Much of the potential of Dark Night of the Scarecrow, a beloved 1981 made-for-TV horror film with a bleeding-heart social conscious, is articulated in a transfixing shot of a pair of eyes quaking inside gaping eyeholes cut in a burlap sack. The shot establishes the great care and importance director Frank De Felitta put into emphasizing suggestion over cheap scares in his adaptation of J.D. Feigelson’s celebrated teleplay.
In the film, De Felitta is trying to capture a surreal feeling of naïve anticipation—that sense of impending doom a child experiences when listening to campfire stories about ghosts and superstitious men who always meet bad ends. For the most part, he succeeds: There are no leering corpses, no masked killers, no visible violence in the film that isn’t largely hinted at. This is the kind of moody horror cheapie that people always try to imagine when they talk about old-fashioned, gore-free horror flicks of yesteryear.
The problem is that you have to almost trick yourself into enjoying Dark Night of the Scarecrow. Feigelson’s story is fundamentally manipulative: In an idyllic Podunk farmtown, little Marylee Williams (Tonya Crowe) happily plays 30- year-old Bubba Ritter (Larry Drake), a developmentally challenged man-child that’s a rabbit obsession away from being a Steinbeck parody. The affection Marylee and Bubba share is so pure that it scares and subsequently pisses off a group of local good ol’ boys, led by small-minded mailman Otis P. Hazelrigg (Charles Durning, getting great mileage out of squinting, as always). So they have to kill Bubba. But Bubba doesn’t stay dead, or at least so it seems once his killers start to die one by one.
Realistically, you can’t enjoy the suggestive austerity of Dark Night of the Scarecrow‘s scare scenes without accepting its mediocre variation on an otherwise boilerplate slasher stock plot. Feigelson’s script is deadly serious about the communal malignant spirits his scarecrow, who is only actually seen three times during the film, is exorcising. The townsfolk, as characterized by Otis and the gang, are petty, self-satisfied tyrants that need to punish difference in their community with fear and suspicion. The scarecrow in that way forces the shoe on the other foot and makes Otis become what they always projected Bubba was: a child abuser.
From that simplistic sense of moral outrage comes some remarkably tense scenes that make the most out of little more than a corn field, an unlit doorway and a grain silo (somewhere, Peter Weir was watching and taking notes). Even the bloodiest scene in the film is downright restrained: When a man is impaled by a pitchfork, it’s shown in a way that recalls the way M. Night Shymalan later filmed the pivotal knife-wound sequence in The Village; the act itself isn’t shown but rather established through reaction shots and a sufficiently terse, wince-inducing shot of the wounded area. It’s precise and effective, regardless of the reasons, and really, that’s all it takes for Dark Night of the Scarecrow to be the cult-horror equivalent of buried treasure.
The largely textureless look of Dark Night of the Scarecrow, the kind that's typical of many made-for-TV films—no depth of field, strictly functional wide angle shots—is fitting, in light of the film's campfire narrative. At the same time, during the film's scare scenes, a switch is flipped and Frank De Felitta accomplishes these wonderful things with his still largely flat images. He owes a lot of thanks to editor James L. Honore for making his montage sequences look so good, especially the grain silo death scene, which is cut with great care and even a few terrific abstract close-ups of a funnel, falling grain, and a hand. VCI digitally restored the film so the dialogue soundtrack is noticeably polished. It's a bit too clean for my taste, but then again, the alternative is to have grainy audio that would only serve to force an empty, Rodriguez-esque sense of misappropriated nostalgia. Pops and hisses are bad anyway you slice it, even if they do bring back childhood memories, so VCI did a good thing here.
The film's commentary track is a conversation between De Felitta and J.D. Feigelson. They talk about the film as if they were watching it for the first time after decades of not having seen it. Their excitement at seeing that Dark Night of the Scarecrow still holds up is endearing, but their anecdotes about on-set hijinks aren't that interesting, nor is their constant attempt at picking apart what's going on thematically in each scene. The only other special feature on VCI's characteristically skint disc is a minute-long promo reel for CBS's Saturday Night Movie. That's an utter blast, a fun little bit of nostalgia that I, as someone that used to be addicted to WPIX's Saturday afternoon movies, greatly appreciate.
It's not the second coming of John Carpenter, but Dark Night of the Scarecrow is very close to the cult find many diehards have always stubbornly claimed it is.