FINAL GIRL explores the slasher flicks of the '70s and '80s...and all the other horror movies I feel like talking about, too. This is life on the EDGE...beware yon spoilers!

Mar 29, 2007

blood on the plow

Horror fans like myself, who might consider themselves to be of A Certain Age- the 60+ crowd, that is- most likely have fond memories of the 1981 made-for-TV movie Dark Night of the Scarecrow. That’s right, this little gem is from that magical year for horror- and also the golden age of made-for-TV movies. Not to sound all crotchety, like “things were so much better way back when”…but things were better, dammit! Why? Because there were horror movies on TV that were made for TV. There were slasher movies and ghost movies and monster movies. With the advent of cable and the VCR and the DVD player and the internet and virtual reality, made-for-TV movies are no longer an “event”- even though that’s what they’re always labeled. Should one actually turn up on a network, chances are it’s not going to be a horror movie- it’s going to be something heartwarming, most likely involving Christmas, a letter, romance, and maybe a disease. Where’s the rain-slickered slasher killers? Where’s the tiny little creatures who want to kill you? Where’s the creepy-ass vampires? I swear to you now, Final Girl readers, when I am crowned President of Television, I promise to bring back the made-for-TV horror film. And yes, I will wear a crown…and probably a robe. I will also carry a jeweled scepter, and I will be a kind but firm ruler. My subjects will bring me gifts of candies (which my food-tester will sample first, of course) and old Batman comics- not because they have to, but because they love me. Each year we shall reap healthy crops, at which time there will be a festival where I will—

Whoa.

Larry “Dr Giggles” Drake stars as Bubba, a sweet retarded man whose constant companion is the young Marylee (Tonya Crowe). It’s a completely innocent relationship- the two spend their days picking flowers and singing together- but the other men of this small farming community don’t like it one bit, in particular Otis, the town’s mailman (played with true sleazy gusto by Charles Durning).

Hell hath no fury like a mailman scorned.

Otis has a huge hate-on for Bubba, and he’s positively itching for an excuse to “permanently remove” the poor man, calling him a blight on their fine town. Unfortunately, Otis doesn’t have to wait long for his excuse to roll around: when Marylee is seemingly killed, the blame falls to Bubba.

Despite Bubba's cries of “Bubba didn’t do it!”, Otis rounds up a small lynch mob to see that “justice” is done. Bubba takes to hiding- he poses as a scarecrow in the field behind the house he shares with his mother- but Otis and his good ol’ boys find him and act as an impromptu firing squad. As Bubba hangs from the pole, bullet-riddled and lifeless, a call comes in telling the men that Marylee is fine. She was attacked by a dog and it was Bubba who saved her life. Wow, so Bubba really didn't do it. Ain’t that somethin’? They shot him up for nuthin’! Otis plants a pitchfork next to Bubba’s body and that’s that.


After the shooting there’s a hearing, but apparently the claims of self-defense by Otis and the boys is good enough for the judge and the case is thrown out of court. This makes perfect sense, as everyone knows that four angry men with shotguns stand little chance against a frightened retard with a pitchfork. Bubba’s mother is rightfully outraged at the decision, and she screams in the courtroom: “You may think you’re getting off free, but there’s other justices in the world besides the law!” No one points out to her that this is exactly the kind of thinking that led to Bubba meeting the business end of four shotguns. This little farm town ain’t no “two wrongs don’t make a right” kinda town, though- it’s an “eye for an eye” kinda town, which can mean only one thing…

IT’S REVENGENIN’ TIME!

Before long, a scarecrow shows up in the field of one of the guilty party, Harless- there’s bullet holes in the clothing, but the clothing is full of straw, not Bubba. And yes, this being a farm community, the men have names like “Harless” and “Skeeter”. Doy. At any rate, the scarecrow scares the men shitless- except Otis, naturally, who insists it’s the bitter District Attorney trying to scare the men into giving themselves up.

After darkness falls, Harless hears a who noise in his barn- someone’s walking around up in the hayloft. Before he- or we, for that matter- can find out who’s making the noise, a big ugly piece of farm equipment turns on and Harless falls in for a little justice, chop chop style.

So on and so on. The scarecrow appears as a harbinger of doom, and the men meet their fate when “accidents” occur. Otis blames everyone from the District Attorney to Bubba’s mother to Marylee to Bubba himself- but who…or WHAT…is seeking revenge on Bubba’s behalf? Is it Bubba himself, from beyond the grave? Is Bubba still alive? Is Marylee a 9-year-old capable of terrorizing men and then killing them? All is eventually revealed in an ending that kept many a child wide-eyed and awake at night when Dark Night of the Scarecrow originally aired.

As I said, this is a made-for-TV movie, so there’s not much by way of blood and guts and the grisly stuff. But who cares? Dark Night of the Scarecrow is a truly creepy thriller, and it succeeds largely due to the performances- particularly Charles Durning as Otis and Larry Drake, who’s pretty astonishing as Bubba. Drake would go on to win two Emmy awards for his portrayal of another mentally-handicapped character, “Benny” on LA Law. It should go without saying that the main reason the film succeeds is because scarecrows are…you know, pretty fucking scary.

Unfortunately, Dark Night of the Scarecrow, like so many great old films (particularly of the made-for-TV ilk), has yet to see an official DVD release. Maybe we should start an internet petition to get one out there for the masses- I’ve heard internet petitions are really effective. Unless you’ve got memories of Dark Night yourself, I’m sorry you’ll be upset that there’s a movie I’m reviewing that you most likely won’t be able to get hold of- especially after I give the movie a rating of

12 comments:

Bill Walsh said...

Oh, HELL YES. That movie scared the bejesus, bemoses, and bemohammad out of me. In fact, since I've recently become familiar with the œuvre of Bob the Builder, I have frequently advanced the hypothesis to my disbelieving goodwyf that Spud the Scarecrow is not merely the bumbling, but well-meaning scamp he appears, but is in fact, a hell-spawned retard renevant whose "mistakes" and "accidents" are actually premeditated instances of Pure Evil.

I'm not kidding. I've had this conversation. Although I was kidding.

Mostly.

:::shudder:::

(Fantastic review. Thanks. I'd totally forgotten it was Larry "Darkman's Nemesis the Office Boy" Drake as Bubba.)

:::shudder:::

Bill Walsh said...

Revenant., not renevant. See, this is why I don't have the swanky-cool horror blog.

Also, great title. That song has always creeped me out by association as well. I think that's why it's my favorite of Johnny Cougar's catalog.

Chad Saxelid said...

This is probably my favorite killer scarecrow movie (William Wesley's Scarecrows comes in a tight second) and it's great for all the reasons you give.

I remember watching its debut on TV back in October of 81 (it aired on Halloween night, of course) and being blown away by it. The ending managed to be creepy and comforting at the same time.

Also daring was how the movie pointed out that Otis hatin' Bubba was based on the fact that the creep was jealous and he wanted that little girl all to hisownself. Ew.

Stacie Ponder said...

Bill, you get 10 points for the use of "goodwyf"!

Chad, you're totally right about Otis, and when I watched the film this time, I was really taken with Otis. Not because he was GOOD or anything, but because I found him to a be a subtly (and surprisingly) layered character. When Bubba's mother astutely points out that the man obviously has a "thing" for Marylee, it's shocking and everything we've seen falls into place.

Beyond that, even, Otis was just so well-drawn and true-to-life. He's the bully who puffs himself up by hanging with men who are clearly his intellectual inferiors. In a further display of "power", he revels in his role as the town's postman- he NEVER takes the damn uniform off. And the type of men he fancies himself to emulate are revealed in a slow pan across his room, where we see pictures of Patton and a Napoleon bust. Of course, this is a pan across his sad, tiny room in a boarding house, where he sneaks booze as he maintains the image of teetotaling superiority in front of other townspeople.

Yeah, at the end of it he's still the scum-sucking villain, but he's real. And the whole Marylee angle adds a layer of slime to the whole affair without ever feeling too slimy for the audience to watch.

Bill Walsh said...

Woo! Ponder Points®! I'll be sitting by the mailbox waiting for my membership card and statement. I'm thinking I'll probably redeem them for some snark.

Seriously, though, you and Chad are onto something with the fact that the movie's enduring scariness rests precisely on its visual and narrative restraint. Otis is the perfect example: he's a murdering, lacivious, would-be pedophile... on network TV in 1981!

The movie gives you everything you need: the scarecrow imagery, the hints of unwholesomeness among the townsfolk, the farm-related slayings, but all without pushing your face in it. Your brain fills in the gaps, and it's all the more unsettling for it.

In this respect it reminds me of the (much more sophisticated) Hitchcock masterpiece Shadow of a Doubt in which, among other things, the completely unstated but undeniably freaky psychosexual dynamics between Teresa Wright's Young Charlie and Joseph Cotton's Uncle Charlie stay with one for years. Too damn creepy.

I wonder, in fact, if the decline in made-for-tv horror movies came about because the horror audience became narrowed to those for in explicitly gory teenager-aimed films, undermining producers' willingness to try for stories more spooky than bloody. I dunno.

Bill Walsh said...

Oh, man, and how do I keep forgetting all this stuff. Love the post title as well. The song has always creeped me out exactly by association with this movie, which may be why it's my favorite cut from Johnny Cougar's catalog.

Bill Walsh said...

Good lord. I repeat myself. Sorry. Running after two little kids for weeks on end (one of whom chooses not to sleep through the night...) has cost me bushels of IQ.

Amanda By Night said...

God, I love this movie. I actually hadn't had a chance to see it until a few years ago and I was BLOWN AWAY.

What's so funny to me, as everyone has pointed out about Durning's sleazy portrayal, is that he's also played amazinginly sweet characters too. Check him out in another TV Movie called Queen of the Stardust Ballroom. He's so kind in that. What an amazing actor...

As much as I love TV Movies from that era, Scarecrow does exceed beyond the usual fare of the time. It's shot so friggin' amazingly and does play with a lot of adult non-TV type themes. I can think of few better, or scarier than this movie.

I also like that weird scene between Otis and his buddy - is it at a graveyard? - when his friend is reduced to a mass of childlike tears. Wow.

Awesome review Stace. You impress me AGAIN!

Augustburns2 said...

I too saw this movie when it first aired. It really got to me and loved, LOVED the ending when the Scarecrow gives Marylee the flower. Amazing ending!

Yes, Charles Durning is really a good actor. He was so wicked and horrible in this movie - it's fun to watch him at his craft. Everybody was really good in this film.

emma said...

I saw only the beginning of this movie when it aired - my parents turned it off after the courtroom scene - but I read the synopsis in the paper afterward and learned it was a horror movie. I've long wondered how the scarecrow got its revenge and whether it was any good. The early scenes have stayed with me many years although I have never discussed it with anyone. I am startled and grateful, yet not surprised, to come across it again here.

Chuckwilson said...

I currently have this movie on vhs-I taped it off TBS a few years ago. I first remember watching it when I was in grade school and it scared the crap out of me. Great flick, which I would buy if it ever comes out on DVD.

Rot said...

GREAT post.
I found some old photos of an early design for the scarecrow. I posted about it here:

http://pumpkinrot.blogspot.com/2008/12/scarecrow-nose.html

The bar scene: "FRIED CHICKEN!!!!"
Classic.