Nine times out of ten, the thought of a vintage made-for-TV horror movie conjures up repressed memories of crappy tales with an embarrassed George Hamilton and/or an unequivocally desperate Ray Milland. The body begins to twitch — sullied that such a subdued recollection of rottenness had even been allowed to be recalled in the first place — and solace isn’t easily obtainable from there on in. But what about that tenth item? What happens when you get the chance to check out one of those rare Hollywood horror films that was not only manufactured for television viewing audiences but which was also enjoyable and — dare I say it — actually succeeded in being scary?
Believe it or not, such films exist. And while a list of those films would prove somewhat short when you compare it with a list of the TV horror movies that suck, the 1981 cult classic Dark Night of the Scarecrow has that even rarer distinction of ranking high on such a record. Now, though you’d think the fright factor would be significantly reduced because it was produced for television, Dark Night of the Scarecrow delivers its duty of dread without so much as a single hitch. Moreover, writer J.D. Feigelson deliberately keeps the level of onscreen violence tame in order to maximize that uneasy “less is gore” feeling.
It’s almost as if someone combined the atmosphere of a vintage Universal horror film from the ‘30s with the raw emotional impact of a gritty grindhouse flick from the ‘70s.
The story here takes place in a small rural township. The local postal employee, Otis P. Hazelrigg (Charles Durning), is a thoroughly miserable fellow — one who projects his desolation and gloom onto others, like a poor, mentally-challenged man-child named Bubba Ritter (Larry Drake). After Bubba’s nine-year-old friend Marylee Williams (Tonya Crowe) is attacked by a vicious neighborhood dog, Otis and his local yokel chums (Claude Earl Jones, Lane Smith, and Robert F. Lyons — all of whom turn in excellent performances) misconstrue the nature of the accident and assume that Bubba has harmed or killed the little Williams girl.
So, they execute him like the quartet of narrow-minded, bloodthirsty vigilantes they are. And, just as you’d expect in a small town full of good ol’ boys, the local judge acquits ‘em.
Shortly thereafter, the brutish boys begin to notice a scarecrow in their fields, one that is identical to the outfit Bubba breathed his last breath and was shot to death in. Soon after that, the fellers start to “buy the farm” (so to speak) and Otis is plagued with the realization that someone knows the truth about Bubba’s murder — and seeks to find the perpetrator. Could it be Bubba’s mother (Jocelyn Brando, Marlon’s sister)? Or perhaps the little Williams girl? It certainly couldn’t be that Bubba has somehow returned from the grave as a vengeful spirit, intent on dispatching those who caused his prematurely giving up the ghost to begin with; because that would be plain inconceivable.
Or would it?
With its incredible cast of talent, poignant and pungent script, and tight direction by Frank De Felitta, Dark Night of the Scarecrow has been sending chills up the spines of children and adults alike since it was first broadcast as a CBS Saturday Night Movie 30 years ago. And now, thanks to those lovable folks at VCI Entertainment, this creepy classic has been restored for a glorious 30th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray release for future generations to spook out to.
Boasting an extremely-impressive VC-1/1080p transfer, VCI’s presentation of Dark Night of the Scarecrow possesses some fantastic colors and detail throughout the entire course of the 96-minute TV movie. The film is presented in a “pillar boxed” 1.33:1 ratio (we didn’t have widescreen television then, you know), with your choice of PCM 2.0 or 5.1 audio (perfectionists will probably want to pick the mono mix) and optional English and Spanish subtitles accompanying.