"What you sow, so shall you reap."
I think everyone reading this site that was born before 1980 remembers what a big deal the network television movie premieres were. The greatest one was seeing John Carpenter's classic Halloween for the first time, which -- P.J. Soles nudity aside -- was essentially uncut. Scary stuff for a six-year old, to be sure, but I had already been indoctrinated, with the help of the original made-for-TV movies they aired. I could be wrong but if felt as if they were a bigger deal then than now -- more of an EVENT -- and there were a few absolute-champion flicks that imprinted themselves on many of our young minds; I'm thinking of Spielberg's masterpiece Duel (the granddaddy and ultimate pinnacle of all 70's made-for-TV suspense movies) and 1973's Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, to name two of the more popular and effective entries. Some, however, may recall one that aired in October 1981 and immediately got down to the business of soiling some Underoos. That movie was Dark Night of the Scarecrow, and for YEARS I have had memories of being seriously scared by it. When VCI Entertainment released a 30th Anniversary Edition in 2011, I'm sure more than a few fans of that small-but-memorable subgenre wondered...will this one still hold up?
Otis Hazelrigg (Charles Durning) is a proud, upstanding citizen of his small, close-knit community -- he's the mailman, and as he says, "everybody trusts the mailman" -- who believes in The Right Of Things. All he wants to do is get through the workday, tip back a few drinks with his buddies afterwards, and head home to his room at the boarding house to sleep it off and bring the day to a close properly. All is well in his little corner of the world. Except for that "blight" Bubba Ritter (Larry Drake), that is. That particular individual offends Otis to his core, and he just...can't...STAND IT. Bubba is a mentally challenged man who bothers no one and nothing. As played by Drake, he's permanently 6 years old. Perfectly harmless. Probably the one thing in his life that makes him happiest is his close friendship with young Marylee (Tonya Crowe), a 10-year old girl who loves Bubba with all her heart. He's her best friend in the whole wide world.
Watching the two of them through his binoculars one day, Otis knows that this will just not do, no -- this is the very definition of Not Right. Something needs to be done about it, and by God if no one else has the stones to do it then Otis most certainly does, and he's already prepared to do...well, something "permanent." Of course, that's the very day when something horrible happens to little Marylee, leading to Bubba standing on her front porch, the child's limp, bloodied body hanging from his arms as he cries out "Bubba didn't do it!"
This is all the chance Otis has needed (and wanted) -- he gathers his idiot buddies Harless (Lane Smith), Philby and Skeeter (yeah, I know), loads up in a truck with hunting dogs and a gun for everybody, and off the vigilantes go, running Bubba down like an animal. They find this poor man hiding in an empty field behind his home, masquerading as a scarecrow...and they murder him. Horribly. As in "shoot him over 20 times" horribly. It's at that point that the news comes in that not only was Bubba not responsible for the child's accident, he saved her life. She's wounded but alive, and these fellows may be in some seriously deep shit here. Or so you'd think; turns out all Otis needs to do is put a pitchfork in Bubba's dead hand, tell everybody they shot hell out of him in self-defense, and that's pretty much that. Bubba's mom isn't too happy with them, obviously, and the local D.A. swears if he ever finds any evidence against them that these four assholes are Death Row-bound, but for all intents and purposes, they've gotten away with it. And life goes on.
Until Harless sees that a scarecrow has appeared overnight and out of nowhere in his field. These wanna-be vigilantes/actual murderers try to figure out if it's a prank, a warning, or something beyond their (limited) understanding -- and then people start dying. And truly, it is MOST satisfying.
Dark Night of the Scarecrow has most certainly held up; let's get that out of the way right now. The main reasons that it does are pretty simple: a whole lotta atmosphere and some well-drawn character work (essayed superbly by virtually the entire cast). There isn't a shitload of gore and brutality -- the most disturbing scene is Bubba's sad demise at the twenty-minute mark -- nor does there need to be. This is a film concerned more with taking its time to set up this world and the people in it, their relation to each other, and how they react when inexplicable events begin occurring (hint: it's not ideal). Drake and Crowe make a sweet twosome, emphasizing the friendship between them before tragedy strikes; Drake played a similar character for years on the hit TV drama L.A. Law, and while it's easy to see this as nothing more than a trial run for his larger success later on, that would short-change the strong, empathetic work he does in his small amount of screentime. Crowe gives a very assured performance as well and goes from adorable to oddly blank with a modicum of fuss. Lane Smith, who had an excellent career as a character actor (seriously, dude played Nixon AND had third lead in a fucking Pauly Shore flick), portrays the stereotypical redneck boozehound type without resorting to caricature even once. For the most part the same could be said about the rest of the cast (Jocelyn Brando has some heartbreaking moments as Bubba's mother)...but really, in terms of actors, this is Charles Durning's movie, and he makes the most of it. Otis is a villain who (as they do) doesn't see himself as one. He represents everything that is wrong with America, be it 1981 or 2014. He's the least informed and also the loudest. Anything different from himself, anything he doesn't understand -- it has to go. He'll try to bullshit you to get you to see things his way (even when it's clear he has NO idea what the fuck he's talking about) and if that doesn't work he will happily resort to bullying, and after that, well...I think we all know what happens after that. The movie pulls off a canny trick by making it clear (without hammering it over the audience's head) that what Otis sees as being wrong between Bubba and Marylee is merely his own projection onto the situation; he sees it as sick because HE is sick. Again, as real people do. Durning never once goes over the top; he's full of anger and rage that constantly bubble just below the surface, awaiting glorious release, but never does he resort to mustache twirling. He was too talented to do something that simple; instead he makes this terrible person into an actual human monster wearing the disguise of a man, and if you've ever been unlucky enough to meet anybody like Otis, you will recognize the strong craft that Durning brings to the part.
Director Frank De Felitta (The Entity, Audrey Rose) does his level best to elevate the film beyond typical made-for-TV fare and is quite successful overall. He has a flair for camera angles that very cinematically evoke a strong mood, and the slow, creeping dread he strikes in tone achieves an elegance I don't often recall from other entries of the period. De Felitta understands that a strong director can use his craft in service of anticipation of the moment rather than race headlong into the payoff itself, and the film is all the better for it. The script by J.D. Feigelson eschews cheap shocks and lurid developments for subtlety and quiet moments of unease; it's quiet and simple, yet no less effective for those choices. The movie is NOT perfect, by any means -- the court hearing where the judge rules that there's no case against these worthless pricks is kind of a joke (the defense attorney, a walking talking "Southern lawyer" cliche who stops JUST short of going full Foghorn Leghorn doesn't help at all), and other technical shortcomings hinder it somewhat, but none of it is close to being a dealbreaker. Honestly, seeing a bad stunt-double here and there only makes me smile and feel even MORE warmly towards the movie, but I'm kinda nuts that way so your mileage may vary. Just know this: whatever random moment of bad acting there is or any corners you notice have been cut to keep it at a TV-movie budget, the people behind Dark Night of the Scarecrow were trying very, very hard to make an actual film, one of substance and quality. For this viewer, they reached their goal with style, class and some awesomely creepy moments.
VCI Entertainment, apparently, worked their asses off to restore this 30-year old TV movie in every way they possibly could to make it worthy of your time. The Blu-ray looks and sounds better than the film EVER has (I'd bet my car on that); the list of people who worked on the visual and audio restoration in the credits is extensive and impressive. Presented in 1:33:1 and pillar boxed on HD screens, the colors are crisp and clear, the blacks deep and the 5.1 surround mix is, to use the technical term, aggressive as all hell (there's also a 2.0 Stereo mix available). VCI also produced a 30 minute retrospective documentary, featuring interviews with De Felitta, Feigelson, Drake, Crowe, and other cast and crew members that is both informative and warmly nostalgic without ever devolving into some kind of circle jerk. There's also a reunion Q&A with Feigelson, Drake, and Crowe, filmed at a convention not long before the video release, that runs 40 minutes and (microphone echo issues notwithstanding) it's very worthwhile for fans. Throw in a couple of vintage CBS promos for the premiere and the 1985 rebroadcast (which, if you spent a lot of time watching TV as a child, is some serious time-machine shit), a De Felitta/Feigelson feature commentary, and you've got yourself a better class of extras than some recent major studio releases.
Dark Night of the Scarecrow has less than no interest in reinventing the wheel...it simply wants to spin the hell out of it and entertain you properly as it does so. The craft and care given is remarkable when you're reminded of its origins (which is not often due to how immersive the storytelling is), but overall the story feels timeless, which explains why it's become such a beloved cult classic over the years. It's a tale of a tragedy and injustice, and the reckoning that follows. It's a mystery that makes you wonder if you're watching someone taking revenge to right a horrible wrong, or if something supernatural has arrived to return things to some sense of order...and unlike other movies that lean on ambiguity, preferring to make you decide for yourself, Dark Night of the Scarecrow answers the question pretty definitively in its final minutes. Horror fans who can get onboard with a suspenseful, well-crafted thriller throwback, I ask you: what are you waiting for?