Welcome back to another Friday Nightmare Reviews, wherein I am reviewing on Saturday because I’m a master of the unexpected. And by that, I mean that I’ve been working double time to get a couple of different projects off the ground and failing to manage my time because of that whole needing to pass out thing I do every now and again. Also the eating. That takes so damn long, doesn’t it?? The banalities of every day is such a chore when one has things to be doing and stuff to be watching. And with that, let’s get to the horror movie of the week, shall we?
Okay so I alluded to having some stuff on my plate lately that’s been taking up a fair bit of time and I’ll be getting to that at the end of the review here but in the meantime, let’s talk about summer. And how I wish it was over already. Back in ye olde days of living with a certain roommate, because her birthday was in July and she was every bit the sun worshipper that I’m not, I agreed to come to a slight compromise on my celebration of everything fall the second I saw a leaf change from green to not green. I suppose this was only fair, seeing as the thought of winter usually filled her the kind of dread that summer fills me with. Thus, I had agreed to hold off on my happy autumnal flailing arms until after her birthday had passed. Well, as of the time this is going up on the website, it’s officially August and I am quite ready to shed this warm weather and get my autumn on. That’s right, summer lovers, I am officially declaring it harvest season! Which, you know, it kinda is anyway because this is when you start reaping all that stuff you planted or the stuff that started growing in the spring. But those of us in the city don’t get to do that so instead, we’re going to start prepping for the best time of the year by getting in the spirit with movies that help prepare us for the fall season. And speaking of reaping what you’ve sown, it turns out this labored attempt at stretching a metaphor to its death and beyond is actually useful for this week’s movie Dark Night of the Scarecrow.
If you’ve never heard of this one, it might be because this little hidden gem was a made for TV movie that aired in 1981. While some people might scoff at that, this film is hiding a wealth of fairly well known actors, including Larry Drake as Bubba (we’ll get to him) and Lane Smith, whose character has a name but it’s easier just to think of him as one of the three murder stooges. Trust me, the names in this film are pretty negligible but that doesn’t make it bad. And on that note, let’s quit stalling because the film sure doesn’t.
I’m not sure if it’s due to the fact that it’s made for television, but the plot doesn’t dally about at all. We’re introduced to our main man, Bubba, an adult with the cognitive ability of about a nine year old, if not younger, but ultimately entirely harmless. When we meet him, our new friend is having the time of his life hanging out in all his wholesome glory with his bestest friend in the world, Marylee, a young girl who likes things like flowers and playing in fields. And to answer the question on your mind, this film is taking place in the deep south and as such, we got them names reflecting that, including our murder stooges. And speaking of murder stooges, as Bubba and Marylee are enjoying an afternoon of being alive and making memories that aren’t going to be sad at all within the next fifteen minutes, they are unaware that they are being watched by a meany pants mailman. Mister swallowed a warhead candy and his face stuck like that is Otis, resident asshole and pervert who graduates from simple meany pants to straight up murder psycho in less time than it took to come back from that commercial break. Otis, you see, has a seething hatred of Bubba and is gunning right from the beginning to see him underground, which kind of freaks out murder stooge number one, your average local farmer drinking while using a wood chipper, played by Lane Smith. Whatever reservations stooge one had on the subject of putting bullet holes in people, however, disappears when Marylee gets herself into a pickle and ends up getting hurt. Due to a really shitty game of telephone saying she was all kinds of dead, Otis rounds up his men, aforementioned stooge one along with stooge two who works with pigs and grain and stooge three, the local mechanic.
Now there’s a saying on the internet that’s been going around for a while, that being “grant me the confidence of a mediocre white man”. I’m not really a fan of over generalizations at the best of times but when someone is saying that, this incredibly lame posse, led by a deviant mailman and three idiots who are barely qualified to pick up litter from the gutter, is exactly what they mean. Seriously, you’ve got a pervert mailman, a pig farmer prone to whining a lot, a mechanic who seems like he might have been huffing gas and a perpetually drunk farmer who can’t drive below mach one. This is your justice squad who are running on basically no information to straight up execute a man who thinks like a child. They chase poor Bubba back to his house and he nearly gives them the slip, hiding as a scarecrow. Unfortunately, the bloodhounds know it’s him and the merry band of mediocre white men open fire on him, starting, of course, with Otis. And about three seconds after they transform Bubba into the least effective scarecrow in the world by turning him into a scavenger snack on a stick, they get a call on the CV radio to let them know that maybe Marylee wasn’t really as murdered as previously thought, so much as a bit banged up and needed a bit of a bandaid on her knee. Oopsy! I guess the mail squad aren’t really heroes but full on murderers.
So now we got the scarecrow part of the title but the dark night comes about because, wouldn’t you know it, justice doesn’t really get served. Apparently no one thinks the mailman did it because he said he didn’t. Sure, he acts like an absolute dick after he’s released and he goes out for a celebratory drink with the other murder stooges afterwards but I’m sure that’s just boys being incredibly suspicious acting boys. And just as a reminder, this film was made in 1981. Definitely not at all relevant now. Not at all. Ugh. Anyway.
From here, shit starts to get weird and the murder stooges are feeling a little rattled as they notice that a scarecrow appears out in stooge one’s field. They do what all people with the constitution for murder do: blame each other first and then group together to fret about it out loud in public. The only person who isn’t really all that affected is Otis, mostly because he always wanted to hop aboard the killer train anyway. He’s convinced that it’s all the work of the district attorney, trying to make good on his promise that if he found a shred of proof that could pin them for their crime, they would be the ones in the execution hot seat. When our first murder stooge finds his way into the wrong end of that wood chipper, however, the surviving band of mediocre vigilantes upgrade their spooked status to full on paranoia. And from here, shit starts to get real.
I won’t be coy here in saying that this is a pretty damn good movie, all things taken into account. There’s some questionable elements here and there, like why anyone would think hiding in a grain silo would be a good idea or why someone would flat out kill the guy with the only good and viable plan for getting out of town. (Seriously, the place he’s describing when he’s killed is actually pretty ideal for laying low and if the asshole is that paranoid, why not send him there and keep him calm and out of trouble???) That said, considering that this film was working with almost no gore, almost no special effects and a plot that had to rely on nuance to get across what they were saying about all the characters, it pulls it off flawlessly int hat regard. The creep factor of the scenes is perfect. You know when the murder stooges are alone, they are at risk and even though the movie telegraphs their kills, it doesn’t make it less horrifying. It’s all implied and that actually kind of makes it all the worse. And to do this, you need a pretty decent cast, which this movie has.
The man who steals most of the show is Otis, played by Charles Durning. He seamlessly oscillates between being the nice guy mailman that you could see just being a regular face on the route and being surprisingly sinister. You never doubt that he would kill someone and while the rest of the murder stooges aren’t really anything more than just a riled up mob, the youngest actually pretty terrified of what he’s done when it registers, you never get that kind of remorse. Even when he’s getting paranoid himself, he never drops that cold blooded streak to him and it makes for a great villain. For as small as the part of Bubba is for Larry Drake, I still think it’s worth noting on because he is able to play a man who is cognitively a child without being offensive about it. Bubba isn’t really stupid by any stretch and even if he’s slow on the uptick about certain things (he can’t tie his shoes by himself), he really is wholesome and harmless in his friendship with Marylee. The scene where he’s hiding as the scarecrow is genuinely unnerving because you get to see the fear in his eyes as Otis figures out it’s him. For a scene that features no gore and nothing graphic, it still disturbs you at how tense it becomes and then how it transforms.
Then there’s the story itself. I’m not going to lie, I grew up watching this movie and I swore for the longest time that it was written by Stephen King. In reality, the story and teleplay was written by J.D. Feigelson but I think it’s a testimony to the atmosphere and the effectiveness of the film that I was surprised to find that it wasn’t him. There are certain things that could have been done better, specifically in developing the murder stooges a little beyond their names, which are rarely mentioned. (Seriously, I don’t mention them in the review because I had to look them up on IMDB to see what some of their names even were.) That said, the ominous elements of scarecrow lurking around and the way it would appear in the fields was actually quite creepy and definitely a nice touch. Feigelson also played the subtle aspects of the plot very well, never tipping his hand too far when it came to certain things. When Marylee says that Bubba’s just hiding after he’s shot and killed or when Mrs. Ritter accuses Otis of spying on the little girl for reasons beyond being concerned, it’s clear what they mean but it’s never too on the nose.
And finally, the atmosphere is really excellent. Again, we have to consider the budget that this film would have been working with and the restrictions that would have gone along with making a horror movie for a TV audience. It means that the gore is almost non-existent but that isn’t even close to a deal breaker. In fact, it made it so that the film really amped up the nuance and the shots that we see all count for something. In fact, one of the really cool parts of the way it’s filmed was that the night scenes were actually shot at night. This doesn’t seem like much but it means that those dark shadows are real and gives the movie a kind of grounding in our real fears of the dark. I also love the way that it shows so much of the little town around them, which is also what gave me very strong ‘Salem’s Lot vibes. It really captures the everyone knows everybody and their business feeling of being in a small town and even really brings home how hopeless Bubba’s initial situation was. Born into this wholesome looking but ultimately cruel place that harbors people with violent and predatory tendencies. This makes his death scene all the more tragic and the following revenge scenes all the better.
Obviously, I am highly suggesting that you find yourself a copy of this film and give it a watch tonight. In my harvest movies, it has a lot of shots of farming and fields but nothing too specifically autumnal yet, so it’s even a good watch for you summer lovers who are getting every shred of vitamin D that you can before the weather changes. Curl up and watch it with some garden fresh veggies or some apple cider and the evening will be perfect. You’ll still feel like you still get your waning summer sunshine and your revenge fantasies too.
And with that, I can now turn my attention to the big news for you! Some of you may know, I have a podcast launching this month! The Armchair Scholar’s Guide is a labor of love wherein I deconstruct and talk about tropes, urban legends, lore and all manner of things associated with things that scare us. I do a lot of research into the background on each of the topics that are chosen for the month, which has made doing this a lot of work, which is why I got behind this week. It seriously take about two months to write even one episode of this podcast and it’s taken even longer to prep for the big one coming in October. I have some pretty awesome plans on the horizon and I hope you’ll join me either on YouTube, Spotify, iTunes or just directly at Podbean when it debuts. And as for that debut, you can expect to hear the first introductory episode of The Armchair Scholar’s Guide coming up on Saturday August 29th! For those of you who just cannot wait to find out what the first topic is, you can get a sneak peek, early access and even some initial bloopers by contributing to my Patreon. If not, it will be available for free to the public on the 29th of the month and the first full episodes will be launched soon after.
Thank you so much for joining me on this slightly later than Friday Nightmare Review. Until next time, keep your pitchforks tucked away safely, always grab the flowers from the stem and never ever ever take refuge in a grain silo. And have fun until next week’s harvest!