Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Camp and Cult Blogathon: Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981)

This is the third of several of Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contributions to The Camp & Cult Blogathon, an event being hosted at my BBFF Stacia’s blog She Blogged by Night from September 17-28.  For a list of participants and the camp classics/cult films discussed, you’ll find the “usual suspects” here.  (Note: This review will give away the ending of the film, and since you’re going to get a chance to win your own DVD copy if you haven’t seen it you might want to skip to the last paragraph for details on how to enter)

In an unidentified town in the deep South, developmentally disabled Charles Elliott “Bubba” Ritter (Larry Drake) has the mind of a child…and because of this, plays with children considerably his junior (Bubba himself is thirty-six), notably young Marylee Williams (Tonya Crowe).  Bubba is a harmless man-child, but the community doesn’t quite see it that way and his insistence on playing games with the girl has made him a pariah in the eyes of the townsfolk—with mailman Otis P. Hazelrigg (Charles Durning) causing Bubba the most grief.

When Marylee sneaks into a neighbor’s yard to get a look at a fountain and some yard gnomes, she is menaced by a vicious dog and attacked.  Bubba saves her from being killed, and takes her bleeding body to the home of her parents, protesting all the while “Bubba didn’t do it!”  The unconscious girl is taken to the hospital, but farmer Harless Hocker (Lane Smith) gets word to Otis of Bubba’s deed, and the two of them—along with two other men, Harless’ brother Philby (Claude Earl Jones) and gas pump jockey Skeeter Norris (Robert F. Lyons)—form a vigilante mob determined to mete out their own brand of justice.  Bubba barely manages to make it home to his own house, where he tries to explain to his mother (Jocelyn Brando) what happened—who in turn, tells her son to go and hide while she handles the situation.  She is confronted by Otis and his mob, and bloodhounds belonging to Skeeter soon root out Bubba’s hiding place—he’s disguised as a scarecrow in a nearby field.

The four men fire off a number of shots at the scarecrow—it is later revealed at a trial that there were 21 bullet wounds in Bubba’s body.  The men have been put on trial because as it turns out—the Williams girl was not harmed, and Bubba was telling the truth about the dog attack.  Their defense is that they acted in self-defense, and District Attorney Sam Willock (Tom Taylor) is unable to get a conviction because there were no witnesses.  Otis and his friends may have cheated the hangman, but Mrs. Ritter, just before she is dragged out of the courtroom, swears that her son’s death will be avenged because “there’s other justice in this world, besides the law!”  After the trial, D.A. Willock promises the four men that if he’s ever able to uncover a “shred” of evidence proving their guilt he’ll see they’ll end up on Death Row.

A day after the end of the trial, Harless’ wife spots a scarecrow (“If you're not plantin'...why would you put up a scarecrow?”) in one of his fields, and Harless is convinced that it’s Philby and Skeeter’s idea of a joke.  Both men swear they have no knowledge of who put it there, and a visit to Otis’ boarding house room reveals that he didn’t place it there, either.  Otis admonishes the three men for showing up, since he’s convinced it was probably Willock—who’s just looking for enough evidence to hang all of them.  Harless, returning home to his farm, notices that the scarecrow is now gone…and that there’s a light in his barn, accompanied by the sound of his wood chipper.  He investigates in the barn and climbs into the hayloft, convinced that Willock is responsible.  But he’s startled by a mysterious figure, and losing his balance falls out of the hayloft.  He manages to cling to a light fixture for a moment before its…death by Fargo.

Harless' death features a nice little touch of black humor.  He hangs from the above light fixture for a few moments before plunging to his death in the woodchipper...

...which, thankfully, is never shown...but what results is cleverly suggested by a dollop of strawberry preserves being ladled on the breakfast plate of Otis Hazelrigg.

Otis, Philby and Skeeter are all spooked by the incident—the death is completely unexplained.  Otis convinces himself that Mrs. Ritter is responsible, and goes out to her house to confront her…she denies any wrongdoing, but warns him that he will get what’s coming to him.  Not long afterward, Philby receives a scarecrow in one of his fields in the same manner as the late Harless…which prompts Otis to repay Mrs. Ritter a visit.  He threatens her and demands an explanation…but none will be forthcoming, as his rough attempts to muffle her screams has brought upon a heart attack.  On his way out the back door, a whistling teakettle gives him an idea—he turns up the gas on her stove, and the resulting explosion removes any evidence of his visit or what he’s done.

The body count starts to escalate when Philby, frightened by a figure he’s convinced is the scarecrow, locks himself in a grain silo to escape his pursuer…and the unknown assailant turns on the conveyer belt, suffocating Philby in a pile of grain.  Hearing of Philby’s death, Skeeter wants to go to the police and confess his part in Bubba’s murder…but Otis is still convinced it’s all a hoax, and convinces Skeeter to go out with him to Bubba’s grave, whereupon they dig it up and find Bubba’s decomposing corpse inside.  Skeeter, frightened beyond all rational thought, insists he must go to the police…and as he re-buries the coffin Otis introduces his cranium to a shovel, insuring his silence.

On his drive home, Otis spots Marylee by the side of the road…and since he’s convinced himself that she is responsible for the murders, he pursues her with his mail truck until he crashes into a pumpkin patch.  There he is chased by a payloading plowing machine, and he tries to escape its jaws of death as its shovel snaps pumpkins, turning them to pulp.  He runs right into the scarecrow…and is impaled by the pitchfork it is carrying in its hand—the same one that Otis placed in Bubba-as-scarecrow’s hand to bolster his self-defense story.  The scarecrow then comes across Marylee from where she was hiding in the patch…and hands the girl a flower just as Bubba used to do.  Marylee tells “Bubba” that tomorrow, she will teach him a new activity entitled “the chasing game”…

In 1989, I was living the good life working as a customer service representative (they were called CSR’s, though a more accurate term would be “wage slave”) at a Ballbuster Blockbuster Video store in Savannah, GA.  We used to get a lot of requests for movies we didn’t carry, and the CSR’s were instructed to have customers fill out paperwork on such requests—the idea being that if they received enough requests for the company to invest in purchasing a movie on VHS, we would do posthaste.

We got a lot of requests for Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981).  I was completely unfamiliar with the film—the reason for this was that it was a TV-movie that had aired on CBS back in October of 1981, and my area of expertise was older movies (I would even ask people if perhaps they meant The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh, the 1963 Disney film—also known as Dr. Syn—starring Patrick McGoohan).  Because I had so many people ask about this cult horror film, I ended up doing a little research on it and found that while Dark Night had been released on Key Video in the mid-1980s it was since discontinued, or OOP.  That sort of ended the chapter on that movie, particularly since my time at the store was relatively brief (I quit at the end of the year).

But every now and then, I would come across an article that talked about the film, and how it was a particular favorite with horror film buffs—among its admirers were Vincent Price and Ray Bradbury.  VCI Entertainment released the movie on DVD in September 2010, and I managed to get hold of a freebie earlier this year.  The company also released a 30th anniversary edition of the film on DVD and Blu-Ray in October of last year, and I ended up receiving a promo copy of that presentation as well.  (More on this in a sec.)

Until the blogathon, I had never seen Dark Night and while glancing at the original edition over on one of my shelves one night I thought I’d stick it in the player and see if it measures up to its reputation.  While I have to come clean and confess that it didn’t quite match the hype I’d read about all these years, I was definitely entertained by the movie.  It’s an effective little spine-tingler that’s relatively light on the gore (well, it was originally made for TV—you sort of have to expect that) and the performances in the film are right on the money, with Charles Durning making a right despicable villain.  (According to what I have read, they originally wanted Strother Martin for Durning’s role but Strother passed away before the film went into production.  Not to take anything away from Durning, he’s a true fave—but Strother would have hit this one out of the park.)

Larry Drake, an actor who won two Emmys playing a mentally challenged individual on L.A. Law, makes the most of his brief time as the doomed Bubba (the director of the film, J.D. Fiegelson, notes in the audio commentary that many people have asked him if Drake was like that in real life—they apparently didn’t see Darkman or Dr. Giggles).  The actress playing Mrs. Ritter is indeed Marlon’s older sister Jocelyn…and I’m not trying to be nasty or anything but you can definitely see the family resemblance.  (Jocelyn didn’t do a lot of movies, but she could rise to the occasion in vehicles like The Big Heat and Nightfall—and she’s always turning up in reruns of TV shows like Wagon Train and Alfred Hitchcock Presents.)  I remember the actress that plays Marylee in this movie, Tonya Crowe, as Donna Mills’ junkie daughter on the later seasons of Knots Landing…and of course, Lane Smith (Richard Nixon in the TV-movie The Final Days, Perry White on Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman) is always welcome at Castle Yesteryear (he’s the only reason why I agreed to watch the entirety of Pauly Shore’s Son in Law).

As I mentioned, the good people at VCI were nice enough to send me the regular and Deluxe Collector’s editions of this cult classic…and since my curiosity was sated watching the regular disc; I’m going to give you the opportunity to win the other one.  (Tell the truth…you were not expecting fabulous prizes in this blogathon, were you?)  All you need to do is drop me an e-mail with “Scarecrow Giveaway” in the subject header at igsjrotr(at)gmail(dot)com before 11:59pm EDT next Sunday (September 30), and Monday morning, I’ll pull one winner out of the prize drum and get the DVD out to them as soon as I can.  The Deluxe edition not only contains the original 1981 TV film, but also has some nifty bonuses like a documentary entitled Bubba Didn’t Do It: 30 Years of the Scarecrow.  This doc was included in the DVD/Blu-Ray edition released in 2011, but this is an extended version that also features a video interview with Glenn Paxton, the composer of Dark Night’s eerie score.  There’s also a photo gallery and a segment featuring a Q&A with some of the cast members, recorded at the Frightiest Film Festival in Louisville, KY in 2011.  I do, however, need to issue a disclaimer—this giveaway is something I’m doing on my own initiative…it’s not endorsed by Stacia or any member of the SBBN staff.  (So all grievances—if any—should be directed to me.)  I’m going to have to limit this one to U.S. and Canada residents only…but if you want a chance to win it, enter today.


Stacia said...

death by Fargo.

Ha! I say that, too, even though I saw the Court TV true crime show about the man who disposed of his wife's corpse with a woodchipper years before I ever saw Fargo. So it's really more like "death by woodchipper just like that one guy did, which was seriously gross."

I have seen this movie. It must have been in the 1990s, because my memory of it is pretty clear, and I don't really remember 1981. For a made for TV movie, it's pretty good, and if anyone hasn't seen it it's really worth the watch. You guys should definite sign up for the fabulous prizes!

Phillyradiogeek said...

Great choice! I featured this film last year as part of another blogathon ( and noted how it was a favorite of my parents around this time of year.

Brian Schuck said...

Interestingly, I too fondly recall Dark Night, and ordered it immediately when I found out that VCI had released it on DVD.

Late last year I posted my own take on the film:

So, it seems we've got a mini Dark Night of the Scarecrow blogathon going here... testimony to its impact and staying power...