Dark Night of the Scarecrow is a reminder of a bye-gone era in which made-for-TV movies were just as good as what was shown in the theaters. You have Brian’s Song and Duel which both proved to be such hits that they were shown in theaters with Duel getting additional footage shot by a young Steven Spielberg and added to make it run from about 70 minutes to an hour and a half.
Dark Night was originally intended to be made into a feature film before it was tweaked a little here and there to be a television movie airing about a week before Halloween in 1981. The movie boasted the casting of Charles Durning, who had appeared in Dog Day Afternoon and When a Stranger Calls. He would go one to get an Oscar nomination for his role in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas released in 1982.
In this movie, he plays Otis P. Hazelrigg, a postal worker in a rural Texas community. One day he receives word that young Marylee Williams (Tonya Crowe) has been seriously injured and the word around town is it was at the hands of Charles Elliot “Bubba” Ritter (Larry Drake), a developmentally disabled grown man who she hangs out with. However, people were already concerned about their friendship due to the wide age gap as well as suspicion that Bubba would harm her or sexually abuse her.
However, he has actually saved her from being mauled to death by a vicious dogs. But when he takes her to Marylee’s house crying he didn’t do it, the sheriff’s office asks for people to go looking for him. Otis, along with farmer Harliss Hocker (Lane Smith), his cousin, Philby (Claude Earl Jones), and gas station attendant, Skeeter Norris (Robert F. Lyons), go toward Bubba’s house. Bubba’s mother (Jocelyn Brando) has told him to dress as a scarecrow and hide in the fields.
Otis and the posse see the scarecrow and when they approach it, they can see the terrified human eyes behind the mask. With their guns, they open fire on Bubba killing him. But just then, a call comes over the radio that Marylee is in fact alive. She also told everyone that Bubba saved her and the sheriff’s office has called the search off. Otis takes a pitchfork off Harliss’ truck and places it in Bubba’s dead hand to make it look like Bubba got violent and they had to defend themselves.
Later at a court hearing the district attorney Sam Wilcock (Tom Taylor) tries to bring all four men to trial on murder charges during a hearing. However, the judge rules that since there were no witnesses, there’s not enough evidence to go forward. Otis also commits perjury admitting that Bubba had been using the pitchfork as a weapon when they went looking for him. Thinking they’re off the hook, they mock the Wilcock and have fun talking about it at the local bar.
Then, strange things begin to happen around town. A scarecrow appears in Harliss’ field and when he tries to go get the others, it’s gone. They think it is Wilcock trying to mess with them. But things turn worse when people begin dying strange deaths that can’t be dismissed as accidents. One person dies in a wood chipper but when they go examine it, it’s shut off and still has gas in it so it couldn’t be an accident.
As Marylee gets better, she finds out that Bubba has died. Yet, Otis believes that Mrs Ritter might also be involved in the incident and almost attacks Marylee trying to get her to talk Mrs. Ritter into leaving them alone. But the question is who is behind it all? Has Bubba actually returned from the grave? Could it be possible he survived his wounds? As the frustrations mount, Otis does things that to keep what they did to Bubba a secret even if it means murdering other people.
Dark Night isn’t up to par with some bigger thrillers of the era like Poltergeist and The Shining. But there’s nothing that says a TV movie has to look cheap and can’t tell a good story. This is a movie about revenge and the horrors of rural small-town America where crimes can be overlooked depending on who the is committing them and who is the victim. While Otis is a postal worker, there’s also suspicion that he’s a pedophile. He lives in a boarding house which makes me think he has a checkered past. There’s no mention of a past relationship nor whether he had kids of his own.
Durning does a good job in his role to make Otis rather sleazy and unlikeable but also where we can sense the paranoia growing around him. This was released less than a decade after the Willowbrook investigation in which people still felt developmentally disabled people could be dangerous and a threat to society. You wonder if the judge would have ruled the same if it was a more able-bodied person accused. With people talking about how one social media post can cause so much controversy, it shows the “simpler times” were just as dangerous when town gossip can ruin lives as quickly and deadly.
Drake as Bubba gives us some early signs of his Emmy-awarding winning role as Benny Stulwicz on L.A. Law. And Smith, Jones and Lyons all look like there are the types of characters you’d find in any Texas town today just as you would back in 1981. It reportedly began the “Killer Scarecrow” subgenre of horror I like how writer J.D. Feigelson and director Frank De Felitta keep it unknown until the very end what exactly is going on.
Reportedly there is a sequel which was released earlier this year that I haven’t seen but reviews aren’t good. And while reviews weren’t all positive for this one, it still manages to hold up that you forget it aired as a TV movie.
What do you think? Please comment.