When you’re a horror fan, you have to approach the genre with a Ratatouille-like mindset: not every horror film is going to be great, but a great horror film could come from anywhere.
Dark Night of the Scarecrow does not seem like it could be a good horror film. For God’s sake, this thing is a TV movie pumped out in 17 days for CBS. Sure, there’s a long history of high quality made-for-TV movies, but one look at the credits for Scarecrow reveals no luminaries behind the scenes, no name brands like Serling or Spielberg or Chayefsky that might inspire hope that someone wrangled something transcendent out of the cathode tubes.
No, this is cheap and ugly and held together by scotch tape and sweat.
And it works. Somehow, it works. Somehow, Dark Night of the Scarecrow, as written by J.D. Fiegelson and directed by Frank de Felitta, is a mystery that genuinely intrigues and a horror film that genuinely unnerves, a contemporary EC Comics tale merged with the iconography of an All-American fable. It’s weird and grim and absolutely should not work and yet still manages to be a creepy and freaky delight.
Dark Night of the Scarecrow begins in the blinding day, once upon a time in the deep South, where gentle giant Bubba (Larry “Darkman” Drake) has become fast friends with young Marylee (Tonya Crowe). The friendship between the developmentally disabled Bubba and the girl draws ugly attention from many of the other townsfolk, not least of all from the extraordinarily named Otis P. Hazelrigg, played by ubiquitous character actor Charles Durning.
Now, there’s a whole buncha reasons I’m going to lay out for why I love this film, but Durning deserves his own special moment of praise. Because, see, Otis P. Hazelrigg is one of the great unsung bastards in all of horror, a bullying prick who should be so wretched as to be unwatchable. But thanks to Durning, Hazelrigg is a deliciously wicked monster, one you love to hiss and boo. A petty tyrant, Hazelrigg swaggers about like his mailman uniform grants him some kind of immunity, makes him some kind of authority, confident that his good ol’ boy charms will mask his true nature from the townspeople.
And what is that true nature? Well, we only get hints. But for as loudly as Hazelrigg protests about the unhealthy nature of the relationship between Bubba and Marylee, it’s obvious the man’s imagination is stoked by his own buried desires and appetites. It’s the sickest, grimmest material in the story and it could easily have tipped over into out-and-out sleaze and exploitation. Luckily, both script and performance are confident enough to only indicate towards these perversions, which of course only makes them more troubling for the viewer as they fill in the blanks themselves.
What Fiegelson and de Felitta make clear is that Hazelrigg is like a shark circling Bubba and Marylee, waiting for just the right moment to strike. His opening comes when Marylee is attacked by a dog. The little girl is rescued and brought, unconscious, to the hospital by Bubba, but his good deed seals his doom. Hazelrigg whips the locals into a frenzy by exacerbating a rumor that it was Bubba that attacked the girl, and they need to take the law into their own hand. A small posse of local shitkickers eagerly grab their guns to go hunting.
Sensing trouble, Bubba’s mother (Jocelyn Brando, Marlon’s big sister) has her son don a makeshift scarecrow costume and hide in the fields. It almost works, but the lynch mob’s dogs sniff him out, leading to the first of the film’s indelible images: a close-up of Drake’s wide, terrified eyes shining out from behind the scarecrow mask while he begs, “Bubba didn’t do it!”
The group execute him on the spot, but the party is cut short when, seconds after Bubba has dropped lifeless to the ground, the call comes in over the radio that Marylee has woken up and explained to everyone that Bubba actually saved her. The big guy is a hero.
Hazelrigg hastily sticks a pitchfork into Bubba’s dead hand and the group agree to a lie that he attacked them and they shot only in self-defense. It’s transparent bullshit, but Durning turns up the waterworks in court and given the pre-existing biases within the town, he and his conspirators go free.
Until, that is, the guilty parties begin finding scarecrows on their property. Scarecrows that have a habit of moving when no one is looking.
Part of the joy of Dark Night of the Scarecrow is the way the film never lets you in on precisely what game it is playing until the very last moments. The back half of the story involves a mad dash by Durning and the others to figure out who under the mask is picking them off one by one, and it’s not long before fear and guilt drive a few in the party to mania and towards a supernatural explanation for their plight. But Dark Night of the Scarecrow merrily tiptoes around the question of whether it’s going to pull the trigger on going full-blown ghost story until its final, gleefully wicked punchline.
That means that much of the film’s second half is given over to a whodunnit, occasionally interrupted by stalk-and-slash setpieces as Bubba’s killers get terrorized, then get brutalized, then get dead. As a made-for-TV movie, these sequences are largely bloodless, which ordinarily would seem like a deal-breaker. But de Felitta pulls it off by 1). executing the hell out of the “stalk” half of the equation, really digging in to the feeling of isolation and helplessness that comes with being out in the middle of nowhere, in the dark, with no one to help you, and 2). by turning into the skid of not being able to show much gore and instead using sound and implication to make the deaths as horrible as possible.
It helps that, to a person, these guys really, really deserve whatever that scarecrow does to them, giving each death a thrilling karmic kick. Slasher franchises tend to lose me when the spotlight shifts from the victims and towards the maniac cutting his way through said victims, but by having the scarecrow’s prey be so odious, de Felitta and Fiegelson give themselves license to go as nasty as they please, knowing you’re right there with them.
But really what I love about Dark Night of the Scarecrow is the way it genuinely does not feel like anything else in the genre. It feels decidedly out of touch with the FX-heavy brand of horror that came of age in the ’80s, yet it also feels equally out of step with the classical monster and mystery films. Dark Night of the Scarecrow belongs to many traditions, but also none, a strange curiosity that exists entirely in its own weird, folkloric space.
And while I would love to see the film develop a greater following (hence, you know, all of this…) there’s also something perfect about the way it flies under the radar, a title that many may be familiar with but few understand in full. Like the urban legends that no doubt helped form its inception, Dark Night of the Scarecrow teases and haunts, suggesting worlds of terror just beneath the surface of our own.
At least in this telling, the ones who get swallowed up are the ones who have it coming.