Though they’re not quite as scary as clowns, scarecrows have a small spot in Halloween lore. Aside from ‘Harold’ in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and maybe The Creeper from Jeepers Creepers, most horror movie scarecrows have popped up in straight-to-video fare. There’s no scarecrow equivalent of Pennywise the Clown. But scarecrows – and even cornfields themselves – have a built-in appeal for horror. Yet the 1981 made-for-television thriller Dark Knight of the Scarecrow still remains the best use of the straw-stuffed antagonist. Older horror fans may remember this little movie from its CBS Saturday Night Movie debut. At the time of its release, critics were lukewarm, but 80s kids have elevated the movie to cult status.
Somewhere in a small southern town, ‘Bubba’ Ritter, a developmentally disabled man, spends his days with his best friend – a little girl named Marylee Williams. Some of the bigoted townsfolk, however, don’t understand Bubba or his bond with the Marylee. When a dog mauls Marylee, several men instantly accuse Bubba and organize a posse to hunt him down. At his mother’s instructions, Bubba disguises himself as a scarecrow and hides in a field. But the posse finds Bubba and execute him in the middle of the field. Soon afterwards, the same men who escaped courtroom justice begin seeing the same scarecrow in their fields. As fatal accidents befall each man, they learn that their is a justice beyond courts.
Dark Night of Scarecrow Trades Visceral Horror for More Subtle Chills
First and foremost, Dark Night of the Scarecrow is absolutely a product of its era and format. Back in the 1980s, made-for-television didn’t have to mean what we might today associate with cheapy, cheesy SyFy Channel fare. Yes, made-for-television movies lacked the production values of theatrical feature movies. And the movies were structured and paced to fit in commercial breaks. Nonetheless, the 1970s and 1980s gave horror fans some fun Saturday and Sunday night movies. There was Dark Secret of Harvest Home, Wes Craven’s Summer of Fear, and Satan’s School for Girls. Don’t forget, Salem’s Lot – one of the best Stephen King adaptations – debuted on television. What these movies lacked in budget they often made up for with atmosphere.
But DeFelitta’s close-up of a terrified Bubba in his scarecrow disguise is haunting.
And Dark Night of the Scarecrow is an atmospheric thriller. While television standards clearly constrained what could be put on screen, director Frank DeFelitta works around the limitations with more subtle approaches. Specifically DeFelitta combines foreshadowing with J.D. Feigelson’s simple, but tragic, story to craft a surprising amount of suspense. Dark Night of the Scarecrow can’t always keep up its suspense. And by today’s standards, some of the movie’s foreshadowing is clunky. But DeFelitta’s close-up of a terrified Bubba in his scarecrow disguise is haunting. That image alone probably gave a lot of kids nightmares in 1981. The movie’s final scene also ramps up the creep factor.
Dark Night of the Scarecrow Finds the Right Performances to Make its Revenge Story Work
Like most made-for-television movies from the era, Dark Night of the Scarecrow farmed its cast from character actors and aging film and/or television stars. As a result, the performances are something of a mixed bag. Still Charles Durning (When a Stranger Calls) excels at playing the bigoted, hateful Otis Hazelrigg. He combines a perfect balance of ignorance and cowardice. In what’s essentially a revenge story, Durning has you almost begging to see his character get what he deserves.
…Drake embodies his character with enough childlike innocence to earn the audience’s empathy.
Outside of Durning’s performance, most of the cast is pretty forgettable. Horror fans will recognize a young Larry Drake (Darkman, Dr Giggles) as Bubba. While his screen time is limited, Drake embodies his character with enough childlike innocence to earn the audience’s empathy. Even if child actor Tonya Crow is ‘so-so’, like most of the supporting cast, Drake and Durning’s performances alongside the movie’s brutal injustice is enough to make the movie work. Today, it’s mystery seems obvious. But in 1981 Dark Night of the Scarecrow managed to effectively tease a few possible answers before its final scene.
Dark Night of the Scarecrow a Hidden Gem of 80s Made-for-Television Horror
Ultimately, Dark Knight of the Scarecrow doesn’t so much overcome its made-for-television roots as it does embrace them. Modern audiences may be put off by the movie’s pacing and absence of gore. Moreover, DeFelitta’s staging of the movie’s more horror-oriented scenes feels clumsy in comparison to what’s available today. Nevertheless, Dark of the Scarecrow is an atmospheric thriller that absolutely chills. There at least two shots that make the scarecrow a nightmarish figure. Consider this one to be a hidden gem.