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Dark Night Of The Scarecrow
(1981)

Director: Frank De Felitta  
Cast:
Charles Durning, Larry Drake, Tonya Crowe


As I think you know by now, I not only love movies, I love a vast range of movies. It's very likely that you too love enough movies to cover a number of different genres. After all, variety is the spice of life, and if you just stuck to more or less watching one kind of movie genre you'd probably get tired of the movies in that genre after a while, even if one of those movies was one of your favorite movies of all time. But while the majority of us regularly view movies from a variety of genres, I also think that we all have in our minds at least one movie genre that we despise. This probably comes as no surprise - after all, I think most of us have at least one kind of food that we don't like the taste of. Anyway, I think that prejudice against a certain film genre is kind of silly - all movie genres have their clunkers, true, but they also contain movies that are captivating and are entertaining - that is, except for Canadian movies after 1983 or so that received funding from the government. Boy, are they boring stinkfests! While that particular movie genre understandably has a lot of prejudice, I find it hard to understand when people mention other kinds of movies that they don't like. Actually, maybe I don't. When I was young, I loved watching all kind of movies... except for westerns. I thought that westerns were hokey and old-fashioned, and boring to boot. I thought that for a long time. Then one day in school, I had in my art class the assignment to write about westerns. I picked the Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns because I liked Clint Eastwood and that the movies promised to have a decent amount of action in them.

Needless to say, I loved all three of those Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns. I was so entertained by them, I sought out other spaghetti westerns, and I enjoyed them enough to give American westerns a chance. Today, the western genre is one of my favorites. My experience with westerns taught me to give all movie genres a fair chance. (And I have given Canadian movies made after 1983 that had government funding a fair shake - hooooweeee, they sure were boring stinkfests!) Anyway, there is one particular film genre I would like to talk about now, a genre that has given me much pleasure in the past but has been viewed with prejudice by many moviegoers for decades. That genre is the made-for-TV movie. Certainly to a degree I can understand why many people look down at the genre. If you look at the made-for-TV movies being made today, you'll see that they are mostly productions by the Lifetime or Hallmark cable networks, and they tend to be syrupy or sensitive dramas - not exactly brimming with excitement. But what many people don't seem to know is that when the "big three" networks were airing made-for-TV movies in the 1970s and 1980s, these particular made-for-TV movies covered a wide range of genres. Certainly, there were serious dramas, some based on plays, books, and occasionally remakes of movies from the Golden Age of Hollywood. But there were also efforts that dealt with the genres of comedy, horror, science fiction, action, and suspense. And a number of these made-for-TV movies were as good (or even better) than many movies aimed at the theatrical market. To me, it doesn't matter if a movie played in theaters, television, or went straight to video - a movie is a movie.

I think that the biggest reason why made-for-TV movies are looked down upon by many people is the fact that they haven't been as exposed to them to the degree that theatrical (and even made-for-video) movies have been exposed to the public. When you look at your television schedule, Dark Night Of The Scarecrowyou will see that made-for-TV movies are aired nowhere to the frequency theatrical movies are. And you don't often see authors writing about them. It's too bad, because there are some real gems out there that deserve big cults. As you have probably guessed, the movie I am going to talk about in this review - Dark Night Of The Scarecrow - is one such movie. It has built enough of an audience to be released on DVD, but I think it's still unknown enough by a great deal of people that would really enjoy it if they searched for a copy. The movie starts off by introducing us to two of the inhabitants in an unnamed small town, a child by the name of Marylee (Crowe, Knots Landing) who is best friends with a mentally handicapped man named Bubba (Drake, L.A. Law). One day while playing, Marylee is attacked by a dog. Bubba saves her from the dog, but when he rushes the injured and unconscious Marylee back to her parents, they believe that Bubba is the one who attacked her. When local postman Otis P. Hazelrigg (Durning, Dog Day Afternoon) - who we quickly learn has never liked Bubba - hears about the injured Marylee, he rounds up three of his friends and they go hunting for Bubba. With their dogs, the four men track Bubba to the home of his mother (Jocelyn Brando, sister of Marlon). On the property, they find a scarecrow, and on close inspection they discover Bubba hiding in the scarecrow costume. Otis and his three friends waste no time in emptying their guns on the terrified Bubba.

Seconds later on their truck's radio, they hear that Marylee has regained consciousness and told the authorities that Bubba did not hurt her. The four men realize they are facing great trouble, so they plant a pitchfork on Bubba's corpse and subsequently tell the authorities that Bubba tried to attack them. The district attorney doesn't buy it, but at a court hearing the judge feels there's no evidence, so Otis and his friends are set free. But the men are soon to find out, one by one, that justice can take strange forms... starting with a mysterious scarecrow that starts appearing on the men's properties. From this point on, you can probably more or less guess how the rest of the movie basically unfolds. I certainly was able to guess so, but I admit that I was a little concerned because at the point of the movie when the four men are freed from police custody, there is about seventy minutes of the movie left to run. It seemed to me that there would be some considerable padding to stretch things out. But to my relief, Dark Night Of The Scarecrow is not that guilty of padding. Every scene that follows serves a purpose, whether it is to advance the plot or flesh out the characters. Taking out any one of those scenes would hurt the movie and lessen the impact it manages to deliver. However, I must admit that while I felt every scene belonged, there were several scenes that ran a little bit too long. While I wouldn't have liked to see any one scene taken out completely, I do think some scenes could have been tightened by just a tad. Don't get me wrong, I'm not asking for anything like the speed found in a Michael Bay movie, but a few lines of dialogue condensed to a leaner number or completely taken out here and there, as well as increasing the pacing slightly in a few dialogue-free sequences, would have made the entire machine run smoother and more effectively.

Another minor quibble I had with the script was with how the four vigilantes were introduced in the first quarter of the movie. Except for Otis, the ringleader of the group, there is little to no development of the other three members. So when they are hunting Bubba down, the three followers of Otis more or less come across as a faceless mob. In fairness to screenwriter J. D. Feigelson, he does give the three men a reasonable amount of development in the subsequent seventy minutes of the movie, development that gives all four of the men a more multi-dimensional portrayal than you might expect of a movie like this. Yes, these characters have been written so that a large part of us hates these men for being both bigoted and cold-blooded killers, and we desire to see them face justice one way or another. But there are some parts of the movie where we almost sympathize with these characters. One character eventually shows deep remorse for Bubba's murder and is clearly thinking of telling the truth to the authorities. And all four characters are shown to be genuinely frightened at certain parts of the movie, such as when they see that mysterious scarecrow appear on their property, or when their numbers start to dwindle when deadly accidents (that is, if they are accidents) start happening to them. Additional credit has to go to the actors for delivering what's in the screenplay in an appropriate manner. All four actors playing the vigilantes are good, though it's Durning who'll stay in your mind long after the end. Refraining from overacting, Durning instead makes his character one who thinks carefully in every situation, making him a foe you know won't be taken down easily, making him very creepy and dangerous. The other performances in the movie are good as well. Brando has a somewhat small role, but she gives her role a lot of heart that makes her eventual exit have more impact than you might expect. Drake's performance as the mentally handicapped Bubba is spot on. Even when his Bubba character does not speak, a look in his eyes clearly shows whatever emotion the character is experiencing, whether it's confusion or panic. It's a small role, but it shows why Drake was able to win the role of Benny in the TV show L.A. Law several years later.

But the one thing that makes Dark Night Of The Scarecrow work as well as it does has to be the direction by Frank De Felitta (who eight years earlier directed another classic made-for-TV movie, the James Brolin-starring Trapped.) Although you might think that one might have struggled to deliver chills and scares on a 1980s TV project, De Felitta clearly worked with a steady hand here. There's not much in the field of blood and gore here - I don't think that comes as a surprise - so De Felitta relies on unexplicit techniques like atmosphere and suggestion. For example, there's the opening shot of the movie, showing Bubba and Marylee playing in a field. Sounds innocent, but it comes across as haunting with a combination of low audio, slow camera movement, and showing the characters at a distance. De Felitta keeps this sense of unease through the rest of the running time, so even when nothing is happening we in the audience don't feel quite comfortable enough to let our guard down. Later in the movie, as the vigilantes start to die off, De Felitta mostly eschews a graphic approach to these deaths - for one thing, some of the deaths in the movie happen off camera. De Felitta instead often focuses on something about the dying people - cries of agony, signs of struggle - and because of this, the deaths stay with us far after the movie has ended since each death is both so different and so upsetting at the same time. De Felitta's direction also gets a boost by the Glenn Paxton musical score that plays in the background, music that wisely is not bombastic but instead simple yet effective, adding to the feel of unease the rest of the movie generates. Dark Night Of The Scarecrow proves that being a made-for-TV movie does not automatically mean it's fluff, and also reveals that a heavy hand is not needed to creep out even an audience of the twenty-first century.

(Posted January 25, 2014)

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See also: Dr. Cook's Garden, Night Terror, Tarantulas: The Deadly Cargo

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