Appellate Judge Tom Becker once spent a dark night with a scarecrow—he lost 50 bucks playing backgammon with the damned thing.
There's other justice in this world besides the law.
Bubba (Larry Drake, Darkman) is a grown man with the mentality of a child. His best friend is a child, little Marylee (Tonya Crowe, Knots Landing). He is as innocent as she is, gentle and simple.
But some in this rural community don't take to Bubba, particularly postman Otis Hazelrigg (Charles Durning, The Hudsucker Proxy). Hazelrigg is sure that there's something disgusting about Bubba's friendship with Marylee, and he's just waiting for something to happen.
When Marylee is attacked by a dog, Bubba saves her, but when people see Bubba carrying the wounded girl, they get the wrong idea. Hazelrigg rounds up some friends, and they hunt the poor guy down to the house he shares with his mother (Jocelyn Brando, The Chase). They find him in a field, disguised as a scarecrow, draw their guns, and fire away. Moments later, one of them gets a call on the CB: Not only didn't Bubba hurt the girl, he saved her life.
Backwoods justice being what it is, these pillars of the community are let off with a warning. They think everything's OK, until a few days later, when a mysterious scarecrow turns up in a field owned by Harless Hocker (Lane Smith, The Mighty Ducks), one of the killers. That night, something terrible happens to Harless. The other two men fear someone—Marylee? Bubba's mother? The DA?—is out for vengeance, but Hazelrigg thinks it's just someone trying to scare them.
But when the scarecrow turns up again, even Hazelrigg knows something's not right.
As a kid, along with the usual fears—you know, jellyfish, clowns, boa constrictors—I was terrified of scarecrows. The floppy, dancing Ray Bolger of The Wizard of Oz just struck horror in my 3-year-old heart; a few years later, I happened upon The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh, from the normally benign Disney factory, but this one, as it turned out, was like Disney's answer to Psycho. Since I didn't live in a place of cornfields, I was pretty safe, and by young adulthood, had pretty well convinced myself that scarecrows were only scary if you were, in fact, a crow.
Then, stupid CBS ran the stupid Dark Night of the Scarecrow, and my whole sense of security went out the window.
"Stupid" is not meant as a criticism of the film; far from it. Dark Night of the Scarecrow is one of the better pre-cable, Made-for-TV horror movies, an effectively goosebumpy campfire tale that builds its scares through mood, atmosphere, and old-fashioned suspense and shocks. The film doesn't try to re-invent the supernatural-revenge formula, or update it, or jazz it out; as such, it remains timelessly spooky.
It helps that the performances are so good. Larry Drake impresses in the early scenes as the hapless Bubba, but Charles Durning steals the show as the benevolently malevolent bully Hazelrigg. It would have been easy for Durning to give us a one-dimensional villain, since he's playing a guy who's a devious coward with a life filled with ugly secrets. But Durning also adds humor to the character, and great charm—we can understand why he is liked and respected in the community. It's a nuanced portrayal, not a sledgehammer, the kind of recognizable, self-righteous evil that's even more insidious because it so often finds acceptance.
Jocelyn Brando is also excellent as Bubba's angrily grieving mother, and Tonya Crowe avoids the cutesy pitfalls of so many child actors, giving a sensitive, yet eerie, performance as Bubba's best friend—forever.
This being a TV movie from the early '80s, there are a few inelegant filmmaking shortcuts, particularly in the exposition. For instance, I understand they needed "backwoods justice" to get the killers off, but in this place, everyone wears shoes, works, and has a modest, but comfortable-looking home—would 21 bullets pumped into a mentally handicapped man on his own property fail to bring an indictment at a hearing? But once the scares get under way, these kinds of complaints are quickly forgotten, and if the ending doesn't creep you out, then you're made of stronger stuff than I.
VCI has done a terrific job with this disc, giving it much more care than is normally found in DVD releases of made-for-TV movies. The full frame picture looks great, hardly like a 30-year-old TV movie; it helps that director Frank De Felitta thought of this as a feature film. The cinematography is also more ambitious than the average "Movie of the Week." Audio is offered in the original mono and a nice, full 5.1 surround track. English and Spanish subtitles are available, though they're not accessible from the remote.
We also get a couple of cool supplements. A feature-length commentary with De Felitta and writer J.D. Fiegelson offers some nice recollections of the shoot and the actors, and more than a few nods to how well-remembered the film is. Apparently, the great Vincent Price was a fan—he's quoted on the box cover. The inclusion of the "World Premiere Promo"—the opening bumper from the Oct. 24, 1981, edition of The CBS Saturday Night Movies—is an espresso jolt of nostalgia, particularly for those of us old enough to remember when networks regularly had movie nights.
A chilly little Halloween treat and a classic of its kind, Dark Night of the Scarecrow should be a welcome addition to your horror DVD library. VCI gets this one right with a DVD that offers good tech and worthwhile supplements.
Bubba didn't do it! This disc's not guilty either.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: VCI Home Video
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