Director: Frank De Felitta
Writer: J.D. Feigelson; story by J.D. Feigelson and Butler Handcock
Cinematographer: Vincent A. Martinelli
Producer: Bobbi Frank
by Jon Cvack
I’m not sure what’s more impressive - how underrated this movie is, or that it was a CBS made-for-tv film to begin with. The story most closely mirrors Friday the 13th, with a mother who loses her to son to murder (rather than neglect), and whose killers are freed, left to face someone or something that’s taking them out one by one. Even the burlap sack, worn as a mask by the scarecrow is eerily similar to Jason Voorhees’ get up from the first Ft13th. Yet while I’ve revisited Friday the 13th multiple times, with the most recent taking place last year near an old graveyard in a park, I still find the movie one of the weakest in the Classic Slasher Series; a distant fourth to TCM’s Leatherface, in which everything but the twist is cheesy and ridiculous, and not all that better than the first Hellraiser. My personal favorite remains Part III, whose opening scene is one of the finest in horror history, and whose characters - counter to the first and most of the second - are believable and honest, rather than serving as vapid bodies waiting to be killed.
Dark Night of the Scarecrow takes many similar elements and places them within a more far more engaging and terrifying setting. The movie opens up with local town idiot Bubba (Larry Drake), sitting in a flower field and playing with a little girl Marylee Williams (Tonya Crowe). From the first frame, the situation is uncomfortable, and given the horror film setting, we expect the worst of intentions from Bubba. And yet it’s these exact expectation that the story seeks to fool us, as one of the townsfolk who has the largest problem with their friendship is Mailman Otis Hazelrigg (Charles Durning), who’s determined to put an end to it by any means necessary. When Bubba and Marylee find an old fountain in a beautiful backyard, Marylee sneaks inside to see to discover a vicious doberman who’s about to attack. Bubba knocks the fence down, saving her life, and returning her battered and unconscious body back to home.
Otis refuses to believe the story, thinking Otis was the one who assaulted the girl. He recruits the help of his two friends, local seed salesmen and cousins Harliss and Philby Hocker (Lane Smith, Claude Earle Jones) and Gas Station attendant Skeeter Norris (Robert F. Lyons). Together the five form a lynch mob, hunting down bubba, ignoring his mother’s threats who implores them to understand the innocent friendship and how Bubba saved her life. Armed with their rifles, they chase him down to a corn field, where Bubba has dressed up as a scarecrow. Otis takes a closer look, seeing Bubba’s eyes within the burlap sack, and most directly paralleling Ft13th. With Otis’s order, they open fire and kill the man. Otis pulls out a pitchfork, puts it in Bubba’s dead hand, and the five go to trial, stating that they were acting under self defense. They’re all let free.
While this might seem like a lot of exposition, it’s exactly what makes the film so effective. Throughout the process we start to see that Otis might have resented Bubba’s intention because he himself is harboring impure thoughts toward Marylee, and perhaps what initially came across as defensive was actually envy or jealousy. In one of the film’s creepiest scenes, after we discover Otis hiding his affinity for alcohol from all others, he approaches Marylee, complimenting her costume for looking just like her mother.
This all occurs as someone begins to murder the quintet. Given the more realistic setting, I was convinced that this was all gearing up toward completely replicating Ft13th, culminating in the mother being the one behind the mask. Except when Otis finally kills the mother, the only other option is either the little girl - or what I was hoping for - Bubba’s ghost.
The end is extremely satisfying, playing with our expectations, and even better, causing us to root for whoever the killer is, whether the scarecrow or not. Charles Durning and Lance Smith put on such magnificent performances, capturing the hate and bigotry existing within the conservative South. I loved that Otis was a postman, buying him just a bit of extra time, as the position is so often associated with innocence and politeness. Counter to Ft13th, there is some great direction, using montage to suggest gore, rather than showing us the carnage. I was expecting a silly 80s slasher film, and came away thinking it’s one of the better ones I’ve ever seen.
BELOW: Strikingly similar to Voorhees; except way better
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