The Tomb of Terror: Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981)
Every Saturday night The Tomb of Terror opens, unleashing reviews of the obscure and the classic in horror cinema.
Dark Night of the Scarecrow is an interesting film in that it embraces some major things which we don’t see in horror entertainment anymore. One is the complete lack of blood and gore. This is a film that uses the Hitchcockian technique of suspense, drawing out scenes until you’re ready to jump out of your skin, instead of going for the easy (though still fun) gross out. In fact, except for a couple of notable instances, all of the film’s violence takes place off-screen or without much of a visual aftermath. This might have something to do with the second thing we don’t see in horror anymore. Dark Night of the Scarecrow is a made-for-TV horror film, something very prevalent in the 1970s that is all but dead today. Some might look down on a made-for-TV film, but this piece of 80s goodness shows that small screen terrors can sometimes be more effective than those released into cinemas.
As the film opens, we see an idyllic scene in an open meadow. Young Marylee (Tonya Crowe, Knots Landing) is playing with her best friend. What makes this duo different than most childhood friends is that her playmate is 36-year-old Bubba Ritter (Larry Drake, Darkman). Bubba is mentally handicapped, with a mind that hasn’t developed any more than a 10-year-old’s. He plays in the fields with Marylee just like any other young child would. This scene is very sweet, maybe even overly sappy, but it’s all used to set up the tragedy that comes soon after.
A few people in town don’t like Bubba. They don’t like that he’s different and they definitely don’t like him spending private time with a little girl. Leading this anti-Bubba faction is the local mailman Otis (Charles Durning, Dog Day Afternoon). He is seen spying on Marylee and Bubba as they play, and eggs on the rest of his troupe. These other fellas go by the awesome redneck names of Harless (Lane Smith, Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman), Philby (Claude Earl Jones, Bride of Re-Animator), and Skeeter (Robert F. Lyons, Death Wish 2).
Later that morning, Marylee sneaks into a backyard. Bubba is too afraid to follow her and is unable to help as she is attacked by a vicious guard dog. Marylee is badly injured, but Bubba carries her home. It is here that he makes a big mistake. Her mother opens the door and sees a giant man covered in blood holding her limp child in his arms. The first words out of his mouth are “Bubba didn’t do it!” which of course means that everyone will think Bubba did it. When Otis gets wind of this he closes the post office (is he the only mailman in town?), grabs his gun, and rounds up his gang. The word is that Bubba killed an innocent child and Otis sees it as his duty to make him pay.
This leads the film into its most shocking sequence. Otis’s gang excitedly loads up in a truck, rifles in hand, and speeds across town. This is intercut with Bubba frantically running through the forest. He falls on the dirt and into streams from exhaustion as he desperately tries to get to his house before the posse does. He manages to be beat them there and cries out for his elderly mother (Jocelyn Brando, 1953’s The Big Heat) to help him. She knows that if the men see Bubba they’ll hurt him, so she calms him down by saying that they’re going to play a game. She speaks quickly as she explains to Bubba that he has to play “the hiding game” if he’s going to avoid being hurt. Bubba says that he’ll find a great hiding spot and runs away from the house.
When Otis and his friends show up at the simple farmhouse, Mrs. Ritter says that she hasn’t seen her son and that the men have no right to be on her property. Of course Otis isn’t keen on ending his vigilante days just as they are starting, so the mother’s words are ignored. The men make their way through the nearby fields, hunting dogs leading the way. The dogs stop at the only marker in a vast field, a solitary scarecrow. Otis can’t believe that they were outwitted by an imbecile and is ready to head elsewhere when something catches his eye. He leans up to the scarecrow’s face and through its gaping eye holes he sees Bubba’s frightened face looking back at him. He motions to his cronies as Bubba cries out “Bubba didn’t do it!” The men form a line and become a firing squad, unloading dozens of rounds into his torso. It’s just then that they receive a radio call saying that Marylee isn’t dead, she was just badly hurt. They also learn that Bubba had nothing to do with her injuries, but had in fact saved her life. Thinking fast, Otis puts a pitchfork in the scarecrow’s dead hand to make the whole thing look like self-defense.
This is one hell of an opening act for a film, let alone one made for TV. I can only imagine how hard it must’ve been to convince a network to show the murder of a mentally challenged person in such detail. The rest of the film can’t live up to the kinetic energy of the first twenty minutes, but it settles into a suspenseful groove afterward, that is good in a different way. After lying in court, Otis and his cohorts are not charged with the murder of Bubba, due to lack of probable cause. This causes much frustration for the district attorney and Mrs. Ritter. As court is adjourned she leaps to her feet and cries out “There’s other justice in this world besides the law!” The men don’t think much of it until they start to see a familiar scarecrow appearing on their properties.
There are few things on this earth as disconcerting as a scarecrow. They look human, but without any of the distinct characteristics that make us people. Nondescript gloves for hands, limp bodies stuffed with hay, and an emotionless stare are all you get with a scarecrow. As far as creep factor goes, they’re right up there with dolls. But scarecrows are scarier because if a doll came alive at least you could kick it in the face. The only thing I’d be doing if a scarecrow came to life around me is shitting my pants. There haven’t been many killer scarecrow movies and hardly any of the ones that exist are good. Dark Night of the Scarecrow was the first feature length film to feature such a monster, and it stands as one of the best.