When I reviewed Satan’s School for Girls (1973) earlier in the week, I opined that the 1970s likely represented the greatest decade for made-for-tv horror movies. I still assert that’s a fair statement, but it’s only right to note that the 1980s produced quite a few genre high-points as well.
Exhibit A may well be Joe Wizan and Frank De Felitta’s exemplary Dark Night of the Scarecrow, a horror gem which originally aired on October 24, 1981 (just in time for Halloween…), on the CBS Saturday Night Movies.
This TV-movie is not only cleverly-written and emotionally affecting, but visually accomplished as well, a legitimately cinematic trick-or-treat effort that would play well even on the big screen.
Otis is certain — absolutely certain — that harmless Bubba is going to hurt, rape or kill the child. Obsessed with Bubba, Otis mulls over doing something “permanent” to stop him.
When Marylee is injured by a fierce guard dog in a neighbor’s yard, Bubba carries the bloodied girl home to her worried parents, crying that “Bubba didn’t do it.” Despite his innocence, word quickly gets out that Bubba is responsible for Marylee’s injuries, so Otis and three of buddies grab their rifles, hunting dogs, and a pick-up truck…and track the boy down like an animal.
They eventually find the frightened Bubba, playing the “hiding game” in a local field; dressed as a scarecrow. Otis and the others murder him, shooting Bubba at point-blank range twenty-one times.
Adding insult to injury, the judge in Bogan County — part of the Good Old Boy network — lets Otis and his buddies off scot free after Otis commits perjury under oath and claims that the murder was actually self-defense; that the handicapped Bubba was actually brandishing a weapon; a pitchfork that Otis himself planted on the corpse.
Broken up and angry about the death of her son and this miscarriage of justice, Bubba’s elderly mother warns Otis and his goons — all so-called “men of the community” — that “there’s other justice in this world…beside the law.”
The final stretch of Dark Night of the Scarecrow involves this “what you sow so shall you reap” dynamic.
The scarecrow soon re-appears (in creepy, extreme long-shots) on the property of the murderers, an unmoving, lifeless symbol of a crime unpunished.
Then, before long, each guilty man dies in what the legal authorities ultimately deem an “accident.” Harless Hocker (Lane Smith) ends up pulped in his wood chipper and Philby (Claude Earl Jones) is buried alive at the bottom of his grain solo.
Finally, Otis himself comes face-to-face with the scarecrow by darkest night in a lonely pumpkin patch…
What remains most remarkable and even poetic about Dark Night of the Scarecrow is the way in which director, Frank De Felitta, maintains the mystery and terror of the scarecrow/supernatural avenger.
In each murder set-piece, for instance, the Scarecrow is never seen. We only hear footsteps on the soundtrack, or get a brief P.O.V. stalk-shot.
In one terrifying instance, we even see a hulking shadow inside Philby’s house…just as the lights go off. But otherwise, we never actually see the Scarecrow committing his just and bloody revenge against these redneck vigilantes. Instead, we’re left to wonder — along with the intended victims — if something supernatural is going on, and what it could possibly be. Has Bubba returned from the dead?
Such questions are answered beautifully in the film’s final two minutes, and specifically in a closing freeze frame that is both sad and as I wrote above, even poetic. By this point in the drama, the menacing vigilantes are dead, and perpetually endangered Marylee is finally safe. The director makes the decision to reveal his hand here; and the result is a memorable and shocking composition: one that acknowledges “otherworldly” justice but without the specter of fear or terror being involved. It’s a surprising, unconventional and almost lyrical moment in presentation; a perfect punctuation to a movie that has been — in large part — about human ugliness.
Non-traditionally, Dark Night of the Scarecrow ends with beauty and a hand offered in love…the visual notion that friendship lasts, even beyond death.
But save for those valedictory moments, De Felitta commendably holds his fire throughout Dark Night of the Scarecrow. The scarecrow is utilized to maximum effect throughout the film, but as just that: a scarecrow. One who appears in the wide open fields, seemingly by magic, and stands there in long shot…unmoving. The scarecrow is a juggernaut waiting to come to life, waiting and waiting…
The TV movie actually goes a bit deeper than that. An almost throwaway line in the film marks Otis as a child molester, and there are some disturbing scenes in the film of Otis threatening the young Marylee.
But the important thing here is that Otis is guilty, we must assume, of the very crime that he pins on Bubba. He is also “physically grown,” after all, and apparently has worked out his unwholesome sexual urges before.
So Dark Night of the Scarecrow gets at a critical point about these vigilantes. Such folk often project their own behavior upon others; blaming others for crimes they themselves have committed. It’s all surprisingly nuanced, especially for a TV movie, and Charles Durning proves mesmerizing here as Otis Hazelrigg. Never, ever does Durning reduce the character to cartoon dimensions. Instead, Durning’s Otis is a believable — and terrifying — face of hatred.
As I noted above, EC Comics also frequently traversed the realm of comeuppance “from beyond the grave.” I suspect this sort of story is so popular and long-lived because real life has never been, is not now, and likely never will be totally fair or just. It’s difficult to reconcile a belief in justice with the town’s treatment of Bubba in Dark Night of the Scarecrow, for instance. Hence the entrance of the “supernatural mechanism” in stories such as this one to fill that void.
Dark Night of the Scarecrow expresses well the belief that justice is a universal constant, even if the scales of justice must be balanced outside the flawed auspices of man’s law.
But the great thing about this memorable TV-movie is that it goes one step further beyond meting out justice “eye for an eye“-style, to poetically suggest the beauty — and endurance — of good human qualities such as love and friendship.