Saturday, October 1, 2011

Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981): or, That's the Last Straw

October Horror Movie Challenge, Day 1!

A thirty-six year old, mentally challenged behemoth of a man named Bubba (Larry Drake, typecast again) draws the ire of his small, rural town's postmaster Otis P. Hazelrigg (the legendary Charles Durning) for being a bit too friendly with sweet little Marylee (Tonya Crowe). When the girl is attacked by a vicious dog and Bubba comes to her rescue, the sight of the gigantic toddler with the bloodied body of the innocent in his arms drives the letter carrier into a frenzy--he quickly recruits alcoholic farmer Harless Hooker (Lane Smith), grease-monkey and Cooter Davenport impersonator Skeeter Norris (Robert F. Lyons), and morbidly obese hypertension-sufferer Philby (Claude "No Relation to James" Earl Jones) to form the world's sweatiest posse and wreak retarded vengeance before the cops can come in and muck things up. Bubba displays a little creativity by concealing himself from the lynch mob in a well-crafted scarecrow costume, but the men aren't fooled and execute the poor slob just before learning that the girl is okay and the dog has been rightly convicted. Incredibly the men get off scot-free on the charge of galoot-icide, but soon an ominous wind blows in from the cornfield at night, bringing with in supernatural vengeance and barley-scented DEATH.

Rightly hailed as one of the best made-for-TV horror movies of the Big Network Era, Dark Night of the Scarecrow is a beautifully shot, expertly paced thriller many genuinely creepy scenes and even some surprisingly effective emotional moments. Director Frank De Felitta does a great job with J.D. Feigelson's story, displaying a deft hand for suspense and never letting the proceedings drag. He's aided by an absolutely stellar cast--character actors Jones and Lyons are fantastic as the basically decent but tragically misguided stooges of Hazelrigg, and Lane Smith hits all the right notes as the slimiest of crew. (Lyons in particular impresses by seeming to channel character-acting god Elisha Cook Jr. to great effect, especially in one of the great "losing his shit" scenes in TV movie history.) Most importantly, we get Charles Durning at his Durning-est, playing the postmaster as an angry little man with delusions of grandeur (note the prominent Patton photos in his sad boardinghouse bedroom), taking out his frustrations on hapless ogre Drake. There's really not a bad performance in the movie--A-level stuff, all the way across the board.

There's more than a touch of MADNESS to savor here too, as we get strict observance of the Chekhov rule ("If you show a wood-chipper in act one..."), amber waves of PAIN, impromptu exhumation, a gas stove explosion powerful enough to split the atom, and even an obvious but wonderfully done homage to the "flowers" scene from James Whale's Frankenstein (1931). And the post-comeuppance coda has a nice little ghostly chill in it as well, wrapping everything up with a satisfying shiver.

A great way to start my October Horror Movie challenge, Dark Night of the Scarecrow gets a solid 2.5 thumbs up. Made-for-TV fans and horror lovers in general should seek it out for their Halloween viewing posthaste!

"If I only had a brain. Yours, I mean. On the end of a pitchfork."


Ty said...

Great review! This was a solid horror flick with Charles Durning at his crazy best.

venoms5 said...

Love this movie. Saw it when it premiered on TV back in the day. I was willing to cut trick or treating short just to see it again the following year, too. Great stuff and review!

The Vicar of VHS said...

@Ty--Thanks! Yes, Charles Durning is like a movie villain version of MSG. He just makes everything taste better!

@venom5--I actually saw this when it first aired too, at the age of 10, with my 5-year-old brother! He was horrified by it, and traumatized for years. Of course he's also the one who gave me the DVD for Xmas last year, so I guess he learned to cope. ;)

venoms5 said...

Awesome! I was seven! My brother wasn't born yet, and my mom wasn't about to watch a movie about a ghostly killer scarecrow.

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