Friday, September 17, 2010

DARK NIGHT OF THE SCARECROW

“There’s other justice in this world besides the law!"

Back when there were only three television networks (four, if you counted PBS), the made-for-TV movie was a bit more of an event than it is in these days of formulaic SyFy and Lifetime "originals." Several nights a week, the networks offered slick, well-made telefilms in a wide variety of genres, from comedy and drama to mystery and horror.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the most memorable of these TV movies - at least to those of us who were kids during the 70s and 80s - seem to be the scary ones - THE NIGHT STALKER, GARGOYLES, DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK, TRILOGY OF TERROR... and DARK NIGHT OF THE SCARECROW, a disturbing tale of rural horror that originally aired on the "CBS Saturday Night Movie" on October 24th, 1981... a week before Halloween.

Bubba Ritter (Larry Drake, DR. GIGGLES, DARKMAN) is a mentally-challenged 35-year old man with the mind of child. His best friend is a pretty little girl, Marylee (Tonya Crowe, KNOT'S LANDING), a relationship that doesn't sit well with the bigoted local mailman, Otis Hazelrigg (veteran character actor Charles Durning). When Marylee is mauled by a vicious dog, Bubba saves her life - but an erroneous rumor spreads rapidly through the small town that he has killed the girl. This is what Otis has been waiting for. Rounding up a few of his redneck friends (Lane Smith, Robert F. Lyons and Claude Earl Jones), his vigilante posse hunts down the terrified man, and, finding him hiding in a field dressed as a scarecrow, riddle him with bullets. A sham trial acquits the killers, but before long someone - or something - starts offing the vigilantes in bizarre ways. Is it Bubba's mother (Jocelyn Brando)? The young D.A.? Little Marylee? Or is Bubba striking back from beyond the grave?

DARK NIGHT OF THE SCARECROW is a fantastic old-fashioned fright film that - in part because of it's made-for-television format - doesn't lean on the crutch of spurting gore and graphic violence, instead building suspense and a creeping sense of dread on the back of a solid, well-written script and several extraordinary performances. There isn't a single weak link in the cast; Durning's officious and twisted postman is all-too believable, Brando (Marlon Brando's sister, in fact) brings considerable emotional depth to the role of Bubba's distraught mom, and Tonya Crowe is astounding as the young Marylee. Larry Drake has limited screen time, but his performance as Bubba is genuinely affecting, and led to a similar, ongoing role on L.A. LAW a few years later.

Frank De Felita's direction is straightforward but relatively stylish - especially for a television film of this vintage. The pacing is good, he gets great performances out his cast, and the ending of the movie delivers completely on the promise of the previous 80+ minutes. It really is a remarkable movie.

VCI brings DARK NIGHT OF THE SCARECROW to DVD just in time for Halloween, with a beautifully remastered and restored transfer of the 29-year-old production, presented in its original 1.33:1 full-frame TV aspect ratio. Audio is offered in both the original 2.0 mono and in a vibrant 5.1 Surround remix. For extras, there's an informative and enjoyable audio commentary by director De Felita and writer J.D. Fiegelson, and, surprisingly, the original "CBS Saturday Night Movie" opening promo. Talk about a blast from the past!

DARK NIGHT OF THE SCARECROW is a top-notch Halloween treat that holds up extremely well even after nearly thirty years. It's not a gore-fest - most of the direct violence occurs tastefully just out of frame - but it is genuinely creepy and has a great payoff.

Highly recommended.

BUY: Dark Night Of The Scarecrow