Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981)

Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981)

The original classic.

Bubba is a mentally challenged but good natured man who spends his spare time playing with a little girl in their local farming community. When she is apparently mauled to death by a neighbour’s dog, news spreads around the town fast and Otis, the local mailman, forms a mob to take down this supposed child killer. They track him down to his farm where his mother says she hasn’t seen him but the mob eventually finds Bubba hiding as a scarecrow in the middle of the field. After taking out mob justice with their shotguns, the men are shocked to find out that the little girl survived and Bubba was the one who saved her from the dog. When their murder trial is thrown out for a lack of evidence, they walk free from court. However not long after, a mysterious scarecrow begins appearing on each of the men’s property, dressed exactly the same as Bubba was when he was murdered, and someone begins to stalk them. But who?

 

Heralded as one of the best made-for-TV movies ever made, Dark Night of the Scarecrow is a truly creepy little gem of a film. Playing upon one of horror’s most underused sub-genres, that of the killer scarecrow, the film has built up a cult reputation over the years and it’s easy to see why. Don’t get this mixed up with your traditional slasher films which were hitting it big at the time – Dark Night of the Scarecrow is all about unsettling the viewer, sending a shiver down their spine and getting under your skin. More mysterious and with more in common with a ghost flick, the film ticks all of the right boxes and simply doesn’t take the cheap route out with gore and body count being replaced by atmosphere and suggestion.

Dark Night of the Scarecrow kicks off with a bang with a thrilling opening act in which culminates in mentally-challenged innocent Bubba being hunted down and brutally dispatched by some vigilante justice. I bet that was a tough sell to the network that originally ran it and it still packs a punch over twenty years later. The close-ups of the scarecrow’s mask with Bubba’s terrified eyes peering out are still as haunting today as they ever were. The film never really maintains this high-energy as it then settles down to allow the characters and suspense some time to build back up again. There are undertones of paedophilia throughout but not between Bubba and the little girl: their relationship is innocent as Bubba is virtually a kid in a man’s body. It’s Otis who is the dodgy one, spying on the two with binoculars as they play happily in the field and being seemingly jealous of Bubba’s relationship with Mary Lee. He has designs on getting Bubba out of the way from the very start.

Charles Durning, as Otis, makes for one really despicable character. This guy is so vile, malicious and self-serving that it’s hard to feel anything but hate for him at all during the film. The opening scene tries a little too hard to sell him as a nasty piece of work but once his character gets some proper time to flesh itself out, you come to realise that he’s a real weirdo, living a dull existence without a wife, family, living in a boarding house and continually wearing his postal outfit like some militaristic uniform.

Good support comes from the rest of the cast, particularly Larry Drake as Bubba, who’s brief screen time during the opening really hammers home how cruel the mob are to him. It’s rare to see such good performances from a TV movie but this cast make the most of it.

This being a TV movie, the gore content is almost non-existent as the death scenes shy away from showing you anything grisly. But this works in the film’s favour – when a guy falls into a wood chipper, you won’t see anything but the impact of not seeing it makes it even more shocking than if you’d seen limbs and blood go flying everywhere. This is from the era of horror where you didn’t see every last graphic detail and the less-is-more approach works well and enhances the overall atmosphere. The scenes are drawn out for as long as possible, unsettling the viewer as much as possible before pulling the trigger.

The good thing is that we never see who is doing the killing and this leaves all manner of ideas open to interpretation. Is it Bubba, back from the dead? Is it someone who saw what happened? Just who or what is killing off the mob one by one? Even the final reveal at the end and an unforgettable closing scene does little to address this, leaving the viewer with unanswered questions which will keep ticking over in your mind for days and weeks. Although the gore and violence has been neutered for television, Dark Night of the Scarecrow still manages to look a hell of a lot better than a lot of full blown productions. Some of the night time shots are fantastic, really adding to the ominous vibe. The dimly-lit farms, barns and warehouses ooze character themselves. Anything could be lurking in the shadows and you wouldn’t know until the last minute.

 

Dark Night of the Scarecrow is proof that even TV movies can be effective if the makers are intent on producing something more than standard (take note Sci-Fi Channel). With fully-rounded characters, an unsettling vibe and some fantastic shots, it’s definitely one to check out should you ever manage to get hold of a copy.

 

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