Dark Night of the Scarecrow

Originally slated for a theatrical release, this week’s Throwback Thursday titled ‘Dark Night of the Scarecrow’ was purchased by television network CBS during its production and was instead released as a made-for-television horror film on their network. Never before had a horror movie with a scarecrow as the antagonist been made. Due to this, ‘Dark Night of the Scarecrow’ is credited as the first of a new horror film sub-genre, “Killer Scarecrow.”

In a small, rural town, daily activities happen as normal, until a mentally challenged man, Bubba Ritter (Larry Drake), befriends a young girl. The two of them play on the same level, as Bubba’s mentality is that of a child even though he is a 36-year-old man. The girl, Marylee Williams (portrayed by a young Tonya Crowe, who would go on to become a cast regular on Knots Landing in the 1980s), has a loving friendship and a deep bond with Bubba.

Local postman Otis P. Hazelrigg (played expertly by distinguished actor Charles Durning) proves himself to be a creepy, biased, narrow-minded town member who has it out for Bubba. Hazelrigg and his band of idiot friends, a gas station attendant and two local farmers, have been known to rough up Bubba when they think he’s done wrong. Hazelrigg has been watching Bubba and Marylee playing together in a field where Marylee gave Bubba an innocent kiss on the cheek while playing a game. Hazelrigg antagonizes one of his buddies, Harliss, pushing him into committing violence against Bubba; Hazelrig says that it’s only a matter of time before Bubba does “something” to Marylee, implying an act of a sexual nature. In reality, it’s Hazelrigg himself who seems to have unnatural feelings about the young girl. Harliss agrees to rough up Bubba, but Hazelrigg has more sinister plans in mind.

Soon after, Bubba and Marylee happen upon someone’s fenced backyard that contains a fountain and yard gnomes. Marylee tries to get Bubba to go in, but he won’t, saying he’ll get in trouble. Marylee slips between the fence and begins playing, not seeing that there’s a vicious dog in there with her until it’s too late. The dog attacks her, and Bubba rushes in to save her. Word spreads quickly that Bubba had carried Marylee’s broken and bloody body; Hazelrigg takes this opportunity to twist the story back on Bubba, insinuating that the man had hurt the girl himself. Hazelrigg forms a posse with his three friends, and along with some hunting dogs, they go to Bubba’s house in order to track him down and kill him.

Bubba’s mother has him play the “hiding game” before the men make it to their home. The group gives chase, and the dogs lead them to an old scarecrow in a field. Hazelrigg sees Bubba’s eyes in the mask, and the four men shoot him multiple times. During the silence afterward, a CB radio announces that Marylee is fine and that Bubba had actually saved her life. Hazelrigg places a pitchfork in Bubba’s dead arms to make it look as if they had had to defend themselves against him.

The men escape conviction due to the fact that there were no witnesses. The district attorney, however, believes that the men slaughtered Bubba, and he vows that if he ever finds any evidence, he will see them on Death Row. Bubba’s mother exclaims in front of the court, cryptically, that there are other justices in this world. This is when the supernatural element comes into the film, seeking revenge for Bubba’s death.

One of the group of friends, Harliss, is the first one of the men to see the very same scarecrow in his field. That night, he is lured into his barn when his wood chipper mysteriously turns on. Harliss accidentally falls into it and is killed. Later, Hazelrigg visits Bubba’s mother, believing her to be the culprit of Harliss’ death, and she only replies saying they will all meet their justice for her son’s death. Another of the men, Philby, sees the scarecrow in his field. Hazelrigg goes to scare Bubba’s mother and she has a heart attack and dies. He covers up her death by turning on the gas on her stove, which causes her house to blow up. Philby is attacked that night and killed in a silo.

Nwo, Skeeter and Hazelrigg are the only ones left. They decide to dig up Bubba’s grave to see if he’s really dead or if he’s the one committing the murders. When they see his body in the casket, Skeeter panics, and Hazelrigg kills Skeeter, covering him up in the grave. Hazelrigg finally comes face to face with the scarecrow in the end.

I saw this movie for the first time as a kid on television, and it left a lasting impression on me about scarecrows. I would always give a second look when I saw one perched in a field. The idea of a scarecrow seeking revenge is pretty awesome, and perfect for the near-Halloween release that the film had. Although it wasn’t the best film I had seen as a youth, by any means, it’s one that would’t soon be forgotten.

It’s not hard to imagine people in a small town being so unforgiving or uncaring to a person with a disability, especially given the time frame of the movie. The supernatural presence in the film is a bit of a stretch, sadly – mostly due to the fact that there’s not much (if any) explanation as to how the supernatural element becomes involved in the first place. The screenplay, written by J.D. Feigelson, was an intriguing premise, and as mentioned above, one that started a new trend in horror movies. It was nice to see these men get justice for their crime. The end is satisfying and brings closure to the story.

It feels and looks like a made-for-television film, but it also delivers more scares and just around the corner frights than your normal ’80s television viewing. The simple costume of the scarecrow works wonderfully and needs no real special effects to pull it off. There are many scenes where the scarecrow isn’t seen, and the tension builds as you wait to see if it will be revealed. The fear in the actors’ faces gives away the fact that he’s right there with them.

This was originally a hard-to-find catch when it was released on VHS, but in 2010 it was released on DVD and it was even given a 30th-anniversary Blu-Ray in 2011. Watch ‘Dark Night of the Scarecrow’ to see the humble beginnings of a new horror sub-genre. And keep your eyes on the scarecrows in the fields this Fall. You never know…