Wednesday, September 15, 2010

DVD Review: Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981)


RUN TIME: 100 Min.
DIRECTOR: Frank De Felitta
CAST: Charles Durning, Robert F. Lyons, Lane Smith, Tonya Crowe, Larry Drake

SUMMARY: In a rural town a man with the mind of a child is wrongfully accused of a child’s death. After his demise at the hands of a brutal lynch mob it is realized too late that he is innocent, and in fact, saved the girls life. Afterwards, the men responsible for his death are stalked and killed by a vengeful apparition.

THE FILM: DARK NIGHT OF THE SCARECROW was a made-for-television horror film that aired on the CBS network the week before Halloween 1981, what great timing, truly a classic Halloween film. I was 8 at the time, and the film affected me deeply. Much like in the film, I grew up a rural area that was blanketed in fields of corn and agriculture. Afterwards I had quite a few nightmares about scarecrows and cornfields, and I hadn’t even seen THE CHILDREN OF THE CORN (1984), yet. The film is directed by Frank De Felitta, the author/screenwriter of AUDREY ROSE (1977), reviewed elsewhere on this blog.

The film opens with Bubba (Larry Drake, DR. GIGGLES), a 36 year old man with the mind of a child, as he plays with Mary-Lee (Tonya Crowe), 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. Durning is amazing in this film, he's just so damn unlikeable.   Soon thereafter Mary-Lee is attacked by a vicious dog after sneaking into a neighbors yard. Otis takes Mary-Lee's seemingly lifeless body to her mother, trying to explain the situation, she panics. That bastard Otis forms a lynch mob, arming themselves with  firearms and bloodhounds, they track Bubba to his mother’s home. Otis' mom, Mrs. Ritter (Jocelyn Brando, sister of Marlon) sends them away, but the hounds are onto his scent, which leads them to a scarecrow on a post in a field. This is the pivotal moment in the film, and it is extremely well done. Otis walks-up to the scarecrow to investigate, it’s a chilling sight. Bubba’s eyes stare 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. For am '81 TV film it's a bloody sight, I must say. 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. 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 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 don’t want to spoil the film for those who haven't been initiated so I won’t go into much detail about the murders, but they are awesome. This is a TV film, as such it is absent of gore, but they way that Harliss (the always great Lane Smith) is killed horrified me as a kid, truly great stuff. We get a classic tale of revenge, probably the first scarecrow film to my knowledge, and some decent character development, particularly Charles Durning's Otis. Larry Drake is amazing, his role is limited but what a performance. I love the entire film, but the last 10 minutes are above and beyond amazing, the final chase/stalking though a pumpkin patch is brilliantly shot, and creepy as hell.

DVD: This is the first time-ever that this classic made-for-TV film is being released on DVD thanks to the fine folks at VCI Entertainment. It arrives on September 28th, 2010, just in time for Halloween! It's hard not to get excited by this as it is one of my all-time favorite Halloween films, and to see it so loving restored to it's original glory is priceless. The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 broadcast aspect ratio with a newly created 5.1 surround sound, the original mono track is also available. Special features include an audio commentary with the writer J.D. Feigelson and director Frank De Felitta, it's a great, informative listen, especially when you enjoy the film as much as I.  Also included is the original world premiere CBS Promo which brought back a flood of nostalgic made-for-tv memories. The restoration that VCI Entertainment has bestowed upon Dark Night of the Scarecrow is nothing short of stunning. I've watched this film several times from a VHS-rip in years past and seeing the crisp detail and vibrant colors here was revelatory. Barring a Blu-Ray release which this totally deserves, this is the definitive edition of Dark Night of the Scarecrow.

VERDICT: DARK NIGHT OF THE SCARECROW is a must buy, no thought required. I surely can trace my love of all things horror to seeing this film the week before Halloween '81, and I cannot wait to watch this with my kids this Halloween. Not just a great made-for-TV film this is a classic of the horror genre, period.
****1/2 (4.5 out of 5 stars)

A follow-up on the review here. On September 23rd I received an email from J.D. Feigelson the writer of DARK NIGHT OF THE SCARECROW. In the brief letter he spoke a bit about the lack of onscreen gore in the film. I thought it was interesting and have posted it here on the blog for any fans of the film to read. Mr. Feigelson has written other filmed projects including RED WATER (2003), THE LAKE (1998), NIGHTMARE ON THE 13th FLOOR (1990), CONVENANT (1985) and Wes Craven's CHILLER. He also directed several episodes of the '85-era THE TWIGHLIGHT ZONE  and ONE OF THE MISSING (1979), both of which he wrote.

Dear Mac, I just wanted to thank you so very much for taking the time to view and review "Dark Night of the Scarecrow." You are very observant of the time and love put into the restoration of the original movie. What a lot of people surmise, but wrongly, is that the lack of on-screen violence was because of television. Actually, I wrote to original to be an atmospheric morality tale. That the script had so little on-screen violence is WHY CBS bought it not the other way around. So, there you have an inside insight. But above all it was a labor of love and a gift to the revelers of Halloween.

From the pumpkin patch,

J.D. Feigelson
Writer/Creator DNOTS