them in their youth (myself included), it’s a testimony to its overall staying power. Better yet, newer audiences lucky enough to see this film are connecting with it just as easily (and as deeply). To consider “Dark Night of the Scarecrow” amongst the greatest horror films of all time would not be a stretch, at least not for me.
Larry Drake acts up a storm as Bubba Ritter, a mentally handicapped man with a penchant for floral garlands and children’s songs. At 36 years of age, the saccharine sweet Bubba has all the learning capacity of the average six year old, thus it only stands to reason that his best friend is the young, Marylee Williams (Tonya Crow) - a child of about eight. Despite the obvious age difference, their relationship is one of innocence; of afternoons spent in the local fields picking flowers, singing and, oh yeah, getting a rise out of Hank Renfro’s big old dog, which he keeps untied in his backyard. Regardless of how pure the friendship is, this is the Deep South, and it just don’t sit well with a bunch of good ol’ boys in the community. One fellow, in particular, Otis P. Hazelrigg (Charles Durning), the town’s mailman, seems to have the biggest bone to pick with Bubba, and every time he spies the two of them together through his binoculars, it only ratchets up his intense abhorrence even further. Otis is just itching to do away with Bubba, something he intimates to his friend Harless Hocker (Lane Smith), early in the film, however, the right opportunity has yet to present itself; a sequence of events that’ll make killing Bubba seem, at least on the surface, legal, if not righteous. Well, as luck would have it, news drifts in that Bubba has just killed Marylee and within minutes, a giddy Otis is rounding up his posse of simpleton friends in an effort to make his murder fantasies come to life. Revenge is a dish best served cold and Otis is for sure, gonna be the one jamming the spoon down Bubba’s throat.
While heading out to the old Ritter house, Otis’s Napoleon complex explodes to life; him standing so astutely on the flatbed of a beat-up pick-up truck as if he was a military general motoring into some grand battle on the back of a chariot – this innocuous scene gives us a first glimpse into what a self-obsessed narcissist piece of shit Otis is, and trust me, that’s one of his more pleasant character flaws. Bubba, helped along by the sounds of barking dogs, senses that that he’s in heaps of trouble and eventually finds his way back to Momma’s house. “Bubba didn’t do it,” he repeats over and over, and Mrs. Ritter (Jocelyn Brando) knows her son well enough to realize that he probably “didn’t do it”, however, that still doesn’t change the fact that an angry mob is on its way to do in her son. It is at this point that Mrs. Ritter decides to make use of her son’s six-year old mindset; invoking something called “the hiding game”. She orders her son to take cover while she deals with Otis and his Forest Gump posse. Sadly, as she soon discovers, Otis wants his pound of flesh, and no amount of rational chatting is going to deter him. It isn’t long before the dogs that Otis brought with him are picking up Bubba’s scent, and they are back on the hunt. It culminates in a cornfield, with Otis staring down a terrified Bubba, who has hidden himself in plain sight in a scarecrow outfit. Stepping back, Otis takes the first shot, and is soon serenaded by his three friends who pump 20 plus rounds into poor shivering Bubba. A strong wind soon whips up across the corn field, as a report comes in on Hocker’s radio, “Marylee is fine.” Apparently Renfro’s dog-attacked little Marylee and Bubba was actually the one who saved her. Hey, oops! Otis, sly as a snake, quickly finds an old pitch fork and places it in Bubba’s lifeless hands.
A small, laughable trial ends with the four vigilantes being acquitted; with Otis adding extra cheek by suggesting that he’s running late for Mrs. Bunch’s Tuesday night chicken. Mrs. Ritter sends him on his way with a side order of chills, namely when she warns him, “there’s other justices in the world besides the law.” This takes us into the film’s main course, as the four vigilantes find themselves the brunt of somebody’s sick joke… or maybe even something much more sinister. “Have you started plantin?” Hocker’s wife enquires after spying a scarecrow in the field. Ah yes, we’re fast on our way to panicville, as each of the four is terrorized by odd occurrences in the night - the strange unknown. When one of them is accidentally killed in his own woodchipper, Otis and his pals find themselves growing more and more paranoid, especially when they can't figure out who turned the machine off. Otis suspects everyone from the little girl, to Mrs. Ritter, to the district attorney to Bubba himself, something seemingly confirmed by Marylee who suggests that Bubba is around, “playing the hiding game.” His paranoia goes off the charts in the film’s final half, resulting in him not only digging up a grave in the wee hours of the night, but actually killing one of his friends. Wrapping up nicely on an ambiguous note, the ending won’t answer all your questions but it’ll definitely leave you with food for thought. This is definitely a stunner.
Larry Drake would go to greater fame playing the bad guy in the “Darkman” movies as well as what amounts to the most annoying serial killer in movie history “Dr. Giggles”. Interestingly, he would win a couple of Emmy Awards playing another mentally handicapped man on “L.A. Law”. In an unforgettable role, Charles Durning (2006’s “Stephen King's Desperation”), playing Otis, is a man with many secrets – all of which are unveiled throughout the course of the film. Even though the scarecrow is the killer here, it’s the smooth talking Otis that will strike fear in those watching. Rarely has an actor crafted such a despicable, snake-like character; a closet drunk, with pedophilic tendencies, Otis surrounds himself with simpletons too stupid to question his bullshit. Charles Durning is a fantastic character actor and I’m glad to see that he’s still churning them out, even today. According to the imdb.com, he has three films currently in production. Excellent. The rest of the cast includes a whole bunch of actors that you know from somewhere but you can’t quite put your finger on where namely Claude Earl Jones (1990’s “Bride of Re-Animator”), Robert F. Lyons (1978’s “The Ghost of Flight 401”) and Lane Smith (1977’s “The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training”). They are all great in their Southern fried hick roles. I loved them all.
Originally broadcast by CBS on October 24, 1981, “Dark Night of the Scarecrow” is another in a long line of late 70s/early 80s made for television movies that were so shockingly good that I almost wish they’d become part of the mandatory viewing curriculum in film schools. Sadly, like many of the ones I’ve reviewed here including “Satan’s Triangle” and “The Strange and Deadly Occurrence”, this film, minus one rare Key Video release, fell into that well-known ‘pit of obscurity’ for years – becoming almost unattainable, unless you were willing to plop down 100 dollars on Ebay for a worn, clamshell-cased VHS copy. Thankfully, according to the film’s writer Feigelson, “Dark Night of the Scarecrow” is slated for an official DVD release in 2009. This is good news for so many reasons, the big one being that it finally allows audiences (and maybe some enterprising, up and coming new filmmakers) a chance to screen this film in all its glory.