You could pretty much build an entire library of horror films based on or around scarecrows and their tendencies to provoke or be involved in inherent horror or the supernatural. There’s just something so mystifying about the scarecrow where horror creators always go back to that same device, and most times it works. Take 1981’s “Dark Night of the Scarecrow.” The horror thriller by Director Frank De Felitta and writer J.D. Feigelson, celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, was unleashed on the CBS Network and managed to build a pretty loyal cult following over the years.
The fact that it was hard to find for many years until finally being given a release on DVD has only really helped to increase the film’s inherent gravitas and mystery. “Dark Night of the Scarecrow” watches a lot like a classic urban legend or pure western folklore unfolding before our eyes. “Dark Night of the Scarecrow” is a genius tale of injustice, revenge, the supernatural, and a huge mystery that closes in a delightfully horrifying manner. Director/Writer De Felitta builds a bang up cast including character actors Lane Smith, Larry Drake, and Charles Durning as the film’s primary villain, respectively.
Set in a small Southern town at the beginning of Autumn, mailman Otis has a particular hatred for Bubba, a mentally disabled young man who spends most of his days playing with friend Marylee. After a mix up involving a neighbor’s vicious dog, Marylee is nearly killed and Bubba is immediately blamed for the incident. An angry Otis gathers his three friends and forms a lynch mob to kill Bubba, and ultimately murders him in a hail of bullets while he hides in the garb of a scarecrow in the middle of a field.
After a lot of covering up (and small town corruption), they’re never brought to justice; however when Marylee survives, she begins to insist that Bubba really isn’t dead. Soon enough the four sadistic vigilantes begin to notice weird goings on (including the inexplicable appearance of the scarecrow in their fields), and they all begin to die under mysterious circumstances one by one. With paranoia and hysteria running rampant, Otis desperately tries to find out who or what is committing these murders.
Is it the local vindictive lawyer? Is it Bubba’s angry mother? Did a passerby witness the murder and are instilling their own brand of vengeance? Has Marylee taken her grief and turned it in to cold blooded revenge? Or has Bubba come from beyond to grave to avenge his own murder? Writer J.D. Feigelson builds a film that feels almost like an EC Comic brought to live action film format combining all the classic tropes of the era. There’s the small town, the cruel injustice to the innocent, horrendous comeuppance and the big twist. Feigelson has a long history with writing great horror television, even contributing to some great episodes of the 1980’s “Twilight Zone” reboot.
Much of that sentiment is carried over to “Dark Night of the Scarecrow” as the film is very straightforward, laying out all of the necessary plot details, and solid foreshadowing. We then watch a very spooky horror story unravel, one with an admirably Halloween flavor. Tonya Crow compliments the film with her spooky but great turn as young Marylee who seems to know so much more than she lets on. She spends a lot of time lingering on to Bubba’s memory seeming to mentally unravel by the day, which adds to the suspicion (for Otis and the audience) that perhaps she’s a part of these suspicious deaths.
The real banner performance though is by Charles Durning as Otis a slimy villain who will do anything for self preservation, and slowly self-destructs the more it becomes apparent that he’s not going to get away with murdering Bubba. Considering “Dark Night…” is a primetime Made for TV Movie, much of the violence is left off screen and is often implied for the audience. That thankfully doesn’t detract from the sheer atmosphere of the film as the foursome slowly fall by their equipment which not only injects a sense of irony but allows for some really creepy moments of mounting terror. Character Philby’s frantic attempt to fix his stalled car while he hears the thumping footsteps creep up behind him is a banner moment.
There is also the climax which I remembering lingering in my memory for weeks after seeing it as a child. “Dark Night of the Scarecrow” is a great TV movie; it’s a creepy and often unnerving tale about revenge, and justice from beyond the grave.