Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Census Bloodbath: Rural Furor

Year: 1981
Director: Frank De Felitta
Cast: Charles Durning, Robert F. Lyons, Claude Earl Jones
Run Time: 1 hour 35 minutes
MPAA Rating: N/A

Canadian slasher movies are better. It's just true. Sure, our polite Northern friends can churn out crap just like the rest of us (here's looking at you, Humongous), but their hack 'n slash pics ineffably, inevitably turn out more engaging and fun than their American counterparts. Consider Terror Train over New Year's Evil, or My Bloody Valentine over any other film ever released. Even their direct to video cash-ins like Prom Night IV: Deliver Us From Evil have their measure of charm.

But in October 1981, the Canadian slasher complex would face its biggest challenge yet: the television movie. TV movies are generally notorious for their crouton-sized budgets, their community theater performances, and their noxious Hallmark plotting, but a TV slasher flick? Without blood and guts or boobs and butts? Removing the slasher from its raison d'être is genre suicide.

Enter Canada.

1981's Dark Night of the Scarecrow is a unique film for many reasons, but the fact that it's pretty darn good is not the least of them. Thanks to the restrictions and limitations of television the filmmakers were forced to get creative, and the product is an off-model slasher with a chilling EC Comics-esque premise and a good deal of suspense. Sure, there's no drippings or strippings, a small body count, and no traditional Final Girl, but for that reason its success is all the more remarkable.

You don't need Karo syrup to find this scarecrow creepy as hell.

In classic Canadian slasher tradition, Dark Night of the Scarecrow is set as far from the Yukon as humanly possible, this time the American South. One day, the wicked and corrupt postman Otis Hazelrigg (Charles Durning) spots an opportunity to enact his violent fantasies on the mentally challenged Bubba Ritter (Larry Drake, who would later fill the title role in Dr. Giggles).

After Bubba's best friend Marylee (Tonya Crowe), a young neighborhood girl, is attacked by a dog, he is blamed for her injuries and summarily executed by Hazelrigg and his bloodthirsty cronies. They find him hiding in the cornfield dressed as a scarecrow and shoot him to death, planting a weapon - a pitchfork - on his body. They're quickly found not guilty by the local court. So before the killings even begin, the real terror can be found in the atrocities committed by closed-minded human beings on the less fortunate. Blammo. Film theory.

Needless to say, somebody wants revenge on Hazelrigg and his posse, the dim-witted yokel mechanic Skeeter (Robert F. Lyons), the greedy feed factory owner Philby (Claude Earl Jones of the same year's Evilspeak), and their less interesting friend Harless (Lane Smith). I guess you could say he's the DUFF of the group. Somebody is pursuing them, placing scarecrows outside their homes to taunt them, and murdering them in respectfully chaste but darkly nasty ways.

The suspects abound, including Bubba's stern but loving mother (Jocelyn Brando, Marlon's older sister), his best friend Marylee, the D. A. (Tom Taylor of Maniac Cop) who lost the case against them, or maybe something more inexplicable.

My vote is on the little girl. She's hardcore. Those flower leis can crush a windpipe no sweat.

Dark Night of the Scarecrow certainly has its weak spots. I mean, come on, it is a TV movie. The acting is a little showy across the board, the sets are sparse (in one memorable sequence, Otis opens his massive desk drawer to reveal that its only contents are a single pistol), the opening sequence is laboriously extended, and its background soundscape is comprised of endlessly looped cicada chirps like the world's worst white noise sleep tape.

But the film more than makes up for its lo-fi splendor. First off, it's surprisingly dark. The scene where Mrs. Ritter is forced to explain to Marylee why she won't be seeing Bubba anymore rips out your heartstrings and plays a funeral dirge on them like a cello. Which is the saddest instrument. How are short musicians supposed to reach all the way up there?

But I digress. Dark Night of the Scarecrow is more than just a murder spree, because it has to be. With a focus on back home drama over gore (although the kills are all impactful and slyly foreshadowed), the story it tells is richly spooky and full of intrigue. And as Otis and his buds tear their way through the town in a mad dash to discover the culprit, their interactions reveal a detailed sketch of life in a rural town in the early 80's.

Sure, the screenwriters have probably never even eaten grits, let alone visited Texas, but the small town atmosphere crosses all borders. The community depicted here is full and lively, forming a realistic backdrop for the more uncanny scares.

"This is the least canny thing I've ever experienced!"

As for the scares themselves? They don't exactly come thick and fast, dispersed as they are amid the townspeople's frequent interactions. But when they arrive, they're terrifically bone chilling and effective. The presence of the scarecrow constantly lingers in the back of one's mind, so whenever a character gazes out of the frame, the shivers return before anything is even revealed. Not to mention that the scarecrow design itself is quite impeccable. It's a shame the film never saw a bigger audience, because that would be one award-winning Halloween costume if anybody actually cared to recreate it.

All in all, I'd without a doubt tout this film as a lost second tier classic. It doesn't have the camp factor of a House on Sorority Row or the deft intellect of a Nightmare on Elm Street, but it's worth recognition. Do I wish the protagonists weren't also despicable human beings? Yes. Am I glad to watch them inch closer and closer to their inevitable demise? Hell yes. It's a balance, I suppose. Check out Dark Night of the Scarecrow if you're in the mood for some low key, but hair-raising fun!

Killer: The Scarecrow [The ghost of Bubba Ritter (Larry Drake)]
Final Girl: None
Best Kill: Philby is buried alive in his feed silo until only his flapping, helpless hand is visible.
Sign of the Times: Nothing in particular, but Skeeter's trademark polka dot hat is pretty atrocious.

Scariest Moment: Whenever the scarecrow appears, heralding the next death.

Weirdest Moment: While a dog mauls Marylee, the scene cuts away to close-up shots of unimpressed garden gnomes.

Champion Dialogue: "The only thing official you ever done is lick stamps!"
Body Count: 6; only three of which are perpetrated by the Scarecrow.
  1. Bubba is shot to death.
  2. Harless falls into a woodchipper.
  3. Mrs. Ritter has a heart attack.
  4. Philby is buried alive in his feed silo.
  5. Skeeter is hit in the head with a shovel.
  6. Otis is pitchforked in the gut. 
TL;DR: Dark Night of the Scarecrow makes good use of its limitations to be a deliciously creepy low budget chiller.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1174

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