Sunday, October 21, 2012

Dark Night of the Scarecrow

I have some vague memories of watching 'Dark Night of the Scarecrow' back in the 1980s when it originally aired, but I didn't remember much about it. Picked up the DVD on the recommendation of John Hocking, who called the movie "the best made for TV horror film of them all." Have to say I'm in agreement. This 1981 TV movie manages to be that film rarity, a ghost story that works on all levels and does so with very little gore to speak of.
  The plot is simple. Four good old boys with a grudge against a local mentally challenged man called Bubba seize an opportunity to get rid of him permanently when it looks like he has savaged a little girl. They hunt the frightened man down in a field, where his mother has disguised him as a scarecrow, and shoot him. Only minutes after they've killed him they learn by CB radio that Bubba actually saved the girl from an attack by a vicious dog. The leader of the group, played with scenery chewing relish by Charles Durning, decides to make it look like Bubba came at the four with a pitchfork and that they shot him in self defense.
   The men are tried, but acquitted, and it looks like they've gotten away with murder until a familiar scarecrow starts showing up in odd places. The men are killed one by one until it comes down to Durning's character, who meets a suitable end.
   One thing I really liked about the film was that for the majority of the movie, it plays almost like a whodunit. The viewer doesn't know if the scarecrow is actually a ghost or if one of the three townspeople is stalking the killers. There are some genuine creepy moments and some good performances by various actors, Durning in particular. Oh, and it takes place near Halloween so there are some scenes at a school Halloween party.
   Definitely worth your Halloween time. Thanks, John!


Anonymous said...

I knew you’d appreciate this movie, Charles.
Dark Night of the Scarecrow is considerably better than anyone might expect given when it was made (the 80’s), how it was made (for TV), and film’s generally dismal record at getting any real haunting horror up on the screen.
There were four scenes that delivered chills strong enough to stick in my memory.

First, after being acquitted, one of the hapless killers sits at a table in a bar, laughing drunkenly, repeating a snide rejoinder Durning’s character said in court that day. He repeats it over and over, almost desperately, a stiff grin on his face. The camera pans back and you can see the man is at a little table in a narrow, dimly lit bar. The camera keeps pulling back, through the glass on the door and out into a dark, windswept night. Debris blows down the sidewalk as the camera turns to look away from the little bar and down a long dark street. The guy is made to look like a little mouse cowering in the corner of a huge, dark and ominous world. You know he’s doomed.

Second, when the fellow goes to see what’s rattling on the far side of the silo, notes with nervous laughter that it’s just a hanging chain, then turns back to his little office in time to see a dark, featureless figure standing in there—who immediately turns out the lights. This little scene is pure ghost-story magic. You can see Somebody, but not who they are. It’s just a shadow, and one that’s apparently more comfortable in total darkness.

Third, when Charles Durning is called out by the old woman, who declares that she “knows what he is”. The viewer understands that she is basically, if indirectly, accusing him of being a pedophile. Durning’s reaction, a bristling, hasty departure, confirms her accusation in a truly disturbing, understated way that forces on the viewer that his character is Even Worse than we thought. And we knew he could shoot a helpless man in cold blood.

And last, the concluding shot. Somehow, when you finally see the Scarecrow, it is no disappointment. That eyeless head swivels toward the camera, and a gloved hand is extended… An unforgettable final image.

Geez, I won’t shut up about this movie for anything. A criminally under-rated ghost story. Glad you dug it.


Charles R. Rutledge said...

Agreed on all points. I also like the scene where the scarecrow appears for the first time after Bubba is killed. The farmer's wife asks if he's doing the planting early and he says no, so she wonders why there's already a scarecrow in the field...