Wednesday, September 19, 2012

DVD Review: DARK NIGHT OF THE SCARECROW (1981) Deluxe Collector's Edition DVD

- Deluxe Collector's Edition DVD -  

Label: VCI Entertainment 

Region: ALL NTSC
Rating: Unrated
Duration: 96 Min.
Video: Fullscreen (1.33:1) 
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono, 5.1 Surround with English/Spanish Subtitles Director: Frank De Felitta
Cast: Charles Durning, Robert F. Lyons, Lane Smith, Tonya Crowe, Larry Drake

Synopsis:  When young Marylee Williams (Tonya Crowe) is found viciously mauled, all hell breaks loose in her small rural town. Officious postmaster Otis P. Hazelrigg (Charles Durning) leads a gang of bigots in pursuit of the suspect: her mentally challenged friend Bubba Ritter (Larry Drake). Finding him hiding inside a scarecrow, they exact brutal mob "justice"...only to discover a tragic mistake! Now a strange apparition stalks the land seeking each of them out, as the legend of the Scarecrow begins. 

The Film: Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1980) is a made-for-television horror film that aired on the CBS network the week before Halloween in 1981 that chilled my eight-year old self down to my ratty Chuck Taylors. What great timing, truly a classic Halloween film and the film affected me deeply because much like the location in the film I grew up a rural area blanketed with fields of rustling corn and agriculture. Afterwards I had quite a few nightmares about scarecrows and cornfields, and at this point I hadn't even seen The Children of the Corn (1984), yet - that one cemented my fear of all things corn - at least until I realized what a cheese-fest CotC was. 

The film is directed by Frank De Felitta, the author and screenwriter of ghost-chiller Audrey Rose (1977) and writer of The Entity (1982). The film opens with the simple-minded Bubba (Larry Drake, Dr. Giggles) playing with Mary-Lee (Tonya Crowe, TV's Knots Landing), an adolescent girl and his only friend. As they play they are watched through binoculars by Otis (Charles Durning, O Brother, Where Art Thou?), the meanest mailman since Crum Petree in Funny Farm, he disapproves of the relationship despite it's innocence nature, the thought of a 36 year old retard playing with the sweet young lass really curdles his cream something fierce. It must be said that Durning is amazing in this film, he's just so goddamn mean. Soon thereafter young Mary-Lee is attacked by a vicious dog after sneaking into a neighbors backyard. Otis rescues her from the jaws of the vicious canine and takes Mary-Lee's seemingly lifeless body to her mother where he tries to explain the situation but the distraught mother panics and it's assumed that Otis has harmed the girl in some Of Mice and Men sorta way. 

Well, that bastard Otis just jumps at the chance to go after the simple-minded Otis forming a lynch mob, armed with guns, ignorance and bloodhounds they track the scared-shitless Bubba to his mother’s home. Mrs. Ritter (Jocelyn Brando, The Big Heat) sends the angry mob away but the hounds have already picked-up his scent, leading them to a scarecrow hung from a post in a field behind the Ritter home. This is the pivotal moment in the film and it is extremely well done. The inquisitive Otis walks-up to the scarecrow to investigate, it’s a chilling sight. Bubba’s eyes stare manically out of the eerie burlap mask, his eyes tearing up and trembling with fear. The men open fire executing him in a hail of gunfire. Let me say that for a '81 made-for-TV film it's a quite bloody sight. Right on cue the truck radio gurgles to life informing the men that the search for Bubba has been called off, the girl is all right, and Bubba may have saved her life not harmed her, well that's just a little late, no? Acting quickly Otis takes a pitchfork from the truckbed and places it in Bubba’s hands, thereby claiming self defense. There’s a short trial afterwards and the men are cleared of murder charges in a true travesty of rural justice. Soon thereafter the men are dispatched one by one in a series of chilling revenge killings, each foreshadowed by the appearance of a scarecrow in a field outside the men's homes.

I won't spoil the film for those who haven't been initiated so I won’t go into much detail about the murders or finale, but they are awesome. This is a TV film, as such it is absent of gore which is by design, but the way that character Harliss (the always great Layne Smith of TV's V) is killed horrified me as a kid, it's chilling stuff and kept me outta the neighbors barn for years. This is a classic tale of revenge with some supernatural elements and it's also the first scarecrow film that I know of. The films also has some great supporting characters, particularly Charles Durning's Otis who's one mean motherfucker. Larry Drake of course is amazing, his role is limited but what a performance and it lead to him taking his simple-minded act to the next level with his role TVs's LA Law. I love the entire film, but the last 10 minutes are above and beyond amazing, the final stalking though a pumpkin patch is brilliantly shot and creepy as Hell, the scars enhanced by Glenn Paxton's frightfully good score.

The film is firing on all cylinders - it's not a blood bath by any means but there's so much great atmosphere and chilling moments - this is just a stunner of a fright film that earns it's scares with a great script, solid performances and a fantastically eerie finale that culminates with a cornfield encounter that chilled me when I was eight and still works it's Halloween magic on me still.

DVD: It was thanks to VCI Entertainment that this classic TV fright film ever made it to DVD/Blu-ray in the first place and to see it loving restored to it's original glory is quite wondeful. The film is presented in its original fullscreen (1.33:1) broadcast aspect ratio with a newly created 5.1 surround sound mix plus the original mono track, from what I can tell this is the same stellar transfer as the previous BD/DVD incarnation - the real bonus here is the value-add bonus content which was previously exclusive to the Blu-ray edition.The restoration that VCI Entertainment has bestowed upon Dark Night of the Scarecrow is nothing short of stunning particularly when compared to the shitty VHS-rip I watched in on for years. Shot on 35mm film the image is surprisingly crisp with very nice fine detail and surprisingly vibrant colors, the print used is flawless. The Dolby Digital mono and 5.1 surround sound are quite nice though it lacks the depth one might hope for when compared to the stunning visual elements, but the 5.1 does offer some nice audio atmosphere, Glenn Paxton's chilling score comes through quite nicely too. This is the definitive DVD edition of Dark Night of the Scarecrow, it's great release and the new bonus content makes me think fans of the film will want the upgrade, it's worth it, even more so if you shell out for the Blu-ray.

Special features include an audio commentary with the writer J.D. Feigelson and director Frank De Felitta, it's quite an entertaining listen, particularly when you enjoy the film as much as I do. We also get the original world premiere CBS Promo (1:06) and the CBS Rebroadcast Promo (1:05) both of which brought back a flood of nostalgic made-for-tv memories for me. There's also a nifty Behind-the-Scene's Photo Gallery (10:02) and the inclusion of two new features that were previously exclusive to the Blu-ray edition. First-up is the 2012 extended version of the "Bubba Didn't Do it: 30 Years of the Scarecrow" (34:00) which is just a fantastic watch with interviews from actors Larry Drake and Tanya Crowe, director Frank De Feliita, director Stuart Gordon and writer J.D. Feigelson among others. Topics discussed are the script and inspiration for the film, casting, locations, production, the finale and reaction to the film. We get a ton of great insights, director and fan Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator) offers an appreciation for the film, while director Fellita admits he almost passed on directing, and rememberances of the great supporting cast which included Charles Durning, Jocelyn Brando, Bobby Lions, Robert F. Lyons and Layne Smith. It's a great watch. There's also a cast reunion from 2011 Frighfest Film Festival which brings together Drake, Crowe and writer J.D. Feigelson on stage for a fun and chatty discussion about the film. 

Special Features:
- Director and Writer Commentary
- Original CBS World Premiere Trailer (1:06) 
- CBS Rebroadcast Trailer (1:05) 
- Behind the Scenes Photo Gallery (10:02) 
- "Bubba Didn't Do it: 30 Years of the Scarecrow" (2012 Extended Version) Directed by Daniel Griffith and Produced by Ballyhoo Motion Pictures (34:00) 16x9 
- "DNOTS Cast Reunion Q and A" - Recorded at the 2011 Frightfest Film Festival in Louisville, KY (45:02) 16x9 

Verdict: Dark Night of the Scarecrow is a film I could gush over all night, definitely a film that I can trace my love of all things horror back to, not just a great made-for-TV 
film but a classic fright flick steeped with fear and paranoia, classic stuff. If you already own the previous DVD edition I gotta say it's worth the upgrade for the "Bubba Didn't Do It" documentary alone, great stuff. Do yourself a favor and shell out the extra bones for the Blu-ray if you can, it's worth the upgrade. 
4.5 Out of 5