Dark Night of the Scarecrow

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  1. rhett

    rhett Administrator

    Jul 30, 2000
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    [​IMG] Reviewer: Rhett
    Review Date: October 5, 2010

    Released by: VCI
    Release date: 9/28/2010
    MSRP: $19.99
    Region 1, NTSC
    Full Screen 1.33:1

    inline ImageAs good as some movies are, sometimes they cannot escape the heft of their openings. Scream immediately comes to mind, with its Drew Barrymore, “Do you like scary movies?” phone call murder. Another is the one that inspired that, When a Stranger Calls. Cliffhanger, Halloween and Anti-Christ are more still. One from the Made for TV set is Dark Night of the Scarecrow, where a little girl is injured and the town bigots slay a retarded farm boy in a cornfield in an act of vigilantism. The first twenty minutes of that picture are so shocking and well setup that the rest of the film cannot help but feel anticlimactic by comparison. Rightfully so, though, Dark Night’s legend has lived on for nearly thirty years, and finally, after countless petitions and requests, VCI has come through with a DVD to one of television’s most enamored horror movies. We know the opening is classic, but how does the rest of the film, made during the MFT golden age of horror, hold up today now that made for TV horror has become but a memory? To the crops we go.

    The Story

    inline ImageThe opening is so good it’s worth writing about twice. Bubba Ritter (Larry Drake, the future Durant and Dr. Giggles) is a simple man of the Lennie Small type who befriends a small girl, Marylee Williams (Tonya Crowe). Together they play in the countryside, making wreaths or picking flowers. It’s a caring, platonic relationship, but not everyone feels that way. Closet pervert and manipulative mailman Otis P. Hazelrigg (Charles Durning) fears that Bubba may one day follow through with the lust that Otis himself feels towards the girl. It just isn’t right for a “fully developed” man to be playing with a girl like that, he coos to his friends, which include farmers Harless Hocker (Lane Smith) and Philby (Claude Earl Jones) and mechanic Skeeter (Robert F. Lyons). They don’t do anything about this disturbing prejudice until one day Bubba shows up on the Williams doorstep with a bloodied Marylee in his hands. “Bubba didn’t do it!” he cries. Word spreads quick, and led by Mr. Hazelrigg, the four men grab the dogs and their guns and head out on a head hunt for Bubba. Bubba goes to where his mother taught him to hide, but soon enough the men find him. He’s hidden inside a scarecrow, and before he can even explain himself he’s pumped with 21 rounds of lead. And then the vigilantes immediately get a radio call telling them that Marylee is okay, and that Bubba actually saved her from a dog attack. Irony can be a terrible thing.

    inline ImageWith Bubba dead, the men are tried for murder, but they all argue it was in self-defense. Without any substantial evidence to convince the judge otherwise, they’re all let free, much to the dismay of Bubba’s crying mother (Jocelyn Brando, sister to Marlon). Mrs. Ritter warns, though, that “there are other justices in this world besides the law!” and her prophecy soon proves true. A few days following the hearing, Harless finds a scarecrow planted in the middle of one of his crops. He thinks it’s a prank from his conspirators, but when they all proclaim innocence everyone starts to wonder…could Bubba still be alive? Otis tells them all to forget about it, but the next day Harless is found dead after falling into a tree mulcher. Apparently the mulcher was off when the police found him, but when the men check they notice that it was still filled with gas. Someone had to have shut it off. Philby’s next, with the scarecrow showing up this time at his homestead. He tries to run, but he gets buried alive by his own grain. You reap what you sow, as it goes, and it becomes clear that the scarecrow is going to make all four men pay.inline Image

    Meanwhile, Marylee refuses to believe Bubba is dead, instead sneaking off into the fields at night to try and talk to him. Otis begins to get paranoid and confronts not only Marylee, but also Mrs. Ritter, in hopes that the retribution will stop. It does not, though, and eventually the other two men must face their destiny with the scarecrow. But just who’s behind the mask? Is it Bubba? Mrs. Ritter? The district attorney? Marylee? Could a little girl do such a thing? Whoever it is, they have a keen sense of justice, and for the remaining two who crossed Bubba, a dark night lays ahead.

    inline ImageLet’s get this out of the way first – Dark Night of the Scarecrow really is in another league when it comes for made for television fare. Even classic contemporaries like Bad Ronald, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark and Don’t Go to Sleep can’t compare with when it comes to cinematography and performance. When I was taking screenshots for this review, I couldn’t believe how many picturesque shots there were. I ended up taking over thirty and still feel as if I haven’t done the film justice. The wheaty, hilly California locales give the film an idyllic beauty that makes the opening tragedy and the messy comeuppance all the more memorable. It’s almost like Terrence Malick-lite with all those long, drawing wide shots of fields as character slowly enter or exit frame. Add to that the strong personification used with the caws from the crows and the film teeters on being lyrical. Death seems that much worse when it’s played against beauty, and since the film very much tries to wrangle in and critique Americana, the almost Wild Westian vistas certainly lend the film a powerful visual quality.

    inline ImageThe performances are first rate, too. Larry Drake would make a career as the stern bad guy, but here he makes a very sympathetic, and very convincing cognitively delayed man. He’s not in the film much, but he leaves such a lasting impression with his opening sequence that whenever the scarecrow shows up on screen, it’s impossible not to imagine Drake staring out from behind it. Jocelyn Brando is similarly tragic, and is able to move either with loud overstated cries, like in the court room, or sad, subtle gestures, like when she has to quietly explain to Marylee why Bubba won’t be coming back. For a child actress, Tonya Crowe acts with confidence, and the supporting men who make up the vigilante squad seem equally comfortable and convincing in their roles as simple country folk. The great Charles Durning, who was already a star going into the movie with major roles in The Sting and Dog Day Afternoon, would actually go on be nominated for Oscars in the next few years following Scarecrow. It’s a testament to the quality of the production that they were able to nab such a quality character actor at the prime of his production, and Durning certainly rises to the occasion with a veiled vindictiveness hidden behind that American smile and that mailman uniform. He strays from going over the top, instead making his villain even more of a menace by smiling or manipulating his way to prosperity.

    inline ImageThe story also deserves some kudos for delving into some pretty racy subject matter, like pedophilia, murder of the handicapped or violence against children. Writer J.D. Feigelson (who’d later pen Craven’s TV effort, Chiller) isn’t merely interested in shock value, though. The controversial subjects instead work more as subtext to motivate his characters and heighten the intensity of the moments that follow. It’s hinted and mentioned that Durning’s character is a pervert, but we never see him address it nor do anything explicit to suggest that. It sure does make his confrontation with Marylee a tense one as a result, though. I just finished reviewing King Kong, and the “beauty and the beast” metaphor certainly applies here. Whether beauty is found in Marylee or the rural Americana landscapes, both seem to directly kill the beast. As a cautionary tale of the evils of bigotry that exist behind the every man – be it the mailman, the mechanic or the farmer, it’s a pretty terse little movie.

    inline ImageAll this and I’m still going to complain about something. After the marvelous, riveting opening act and the ominous build-up to the scarecrow’s return, the film can’t help but seem a little anti-climactic. Not that it wasted all the good at the start – as was stated earlier, it’s quality the entire way. It’s not that it doesn’t live up to the start so much as it doesn’t live up to its concept. The imagery of the scarecrow coming back to exact revenge is a powerful one, but yet the kills in this movie not only downplay his presence, but seem almost incidental. Of the four guys that killed the scarecrow, one dies by pure accident and another one by the hand of a third party. The ones that do directly fall victim to the scarecrow, one of them never features the scarecrow at all, while the last one uses the straw man as a punch line more than anything else. It’s not that the scarecrow is kept in shadows or anything, it’s that he’s simply not there. It’s not the scarecrow that’s doing the killing, it’s something else, and for a movie that modeled and marketed itself as a masked man slasher in the vein of The Town that Dreaded Sundown it just feels a missed opportunity to not feature the man from the title a little more in the proceedings.

    inline ImageStill, it’s tough to fault a movie for what it’s not when it does such a good job for what it is. Dark Night of the Scarecrow is a taunt and tense piece of old fashioned horror storytelling that’s able to weave between realism and the supernatural without ever poisoning the crops of suspension of disbelief. When they say “they don’t make ‘em like they used to”, it’s true here twofold. The film’s episodic, commercial break style of structure is certainly lost today with the lack of any kind of serious, mature telefilms on air currently. More importantly, though, they just don’t tell these kind of understated horror movies, where the scares are slow and subtle – a tractor turning on by itself, a scarecrow propped up lifelessly in an open field, and the characters they happen to aren’t in the WB 18 to 35 set. Dark Night of the Scarecrow is one of the few TV movies that can be labeled classic.

    Image Quality

    inline ImagePreserving the film’s original television exhibition, Dark Night of the Scarecrow is presented in 1.33:1 by VCI. Also true to the original airing, the film is interlaced. For those that yearn for a progressive scan transfer though (and let’s be honest, that’s definitely the ideal), the quality of this visual restoration should greatly ease the pain. This scarecrow cleans up good! Colors just pop off the screen, with those beautiful country locations looking as vivid as the day they were shot. Blue skies, green hills and yellow wheat – all the colors of the American Dream really resonate in this newly timed transfer. It’s an impeccably clean one too, with only minimal instances of dirt or debris and no print damage whatsoever. Grain is minimal and blacks are fairly solid and detail has been greatly improved over those old VHS tapes. Even with the interlacing, edge detail and sharpness is still commendable. Were it not for the interlacing this would be almost perfect, but considering that’s how the film was originally aired, it’s tough to fault it for what it is, right?


    inline ImageAs equally impressive as the visual restoration is this new Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track. A lot of the movie uses ambient noises to really set the tone during some of the scarier moments, and those sounds come to life in every direction now with this active mix. Channel separation is pronounced and very noticeable, heightening envelopment during all those scenes in the fields. Glenn Paxton’s memorably melodic score, with those childlike notes that sometime creep into the foreboding theme, is also effectively upgraded to a broader soundspace. You wouldn’t think an old TV movie would benefit from a full speaker remix, but Dark Night of the Scarecrow really comes to life in 5.1. One of the most inspired and effective remixes of the year.

    Supplemental Material

    inline ImageWholeheartedly committed to this release, VCI even begins the disc with a custom CG intro that sweeps through a corn field before stumbling upon their logo. Nice touch. As for real extras, the main one is a commentary with the director, Frank De Felitta, and the writer, J.D. Feigelson. Felitta is 89 years old…has anyone older ever led a commentary? It’s an honor to have him around to speak about his film, but given the age, not just his own, but the thirty years that have passed since shooting, there aren’t a lot of fresh stories or anecdotes that are discussed. Felitta and Feigelson rely instead mostly on discussing the story, its themes and how they transitioned from script to screen. When they aren’t doing that, they’re congratulating the other on their (admittedly solid) work. Feigelson comes off as a smart and inquisitive man, and does a good enough job of fielding questions to Felitta. Overall, it’s an enjoyable track with a couple of vets, just not an informative one.

    The sole video extra is a short, wonderfully vintage little CBS promo for the world premiere. VCI no doubt had to work hard to include this, considering CBS’s stature, but it’s something really important to this release. It places the film in the context of its first airing, since those Saturday Night TV airings certainly had an aura about them that was totally different than going to the cinema. Very nice to see.

    Final Thoughts

    inline ImageWith the quality cinematography, the pitch perfect performances and the thrilling opening act, it’s no surprise this Scarecrow’s crops grow highest of all when it comes to made for television horror movies. While the film doesn’t quite live up to its promise of a scarecrow terrorizing those who wronged him, it does still deliver plenty of classy, even supernatural, scares to supplement the taut, perceptive narrative. VCI has done an amazing job on this restoration, restoring the picture to clean, vivid color and upgrading the audio to atmospheric 5.1. While it certainly deserves a retrospective documentary, the commentary and vintage CBS promo should still please fans of the film. VCI may not be prolific when it comes to horror releases, but they’ve proven here with Scarecrow that they can perch with the big boys. This release of a TV classic is a must see, day or night!


    [​IMG] Movie - A-

    Image Quality - A-

    Sound - A

    Supplements - B-

    Technical Info.
    • Color
    • Running time - 1 hour 36 minutes
    • Not Rated
    • 1 Disc
    • Chapter Stops
    • English Dolby Digital 5.1
    • English mono
    • English subtitles
    • Spanish subtitles
    Supplemental Material
    • Commentary with writer and director
    • CBS Network world premiere promo
    Other Pictures


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