Saturday, 29 October 2011

Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981) - TV Movie

Country: USA

Original Transmission Date: 24/10/1981

Very few made for television movies have achieved the cult prominence of Halloween favourite Dark Night of the Scarecrow. It was originally broadcast on CBS in October 1981, became a network mainstay for many years, a success on video rental, and an unlikely success in other territories as well. I can personally attest to this by remembering several screenings on British television during the 1980’s which haunted my fractured dreams. In confirmation of the films cult credentials US distributor VCI belatedly issued a DVD in September 2010, and more impressively still issued a blu-ray in October 2011. Naturally the strictures and regimentation of US network television meant that the emphasis was very much placed on the writing. The teleplay was provided by J. D. Feigelson, and he produced a literate and well constructed plot, peppered liberally with some wonderfully acerbic moments of dialogue for the villain Otis P. Hazelrigg (Charles Durning). Nevertheless there are still several moments of surprising violence (the shooting of Bubba, the pitchfork fate of Hazelrigg), and one particularly unpleasant moment of off screen violence (the death of Harless). But it is the films almost total reliance on a carefully cultivated atmosphere of simmering small town tensions that sets it apart from contemporaneous efforts in the horror genre.

Bubba Ritter (Larry Drake) is a retarded simpleton, a mentally defective imbecile with the brain and self awareness of an infant. His closeness to the children of the town, specifically Marylee (Tonya Crowe), is something that particularly grates on postman Otis P. Hazelrigg (what a fantastic name!) who despises the affection that the loveable cretin gets from Marylee. We first see Hazelrigg voyeuristically studying their playful interactions through binoculars. The question that haunts the film though is why exactly does Hazelrigg take singular exception to this relationship? The redneck vigilante posse he assembles are browbeaten into taking part in Bubba’s demise, but their hearts aren’t in it to the extent of Hazelrigg. Is it jealousy we see in his eyes as he puts down the binoculars? His encounters with Marylee later in the film are slimy and disturbing, and hint at the rotten perversion of paedophilic desires. Hazelrigg is a man who puts on a front to the public, in polite company he is known for being tee-total, but in the dark recesses of his boarding house bedroom he knocks back the liquor with greedy abandon. He is a man with a carefully cultivated external persona, but internally he is manipulative, cruel…and perhaps something even more sinister. The teleplay bypasses making a definitive statement on this, but it makes a number of clever allusions that slowly build up a sense of disquiet.

The killing of Bubba is made even more distinctive by his decision to hide in a scarecrow. All we get to see are his terrified eyes as the posse blow him into oblivion. His death made all the more ironic by the fact that his slaughterers are acting upon false information. Bubba in fact saved Marylee from the advances of a ravening dog. Despite retaining their freedom after a farcical court case (an instance where Hazelrigg’s public persona saves the day), what follows is the slow and inevitable fragmentation of the posse unit. In addition to the acidic guilt that eats away at Harless (Lane Smith), Philby (Claude Early Jones) and Skeeter (Robert F. Lyons) they must also contend with a newly materialised presence that is seeking vengeance. Initially at least this is manifested by creepy sightings of a scarecrow, and the sensation they are being stalked by somebody with intimate knowledge of their part in Bubba’s extermination. The obese Philby is the next to perish when he is suffocated in his grain silo, but Hazelrigg is still convinced that the perpetrator is Bubba’s defence attorney. His initial suspicion that it is Bubba’s mother is soon quashed when he murders her and blows her house up!!

In the moments that most closely approximate the strategies of the slasher form, the film is keen to keep alive the possibility that the killings could have their origins both in the natural world and in the supernatural. We are never sure if its Bubba’s vengeful spirit until the final moments. The finale takes place in a pumpkin field, and the closure of the film maintains an aura of creeping dread and disquiet. Although we never discover the name of the town (or did I just miss it?) the film was shot in the rural country climes of California. It is a wonderfully autumnal looking film, all browns and yellows, with cornfields basking in the dwindling sun - it all adds to the atmosphere of encroaching doom. The whodunit element, red herrings, and slow but tense pace all add a veneer of quality that allies it with a more sedentary and traditional mode of generic address. Dark Night of the Scarecrow is a touching tale of small town prejudice (and possibly sexual perversion), the strength of friendship (which lasts beyond the grave), and merciless vengeance. One of the finest made for television movies, and one of the better choices you could make for an evening of Halloween horror.

© Shaun Anderson 2011


  1. Great write-up! This was a classic horror movie with Charles Durning at his crazy best!

  2. Excellent review, Shaun. I had planned on posting one for this movie, too, but these damnable computer problems the last few days have hindered my intended Halloween specific posts. I saw this on its premiere and the following year, too, when it aired on Halloween night. I remember coming in from trick r treating and plopping down with my bag of candy 15 minutes into the feature. I posted the old TV Guide ad some time back, too. There were a lot of good TV horrors back then, but as you said, this one was something special.

  3. Excellent review of what is easily the best made-for-TV horror flick out there.

  4. @ Ty - Thanks for the feedback buddy, Durning is the dark heart of this particular dark night.

    @ Brian - Yeah only a select handful of the made for televison horror movies produced from say 1968 to 1989 (the period I consider of interest) went beyond the confines of the small screen to become generically important. This is certainly one of them....obvious others include DUEL, THE NIGHT STALKER, THE NIGHT STRANGLER, BAD RONALD - and a few others. I'm going to head over to CAC to refamiliarise myself with the TV guide ad.

    @ JP - Thanks for stopping by, this is is certainly in the Top 5 of all time, but I do think there are some other contenders to the crown, not least Spielberg's DUEL.

  5. I was a bit disappointed in BAD RONALD. It wasn't quite what I was expecting. The plot and the actual movie were far different than what I was expecting. I guess a future re-watch is in order, lol.

  6. Great write up! Haven't seen this, but I plan on seeking it out. I love the look of the Kodachrome film stock they were using back then; warmth to me is a lost art in horror - in most other genres, too. Use production design and wardrobe to achieve a desired effect, not the look of the stock itself. Everything is way too desaturated now. On a primal level we all know that autumn and winter (often times) appear very warm in real life, so to make a film so dark and monochromatic, it can ruin one's ability to suspend disbelief... for me anyway.

  7. Cheers Greg! This is easily obtainable on both DVD and Blu-Ray, but if you're a cheapskate like me you can watch the whole thing on Youtube. It's been broken down into 6 parts, but if you make a playlist of those parts in sequence, you can play them all in sequence, with only the slightest of pauses - if you're interested in giving it a view here is the link to Part 1 to get you started -

    I couldn't agree more with you on the use of film stock by the way, it is often overlooked as a stylistic device, but it's a critical component of the look of a film.

  8. My copy of this film arrived in the mail today! Can't wait to crack it. Sorry, I've been MIA. Can't wait to tear into the MIDNIGHT EXPRESS addition of Celluloid Sounds. Watched an interesting Lee Van Cleef number a night ago called THE SQUEEZE ('78) - in English. It's very available on DVD (being sold for $0.01 by some vendors on Amazon), and is more than worth the watch, though the transfer looks as though it were struck from a the last known print of the film - which it probably was; it's 4x3 and is rough as hell, an early 80's VHS transfer at best, and the soundtrack is a problem at times, but it'd still be a good one to review at some point - an Italian crime film from the 70's shot on location in New York. I'd say more, but the sand man is calling my name. If I don't run and hide form him now, he'll get me. Even now, I hear him! He is coming! Drums in the deep!

    Cheers, amigo.

  9. Apologies for the delay in responding to your comment Greg - I'm glad you took the plunge and purchased a copy of DARK NIGHT OF THE SCARECROW, I'm very confident you'll enjoy it. I have heard of THE SQUEEZE, and it's available for me to watch as part of my subscription to Lovefilm, so I might give it a look. But I have a huge backlog of films that I've been creating playlists for on Youtube...currently standing at 70! I have to be very selective in what I review I guess!

  10. teddy crescendo15 July 2012 at 00:14

    Shaun, why do you think people still buy DVD's at all any more now that literally EVERYTHING is freely available on YouTube ?.

  11. To be honest Teddy, I've no idea! Not only is this on there in its entirety, but it's also a perfectly serviceable print. I stopped buying DVD's about 18 months ago, when I made the switch to blu-ray. And between Youtube, Veehd, Stagevu and a few other 'under the counter' torrent sharing sites I'm more than satisfied. In the case of this film I do think the blu-ray is worth buying, it looks very nice indeed. But if all you wish to do is view a film, say for purposes of a review or what have you, Youtube is perfect.


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