Scarecrow and Mr. Durning

Also good for skee-ball.
October 6, 2010 – Sometimes you don't have the time in life to figure out why you like certain things. You just accept it and prioritize your brain space on more productively fathomable concepts, like choosing a smartphone or quantifying your beliefs regarding the existence of Bigfoot. That's how I am with scarecrows.

Whether they're helping little girls along yellow brick roads, matching wits with Batman, standing sentinel in a field, or decorating someone's porch in Autumn, I just have an affinity for ragged men stuffed with straw. I like the aesthetic of them, I like the idea of them. I mean, the fact that farmers stuff clothes with dead grain and hang them on a post in the middle of a field to scare away birds seems like it should be a farming community secret, not a widely known quirk of rural life.

I even like scarecrows when they're terrorizing people in horror movies. Or, more accurately, I like the idea of scarecrows terrorizing people in horror movies. A quick Netflix search shows quite a few horror movies with scarecrow villains, most of which are extremely low-grade fare. By the way, it also pulls up Scarecrow and Mrs. King, which I’d forgotten all about.

For some reason, despite the fact that it was made for scaring, the scarecrow has just not been well used in the horror genre. The one exception to that might be the 1981 film, Dark Night of the Scarecrow.

Dark Night of the Scarecrow was just released a week or so ago on DVD for the first time after languishing for decades in that purgatory where made-for-TV movies created before 1990 go. That's right. This movie deputed on boxy 32-inch televisions across the U.S. Of course, back then the genre of television movie was a bit more auspicious, way before the horrors to which the Lifetime Network and SyFy Channel subjected the genre.

The story is basic to the point of uninteresting. A retarded man named Bubba is chased down by local vigilantes for a crime he didn't commit and hides in a scarecrow outfit in the middle of an empty field, only to be found out and executed on the spot. He then returns from the dead in said scarecrow outfit to wreak unretarded supernatural vengeance on the four men.

Now, I'm always completely uncomfortable watching able-minded actors play retarded people in movies and television, but fortunately that part goes away early in the movie, thanks to those four men who jump guns and fire them into said retarded person. Incidentally, Bubba is played by Larry Drake, who went on to earn both an Emmy and mainstream fame playing another retarded person on L.A. Law in the late 80s/early 90s.

However, even though the plot is trite, the execution is impressive, somehow creating regular moments of genuine intensity, even while it deals with murder, pedophilia, and supernatural retribution in network-TV-approved ways that you could watch with a 10-year-old.

This man stormed the beaches of Normandy and survived
 a POW massacre, but all he wants to do is dance.
A broad jumpers' leap in this right direction that the movie takes is the casting of Charles Durning as the main villain. Charles Durning is an actor who kicks ass on screen no matter if he's playing Doc Hopper in The Muppet Movie or the priest in Everybody Loves Raymond, despite the fact that he didn’t start acting until later in life. Heck, the first six words on his IMDb.com bio are “Ex-pro boxer, WWII veteran, dance instructor.” The man’s an actual enigma, in an industry with too many media-professed ones. And he helps make Dark Night of the Scarecrow a more compelling film than it should be.

Second, although the premise sounds like a slasher movie, the film is relatively bloodless due to 1980s TV mores. However, the violence isn’t merely downplayed, it’s creatively suggested, with such items as swinging light fixtures, garden gnomes, and farm machinery replacing such horrors as dog mauling, human mulchification, and suffocation by silo. You can tell a lot about a movie by the images it uses to suggest violence. This restraint contributes invaluably toward the overall creepiness of the movie.

Finally, an exhumation scene with a reaction
that would mirror my own.
Also, what should have been a distracting foible turns into a strength for the film. It was obviously filmed out of season around some rocky part of southern California, instead of in the Midwest where you’d think a scarecrow movie would be filmed. In fact, there’s not a living crop to be found anywhere in the movie, except for some pumpkins obviously ordered up and placed for set decoration. However, that does allow for some strangely unnerving moments featuring the scarecrow doing its job in the middle of empty fields.

With all that, and the fact that it features a very random and short Halloween party scene in the middle (it originally debuted a week before Halloween), Dark Night of the Scarecrow is a solid, eerie Halloween choice, now that it has finally become a choice, for anybody’s dark night.

2 comments:

  1. I have been waiting forever for this movie to come out on DVD! Thank you so much for this post. It shall be mine !

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  2. I watched this film long ago when it first came out and it did scare me. Good choice.

    ReplyDelete