The “fun” of watching older movies is waiting for the inevitability of what we would consider a car-crash-approach to dealing with sensitive issues. For Dark Night Of The Scarecrow it’s intellectual development disability, a subject that has been variously considered a magical power, something that removes all quality of life, and sign of outright evil at various points in cinema. That a 1981 made-for-tv movie can handle this topic with accuracy and dignity is impressive, and that it’s within the confines of a horror flick, is an outright miracle. It’s also worth noting that whilst this Frank De Felitta outing isn’t exactly the intellectual gore-fest slasher it tries to be, it’s actually quite a good film in its own right.
The movie starts in a field, somewhere in a generically rural part of the Southern USA. The adult Bubba (Larry Drake) is playing with the child Marylee (Tonya Crowe), and it soon becomes apparent that Bubba has a developmental disorder. This could be the start of a Little House on the Prairie episode, if it wasn’t for the Wendy Carlos meets Goblin synths playing ominously in the background. Their day progresses, carefree and innocent, until Marylee nips into someone’s back garden to play make believe with the large collection of gnomes there (when you live in Hicksville Southern USA you learn to make your own entertainment). She then gets attacked by an incredibly badly dubbed black Labrador, so Bubba takes her to the doctors to save her life, but then legs it because he knows he’s going to get blamed for her injuries. Queue the lynch mob, led by Charles Durning in his most unflinchingly punch-able role as the bigoted, peverted son-of-a-bitch postman Otis. He and his jerk-off mates then track Bubba down to his hiding place, immobile inside a scarecrow in a field. They then have a laugh murdering him, because nothing says “danger to society” than a defenceless man who spends his day being wilfully pleasant to people. For reasons of absolute bullshit, they get away with outright murder in the ensuing trial, and make ready to live their lives as legends in their own mind.
However, due to a combination of more ominous synths and really ominous winds. This all gets curtailed. Slowly but surely, they get killed in the kind of imaginative, poetic, and vengeful supernatural deaths you can really cheer along to. They experience true terror, whilst we sit through some excellent catharsis; bad guys being taken apart for clearly defined crimes and needless arseholery. Admittedly, few of the deaths are that much of a surprise, having been telegraphed sufficiently in advance to reduce surprise and suspense to a minimum. They also aren’t that visually spectacular, be it due to budgetary limitations or the constraints of broadcasting, but they do deliver maximum spookiness. There is also, far too briefly, a “who’s-doing-it” side plot that tries to ask if it’s supernatural or regular revenge, but that soon goes away to let focus on Otis’s growing realisation that he and his chums are utterly stuffed.
One thing that the movie doesn’t skimp on is the acting, as whilst none of the roles are especially complex, they are almost all done amazingly well. Charles Durning does an outstanding turn at being loathsome, letting small details and little hypocrisies make you dispise him more and more throughout the film. Tonya Crowe is unreasonably talented in her portrayal of Marylee, maintaining a solid child-like nature whilst dealing with the death of her friend and being amazingly spooky in an effortless manner. Jocelyn Brando is also a standout as Bubba’s bereaved mother, balancing anger with practicality and a genuine warm humanity. Her performance is almost a mirrored image of Betsy Palmer’s rendition of Pamela Voorhees, and that can only ever be a good thing.
With all this goodness going on, there just has to be a reason you haven’t heard of this film before now (or why you have it in your “list of movies to mention so I look right sexy to the casual watcher”). In this case it’s the same thing that probably meant the director had to put so much effort into the actors performances; it’s clearly got sod-all money behind it. Costumes, props, and sets are all of that classical era known as “sometime in late 20th century, probably”, and the special effects just aren’t. In some ways this works, because you’ll do everything you can not to have to show the monster, when it’s someone with a bag on their head. Spookiness is delivered with ambiance, tense editing, and for some reason a wind machine, all managing to come off very well. Marylee is especially evocative when she gets to do her horror moments, being the first child wearing fluffy pink slippers to have scared the crap out of me. However, it also means that things don’t get really going until the final fifth of the film and, even then, it gets perilously close to 50s B-Movie cheesy nonsense.
Somehow, probably because of all the good-faith it’s banked up with you, it all lands really well and has a satisfying conclusion (both regarding the plot and the bigoted arseholes dying horrible deaths). It might leave you asking how it started the kickstarted the scarecrow horror craze of the 80s, but you’ll have enjoyed it nevertheless. It’s a simple film that is handled with great love and care, and delivers with the small little details that make it feel both real and intimate. It’s indisputably a treasure, and one that will leave you with a warm glow in your heart afterwards. Which is a bit sick, when you think about it.