Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981)
Television, especially prior to the 1990s, was not a great place for horror films. Horror series, yes, because one could bring on vampires, ghosts, ghouls and just about anything else and put a spin on it in a weekly show, or with short anthology subjects like The Twilight Zone or Night Gallery. True horror movies, at least by the time there was a real attempt at making them for the small screen, had some major problems simply from content. It also didn't help that most of the famous horror actors would not even consider doing television at the time, since it was considered where an actor either came from or got stuck doing.
That is why a certain handful made-for-television horror films, at least in the United States, stand out. Trilogy of Terror, Killdozer, Satan's School for Girls and, especially, 'Salem's Lot may not have had blood, guts and boobs, but they had fun stories or a good script to where they could overcome Standards and Practices.
One of the TV movies I remembered somewhat well from when I was a kid was Dark Night of the Scarecrow. It's a title that I have been wanting to see again for years, having fond memories of seeing it as a kid, The part I remembered most, which I realized when rewatching, was what happens right before the very end. Still, my young self wasn't wrong on this. Dark Night of the Scarecrow is better than a lot of its cinematic contemporaries.
Bubba (Larry Drake) is a mentally deficient man who likes nothing better than playing with his best friend Marylee Williams (Tonya Crowe), who unfortunately happens to be a little girl. They get along well because, though big, he's friendly and protective. This comes to the fore when she's attacked by a dog and he brings her back to her mom's. Unfortunately, word gets around town that Marylee died and that Bubba killed he. A number of men who have wanted Bubba gone - led by local postmaster Otis (Charles Durning) - use it as an excuse to corner him and dole out traditional Southern justice. However, it turns out Marylee is alive, and that is solely because of Bubba.
Otis and his friends Harless (Lane Smith), Philby (Claude Earle Jones) and Skeeter (Robert F. Lyons) easily win their court case, as the judge considers them pillars of the community and doesn't question their version of events, claiming they were scared for their lives. Thinking they are scott free they go about their lives until Harless sees a scarecrow - the same one that Bubba hid in when they found him and killed him - in his yard. Soon he suffers a fatal accident. Otis starts believing numerous people, from Bubba's mom (Jocelyn Brando) to the prosecuting attorney are behind it. In the end, it's the last person he would expect.
Larry Drake obviously made this long before playing a similar role as Benny Stulwicz on the television series L.A. Law. He does a good job, of course, and other than Charles Durning is the most recognizable actor here. Durning is also great, with Otis just starting out as an unlikeable bully and escalating to a full-out villain. What truly makes Dark Night of the Scarecrow stand out is its atmosphere, feeling almost like a David Lynch film when it comes to the kill scenes. It is also not common to have the villain with no redeemable qualities as the main character of the movie.
Writer J. D. Feigelson and director Frank De Felitta originally intended this for cinematic release, and it does show. What I always remembered, even at 9 years old, was that this had some relatively bloody scenes in it. I have been a horror fan since I can remember, and I knew that a lot of stuff could not be shown on television, so it did surprise me at how far they pushed it back then. Some independent stations were starting to get away with showing more graphic material at the time, but this was on one of the Big Three leading up to Halloween, and I'm sure it had a parental discretion warning before it played. It also must have been a weekend, since that's about the only time I would have been allowed to stay up and watch this.
I am glad I found it again because it still remains one of those obscure films that I am fond of, and seeing it as an adult hasn't ruined a thing. In fact, it's even better, especially the last few scenes of the movie. This may be largely atmospheric with kills that rely on the viewer's imagination rather than splattering everything around it, but I really don't see how any of that would have improved the film at all. It's great as it is.
Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981)
Time: 96 minutes
Starring: Charles Durning, Larry Drake, Tonya Crowe
Director: Frank De Felitta
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