December 5, 2011

The Scarecrow Before Christmas

Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981)

OK, I admit it. This time of the year is a bit hard for me, because my predilection for dark and sinister movies doesn't exactly fit in with the joyous spirit of the holidays. It's not that I can't do light holiday fare-- I've enjoyed White Christmas (1954) and Holiday Inn (1942) multiple times. But, this being a blog dedicated to horror, sci-fi and thrillers, I'd rather not dilute my brand too much by including them here. On occasion, the uncanny and the holidays do mix -- Dickens' A Christmas Carol being the most obvious example. Of course, every film and TV version of Dickens' classic has been reviewed countless times by actual professionals, so adding my two cents would be somewhat pointless. And film industry attempts to mix Christmas and horror have tended to be bottom-of-the-barrel slasher stuff (e.g., Silent Night, Deadly Night, 1984; Santa Claws, 1996), which, fortunately for all of us, doesn't interest me in the slightest.

So, at the risk of going against the holiday grain, let's talk about scarecrows (or in this season of leftovers, let's think of it as Halloween leftovers). What is it about this leftover from our agricultural past that makes it so scary? While the scarecrow as a horror icon is not quite on par with the estimable vampire and zombie, there's no denying its staying (and scaring) power. As I browsed through the local Spirit Halloween store a couple of months ago, I was struck by all the scarecrow-themed masks, costumes and animated figures on display. Even as actual use of scarecrows out there has dwindled to next to nothing, public captivation with them lingers on. Someone (not me!) could perhaps write a treatise on residual animist beliefs that survive even in advanced technological societies, but what it all comes down to is the discomfort most of us have with things that are made to look human, but aren't. We know on a rational level that the scarecrow is only old clothes, burlap sacks and straw, but some tiny sliver of a much more primitive part of our brain wonders if there isn't something alive, possibly malevolent, hiding behind the dark cut-out holes that are supposed to be its eyes.

The 1981 CBS-TV movie Dark Night of the Scarecrow exploits this primal fear very effectively. So effectively, that it has stuck (like a pitchfork) in the brains of horror fans for decades, and has been released on video twice (most recently a very nice digitally restored version released by VCI Entertainment). The movie's supernatural horror is set in motion by a horror of a different kind-- small-town bigotry and fear that escalates into a murderous frenzy. In one of the great performances of his long career, Charles Durning plays Otis P. Hazilrigg, a priggish and officious postman who seems to think his uniform makes him the de facto leader and protector of the small rural town that he delivers mail to. In Dark Night's opening minutes, we find out that Otis is very concerned about the friendship of a developmentally disabled man, Bubba (Larry Drake), and a young girl, Marylee Williams (Tonya Crowe). While we see the complete sweetness and innocence of the friendship between the child and the man-child, Otis conjures up something perverse and disturbing from the depths of his reptilian brain. Goaded on about the questionable relationship by one of his hayseed friends, Otis spits out his hatred for Bubba like a tinpot Gestapo making plans to rid his little corner of the world of rabble and filth:
He's a blight, like stinkweed and cutworm that you spray and spray to get rid of but [they] always keep coming back. … Something's gotta be done… but it has to be permanent!
Otis soon gets his chance when a tearful Bubba shows up at the Williams house with Marylee unconscious in his arms, crying "Bubba didn't do it!" With rumors swirling that the Williams girl is dead and Bubba is responsible, the arrogant postman quickly takes the law into his own hands and forms a posse with three of his redneck friends. Bubba stumbles home with the vigilantes in close pursuit. Bubba's mother (Jocelyn Brando, Marlon's older sister) knows of Otis' hatred for her son, and thinking quickly, encourages him to "play the hiding game." Unfortunately, Bubba's hiding place fools no one. Otis slowly walks up to a scarecrow in a nearby field, and gets close enough to see Bubba's red-rimmed, terrified eyes through the cutout holes in the burlap head. Guns at the ready, the men are nervous and hesitant about what to do. Even the normally resolute Otis seems unsure of himself and his plan to find a "permanent" solution to the problem of Bubba. But then, ironically, a crow flies up and caws, causing the nervous men to start firing. Poor innocent Bubba, hoisted on the scarecrow framework like a Christ figure, is riddled with bullet holes.

Bubba's hiding place is quickly discovered
by the crazed vigilantes.
After learning from the radio dispatcher that the little Williams girl is alive -- she had been attacked by a neighbor's dog, and Bubba had rescued her -- Otis calmly takes a pitchfork from a posse member's truck and sticks it in Bubba's hand. The resulting inquest is a total whitewash, with the presiding judge and most of the town siding with cocky Otis and his murderous stooges in their protestations that they were only defending themselves. Only the incorruptible district attorney Sam Willock (Tom Taylor) and Bubba's grieving mother seem to know what really happened. But the redneck posse's cockiness soon turns into confusion and then terror, as a supernatural agency begins to dispense severe justice in the wake of the town's failure to act.

One of the brilliant aspects of Dark Night is its slow buildup from Otis' and his crew's certainty that they have gotten away with murder, to inklings that all is not right, to abject terror as an unseen vigilante is stalking each of them in turn. Correspondingly, the movie literally gets darker and darker with each scene, starting with the innocent play of Bubba and Marylee shot in bright, glorious California daylight, and ending in the dead of night in a lonely field where the last perpetrator is held to account. The supporting cast of redneck vigilantes each gets a neat acting turn as they fall prey to the unstoppable avenging force. First, they each encounter the inanimate scarecrow that seems to pop up out of nowhere, standing in silent accusation. Then, fittingly, they meet their fates via the very farm implements that are their livelihood.

Otis the evil mailman (Charles Durning) encounters
justice from beyond the grave.
But the movie really belongs to Durning's Otis. His attempts to keep it all together as it becomes apparent that justice will be done by a force far beyond his control or understanding keep the viewer wondering what he will do next, and what further depredations he's capable of. Little touches that reveal the character's mindset -- like a glimpse of Otis' modest boarding room decorated with flags, war memorabilia, and a bust of Napoleon -- are unusual for a low-budget TV movie. To the bitter end, the sweating, panicked Otis refuses to believe in the supernatural, preferring to believe that the upstanding D.A. Willock is orchestrating the whole thing. In the DVD commentary, Director Frank De Fellita and writer J.D. Feigelson noted that Durning (who filled in for Strother Martin, who passed away before filming got started) was initially put off by his character's unremittingly evil nature. But apparently he revised his assessment of the character and the film when it unexpectedly became a cult hit.

Two other aspects of Dark Night propel it above and beyond the usual TV movie fare. Child actor Tonya Crowe is very effective as Bubba's best (and seemingly only) friend. In one chilling scene at a school Halloween party, she matter-of-factly tells the desperate Otis that Bubba told her what he did. "Bubba didn't tell you anything" the Otis exclaims. "Bubba's dead!" "I know," she says flatly, but with a burning malice in her eyes (see the clip below). To complement the great acting, Glenn Paxton's original score masterfully accents the growing darkness and suspense.

I do have one reservation with the movie. I have a hard time reconciling the live Bubba's gentleness with the remorseless supernatural avenging force, in spite of the horrific evil that was done to him. (Larry Drake would later very successfully play another gentle, developmentally disabled man, Benny Stulwicz, in NBC's hit series  L.A. Law). I prefer to interpret the dark happenings as the result of the psychic outrage of those who dearly loved Bubba -- his mother, Marylee, and the D.A. -- sparking a kind of ancient spirit that acts on Bubba's behalf, leading the perpetrators to just deserts partly of their own making. So call me a sentimentalist!

VCI Entertainment's DVD or Blu-ray release of this timeless classic should be right at the top of your holiday shopping list for that horror aficionado in your life.

A desperate Otis, trying to find out more about the implacable supernatural force pursuing him, gets no help from Bubba's young friend Marylee:


  1. I do recommend Charles Durning the The Fury and Tootsie. And this film is now on the hunt down list...

    1. Durning was one of the great versatile character actors, equally at home doing drama and comedy. I completely forgot that he was in The Fury. That one apparently has been restored in high def and is ripe for revisiting.

  2. Awesome review, brian!
    It's been a while since I've seen The Dark Night of the scarecrow, but I remember it leaving an impression. I swear that the 1970s was the Golden age of made for television horror!

    1. Dark Night is among the very best from that era, as evidenced by the multiple home video and commemorative releases since it was first broadcast. I often go hunting on Youtube for uploads of lesser known '70s and '80s TV movies, especially horror and suspense.

  3. Excellent review, Brian. It's been several years since I've watched this, but it really stuck with me. As you mentioned, Durning's performance is quite skillful and effective (I wonder if he channeled his Doc Hopper character from The Muppet Movie, turned up to 11?). I agree that there's something very primal about our fear of scarecrows, that seems to harken back to our lizard brain. What a movie!

    1. It's hard to think of a TV movie that has gotten more loving attention from fans and more quality home video releases over the years than Dark Night. And so well-deserved - it's both humane and scary, an ageless icon of the fall/Halloween season.