Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981)

The Principals: Director: Frank de Felitta.  Larry Drake, Charles Durning, Robert F. Lyons, Claude Earl Jones, Lane Smith, Jocelyn Brando, Tonya Crowe.

The Premise:
When the mentally-challenged, yet gentle giant, Bubba Ritter Drake), who has befriended a local girl, Marylee (Crowe), is mistakenly accused of attacking and possibly raping her, he must flee retribution from a local lynch mob consisting of mailman Otis Hazelrigg (Durning), gas station attendant Skeeter Norris (Lyons) and cousins Philby (Jones) and Harliss Hocker (Smith).  Bubba must take refuge in a familiar hiding place which he has used to elude the foursome successfully before, a scarecrow on a nearby farm.  But this time, Otis and the others use tracking dogs and execute Bubba with multiple gunshots. 


They later discover that not only did Bubba not harm Marylee, but he saved her from a mauling by a dog.  In order to save their own asses, they put a pitchfork in Bubba’s dead hands and claim self defense, which succeeds in getting them off of murder charges.  But Bubba’s mother promises that the four will receive justice by other means.  This turns out to prove true when, one by one, the four start dying mysteriously at the hands of an unseen assailant until only Otis is left.  When he meets up with the one responsible for his comrade’s deaths at the end of the film, it’s one of the most shocking conclusions in recent horror movie history.


Is It Good:  Dark Night of the Scarecrow is
unerringly and surprisingly terrifying, even nearly 30 years later.  The entire film is an exercise in minimalism.  You see only the barest of what is required, especially the killer, but the movie still drips with atmospheric dread its entire running time.  Scarecrow is an anachronism: a made-for-TV movie, done on a budget, that can still out-terrify audiences of much bigger and notable horror films that went theatrical.  For me, and I’m sure many of us who saw it on TV in the early 1980s, it’s an experience that continues to stick with us.  It’s certainly the scariest movie I’ve ever seen that originated on TV.  And it was done with a minimum of violence, a dearth of gore and is a film that coasts on anticipation, dread and interpretation.  

Drake is fantastic as Bubba.  The role of a mentally-challenged man is one he would repeat successfully years later on L.A. Law as Benny Stulwicz.  However, his Bubba is unique as a put-upon protagonist who certainly doesn’t deserve his grim fate, and whose treatment and murder sparks outrage and sympathy from his audience.  Also good in his role is Charles Durning as Hazelrigg, a petty and deceitful man who orchestrates the travesty of Bubba’s murder and the cover up, then cravenly tries to keep the truth from coming out.  His compatriots in the lynch mob, Smith, Jones and Lyons, are also good in their various roles, and no one delivers the sheer level of terror of the miscreants than Jones when he is stalked by the killer.  Brando is also affecting as Bubba’s grieving mother.

Durning.  Ventilating retards come rain, sleet, or gloomy friggin’ night.

Scarecrow is adept at doing what the early Friday the 13th films made fashionable: playing cat and mouse with the killer.  However, no film has ever done it as well as I’ve seen it done in Scarecrow.  To say any more about the killer would spoil a film that really deserves to be seen and enjoyed if one has yet to do so.  Frank De Felitta, who directed few films before or since, but who wrote the novel Audrey Rose in 1975 and the film, The Entity, the same year this film was made, achieves probably his career highlight with this film, directing with austerity and letting the audience’s imagine add to the trepidation unfolding on the screen. 

Is It Worth A Look: Want to genuinely be creeped the bejeezus out?  Then hells yeah.  I’d easily put this film in my Top 10 list of most terrifying films my eyeballs have ever seen from in between fingers covering my face.  It’s truly a marvel of basal directing to achieve maximum terror.  And its ending is the cherry on top of the the horror cake with creepiness frosting. 

Random Anecdotes: Even though it was announced two years ago, the film is finally coming to DVD on September 28th.  Do yourself (and CHUD) a favor and buy it here!

Dark Knight?  Scarecrow?  Ha ha.  It ain’t the same thing!