WARNING: THERE WILL BE SPOILERS
Once again, my Netflix recommendations have paid off handsomely in my eternal quest for cheesetastic horror flicks. You’ve got a mentally challenged man, a weirdly adult child, a cameo appearance from Large Marge, the country lawyer from My Cousin Vinny and Charles Durning in a postal-blue pith helmet. Could there be anything better?
To sum up: Dark Night of the Scarecrow was a 1981 made for TV (not kidding!) movie that aired as part of CBS’s “Saturday Night Movies” programming. I’m not sure how I missed it when it first aired, but it totally escaped my radar and I didn’t know anything about it until now. I’m embarrassed such a major hole in my horror movie experience existed and am quite relieved that said hole has now been filled in. Here’s the trailer, complete with the original CBS TV intro:
I knew I was in for a treat when the opening credits were written in the same font that was used for the letters on iron-on T-shirts…it’s what I’ve come to refer to as the “Vote for Pedro” font.
Ooh, scary! (Note: please enjoy what will in all likelihood be the only Napoleon Dynamite reference I will ever make.)
To sum up: Charles Durning plays Otis Hazelrigg, local mailman, probable pedophile and full-on creepster. The movie opens with Hazelrigg watching local pretty little ten-year-old Marylee (Tonya Crowe) making garlands of flowers with her best friend, hulking man-child and legitimate moron Bubba Ritter (Larry Drake, a/k/a Dr. Giggles). Hazelrigg, spying on the two in a field through binoculars, warns that he’s worried Bubba will hurt Marylee (even though Bubba never touches her while they’re playing) and inserts a speculation-based, fact-free earworm into his best friend,
Cletus Cooter Ernest Harless (Lane Smith). Watch here for the first 3:30 or so to see for yourself.
Once rumor starts flying around that Marylee has been killed, Otis assumes it was at Bubba’s hand and decides he needs to be the hammer of righteousness. Gathering his friends and their hunting dogs in what can only be considered a joyful descent into vigilantism, Otis & Co. hunt Bubba down and, while Bubba is disguised as a scarecrow (remember, his mental capacities are far below average), kill him in cold blood. Mere moments after his murder, the vigilantes learn that Marylee is not only alive and well but that Bubba actually saved her from being mauled by a dog. Rather than man up and face the consequences, they stick a pitchfork in Bubba’s hands to make it look like he was on the attack, concoct a story, and thanks to a lack of evidence all around, are set free.
That’s when the trouble really begins, as one by one the guilty party are expediently dispatched in a variety of pseudo-farm-accident ways. After seeing a scarecrow they didn’t install, on their fields. Because it’s a Dark Night of the Scarecrow, see? As this was a made-for-TV movie, the gore is entirely off screen and left to the viewer’s imagination, though it’s an interesting exercise in seeing how expansive your imagination can become while you imagine what it would be like to fall into a wood chipper. A well-placed visual metaphor with some plopping strawberry preserves certainly helps fuel said imagination. The fact that kindly boarding house owner Mrs. Bunch (Alice Nunn, or “Large Marge”) is the one doing the plopping just adds to the cheesetastic glory.
This movie was a lot of fun. The filmmakers obviously understood and respected the history of the horror genre as they borrowed thematic devices that had been developed in previous classics to propel their story forward, because why reinvent the wheel? The opening scene with Marylee and Bubba in the field is a direct echo of one of the most controversial scenes from 1931’s Frankenstein with Boris Karloff, where the Monster (Karloff) meets up with a little girl.
Clearly, Otis expected Marylee and Bubba’s romp in the field to turn out equally as tragic, and seemed almost disappointed when it didn’t. It’s as though he thought a death needed to happen and when one doesn’t, he engineered it himself. And drove himself more than a little mad in the process. The little girl, Marylee, is one of a long line of strangely adult, creepy children a la The Bad Seed. When Otis first tries (go to about 13:00) to get Marylee to say that Bubba’s mother was the person behind the deaths of Bubba’s killers, Marylee doesn’t flinch. Not only doesn’t she flinch, or start to cry, but rather, she gets up in Otis’s face and tells him that she’s aware of his crimes, claiming she knows the truth because Bubba told her. As it is a Halloween party, she is completely tarted up in adult clothes and makeup, and looks like a pint-sized adult.
Creepy child. You just know she’s trouble.
When Marylee lured Otis into the pumpkin patch that ends up as the stage for his untimely but well-earned demise (I told you there would be spoilers), I almost felt bad for him. Though I didn’t feel bad enough not to laugh as he’s chased through a pumpkin patch by a self-driving payloader/plowing machine, in what turns out to be one of the slowest chase scenes in all of cinematic history.
Start at about the 3:30 mark to watch Otis as he drinks and drives his way down the road to Retributive Justiceville. When I said I almost felt bad for Otis? It’s only because he didn’t know how hard he was getting played. In the moral structure of the horror movie, he deserved what he got.
The movie isn’t without its flaws. The sense of time is a little off–it feels like Bubba gets killed one day, they have the trial the next, and by the end of the week everyone is knocked off, though I don’t think that’s how it would work. Hmmm. I can suspend my disbelief for Dead Bubba reanimating as a murderous scarecrow but I can’t for the wheels of justice turning quickly. Ooooh, does this dress make me look jaded? I couldn’t help think that maybe Otis wouldn’t be so frigging angry if he had more than one outfit to wear, since he was always–and I mean always–in his mailman’s uniform. I also think the movie is insanely stereotyped. I live in a somewhat rural area now, and I lived in the south; not every man is named Otis and Harless and Bubba, nor are they one hairtrigger away from a lynch mob. Maybe there’s been a profound shift in sensibilities since 1981, but still I find it a cheap shortcut, at best. With that being said, I do highly recommend this for any horror movie fan. It’s fun to see Charles Durning, affable dad from Home for the Holidays, turn in a compelling performance as a desperate creeper.
Finally, any reference to Frankenstein isn’t complete without a nod to the song of the same name by The Edgar Winter Group.
Bwa ha ha ha! Enjoy the show! And remember: guns don’t kill people. Evil children with servile undead scarecrows kill people.