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.