The Camp and Cult Blogathon: Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981)
This is the third of
several of Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contributions toThe Camp & Cult Blogathon, an event being hosted at my BBFF Stacia’s
blogShe Blogged by Nightfrom
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
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,
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
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 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.
residents only…but if you want a chance to win it, enter today.
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!
Great choice! I featured this film last year as part of another blogathon (countdowntohalloween.com) and noted how it was a favorite of my parents around this time of year.
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...
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