Robert F. Lyons
Claude Earl Jones
It’s hard to believe in this day and age, but there was a time when some of the most effective horror films were created for television instead of theatres. The heyday of the “made for TV” movie was undoubtedly back in the 1970s, but many of them were made in the early 1980s as well. Of course the huge boom of slasher films in the early 80s helped put an end to this, but these films still live on. Without a doubt the most famous of these is Tobe Hooper’s 1979 epic Salem’s Lot, but there are many other films that have stood the test of time. Dark Night Of The Scarecrow may be one of the strongest and most popular television films not only in the horror genre, but of any genre. It is still fondly remembered over 30 years later, but is there good reason for that?
The film tells the story of Bubba Ritter, (Larry Drake, who is probably best known for his work as the evil Robert Durant in the Darkman series) a mentally handicapped man living in a small town. Bubba is friends with young Marylee Williams (Tonya Crowe) much to the chagrin of some of the locals. Many of these men are already looking for a reason to get rid of Bubba, and they find their opportunity when Marylee is attacked by a dog and is believed dead. A group of vigilantes led by the postman Otis P. Hazelrigg (played with assholish perfection by Charles Durning) immediately hunt down Bubba and find him hiding as a scarecrow. After executing the poor man in cold blood, they are informed that Marylee is okay, and Bubba had actually saved her life. Following a joke of a court case, all of the men in the group of vigilantes begin being haunted by a scarecrow that looks alarmingly similar to Bubba when they killed him.
The film does a great job building the suspense while not relying on any gore, and very little violence for that matter. If you are a horror fan but a hater of the violence and gore that has strongly overtaken the genre, you need look no further than Dark Night as a perfect example of how it can be done.
Something else that stands out in the film is how many subjects it touches upon given that it was the early 80s, and a TV film. I think it would be safe to say that not many films in that era made comments upon how people treat the mentally challenged. On top of all that, the film even implies a pedophilic relationship between Marylee and Otis!
It really is strange to look back and think of a time when a simple made-for-TV movie could be so incredibly good. The film had such a following that it was one of the most requested horror films in history to get a DVD upgrade after being out of print on video for several years. While there are still several great films from over the years that can only be found on old beat-up VHS tapes (or in some cases, Betamax!) it can certainly be considered a win for the horror community that Dark Night had a resurgence and was brought out of the vault.
The one final thing I want to touch on is the performance of the late great character actor Charles Durning. Very few films that I can think of over the years have had a character that can be so easily despised. Just about everything that Otis does in the film makes you hate him even more. I would honestly rank his performance as one of the greatest “asshole” performances in the history of our great genre. At times just even seeing him breathing makes you want to see the Scarecrow get his vengeance.
Due to the fact that Dark Night was made for TV, I would consider and highly recommend it as a film that you could show to younger children who have shown a taste for the macabre, as it could definitely help build a love of the genre without exposing them to anything that even more conservative parents may consider questionable. Just make sure you don’t think too much about who the Scarecrow really is and how they are enacting their vengeance.
You can grab a DVD copy of Dark Night Of The Scarecrow on Amazon here and you can also find copies available on Blu-Ray at any store that isn’t afraid to carry good movies!