Review: Dark Night Of The Scarecrow (1981)

Dark Night of the Scarecrow 
(1981 TV Movie)
Director: Frank De Felitta

I first saw Dark Night of the Scarecrow on TV, when I was a little kid, at a sleep-over in the early 80s.  With the lights turned out and snacks on hand, the next 2 hours of supernatural and suspense became the talk at recess for months to come.  And like any childhood fad, the movie was quickly forgotten.  Recently, when I finally scored myself a low-quality copy off the internet, I hoped I was going to be treated with sweet nostalgia, and not be faced with destroying another childhood memory.  I mean come on, what good has ever come out of a made-for-TV movie?

Dark Night of the Scarecrow is directed by novelist Frank De Felitta (author of Audrey Rose and The Entity) and is credited as the first killer scarecrow movie that started the quasi-popular sub-genre. Until this title, a horror movie that featured a scarecrow as its centerpiece simply did not exist.  You could say it led way to other scarecrow movies like Scarecrows (1988), Jeepers Creepers (2001), and Hallowed Ground (2007).

Set in a small farming community, it centers on Otis Hazlerigg (Charles Durning) the town’s postmaster.  He deems Bubba (Larry Drake, Darkman and Dr. Giggles), a large, gentle, mentally challenged man, a danger and a menace. Bubba’s innocent childlike friendship with 10-year-old Marylee (Tonya Crowe) is something he especially deplores. 

When word goes around that Marylee was attacked by a dog and is presumably dead, Otis takes immediate action with his three friends to hunt down Bubba.  Bubba runs home and his mother hides him in a scarecrow costume in the middle of a field.  When the hounds track him down, Otis and his pals mercilessly gun him down.  Before the gun smoke even settles, they learn that Marylee is still alive, and that Bubba actually rescued her.  Great big oops.  Otis places a pitchfork in Bubba’s dead hand and fabricates a story that he tried to attack them with it.  Using this lie in court, Otis and the three are released due to lack of evidence against them.

Following the trial, members of the vigilante group start getting killed one by one by what appears to be accidents.  Before each death, the men claim sightings of the same scarecrow mysteriously appearing on their property.  For Otis, the pressure is on to find out who is responsible before he’s ultimately targeted.  Is it the district attorney looking for justice because they were let off the trial so easily?  Is Bubba’s mother avenging her dead son?  What of Marylee who says Bubba is not dead, but is hiding?  Or could it be Bubba himself from beyond the grave?

Because this title was made for TV in the 80s, it didn’t (or couldn’t) rely on violence, gore, or big special effects.  The strength of the movie is in its simple storytelling, simple filmmaking and fantastic performances from the cast.  Although most deaths are off-screen with minimal blood, the movie still offers a great air of suspense and even includes a spooky midnight grave digging scene (who doesn’t love those!) and a climactic chase in a pumpkin field.

With expectations set on nil, when I rewatched this childhood favorite 30+ years later, I was pleasantly surprised to take a break from the oversaturated bombardment of annoying teen celebrities, blaring pop music, and mediocre CG gore effects. 

- Frank Fu

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