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"This is a terrifying story set in a small town in the Mid-West. A vigilante group is mustered to track down the killer of a little girl and vengeance is centered on a severely retarded man. They execute the unfortunate man after they find him hiding in a scarecrow. Later events however, prove him innocent and a revengeful spirit haunts each of the vigilantes with bizarre consequences."
These days it's difficult to imagine a time when there were any made-for-TV horror movies, let alone ones which approached greatness. Without a doubt the 70's were the era for classic TV horror movies, but a few gems emerged during the early 80's, too. DARK NIGHT OF THE SCARECROW is one such film; a slow burning, fantastically creepy small screen tale.
Larry Drake plays Bubba, a 36 year old man with learning difficulties whose best friend is a sweet-natured young girl, Mary-Lee (Tonya Crowe). Even though their friendship is entirely innocent it draws the attention of some of the small town folk who presume it must be anything but. Otis P. Hazelrigg (Charles Durning, putting in a typically exemplary performance), the seemingly personable postman (who, it turns out, has a twisted agenda of his own), has it in for Bubba: "Something has to be done, but it has to be permanent.". His buddy, Harless (Lane Smith), balks at this suggestion - he only wants to rough up the "retard" a little - but this changes when the news gets out that Mary-Lee has been killed and that Bubba was responsible (although we see that the little girl, who snuck into a back yard to look at a "beautiful" fountain against Bubba's advice is actually attacked by a vicious dog).
Otis and Harless get together a splinter lynch mob, including Skeeter (Robert F. Lyons) and Philby (Claude Earl Jones); with a couple of hunting dogs they go after their prey. Bubba, however, has run home; begging his Mother to help him, saying he hasn't done anything wrong. She suggests the "hiding game" - like they did before. When the men turn up on her property she hollers, "You ain't the law!", before the dogs lead them out into the nearest field and up to the scarecrow hanging from the cross there. On closer inspection Otis sees Bubba peering from the eye holes (an image which is equal parts haunting, pathetic and chilling); despite his pleading, Otis opens fire on him and the others follow suit. As Bubba hangs there, lifeless and bloody, the CB radio comes on announcing the hunt is off, that Mary-Lee isn't dead after-all, Bubba had actually saved her. Hearing this, Otis grabs a pitchfork and puts it in Bubba's hand, to make it look like he had attempted to attack them. As they stare at the body the wind whips up the field around them.
Despite the best effort of the district attorney ("He might as well have had a feather duster against that firing squad."), the men are acquitted during the trial. The DA swears he will look for any shred of evidence to put them away. Bubba's Mother has a more chilling message, "There's other justice in the world besides the law!".
The little girl was not told that Bubba had been killed and goes to his house to see him. Bubba's Mother finds her and tries to tell her what has happened, but before she's able Sarah Lee runs out into the field where they had played before; she tells her, "Don't worry Mrs Ritter, Bubba's not gone - he's playing the hiding game ...".
The four men who shot Bubba to death think they have got away with it all, until Harless' wife asks him why he's put a scarecrow out in the field when there's no crop to protect ...
The rule less-is-more definitely works in this film's favour. There are only a few flashes of blood, so much of the violence and menace is left up to the viewer's imagination, and as we all know our minds can conjure up much darker things than film-makers can generally show us. At times it's so understated, so well constructed, we are as unsure as the characters as to whether there really is something out there lurking in the dark or, perhaps, their growing paranoia has finally got the better of them.
DARK NIGHT OF THE SCARECROW is shot through with chilling little nuances. One character dies when he falls from the loft of his barn into his wood chipper (we are never sure if he's pushed or he looses his balance after going to investigate some strange noise); however, the remaining men become disquieted when they realise that although it has been ruled an accident an unspecified someone had turned the wood chipper off, and the deceased was in no shape to do so himself.
Often, unanswered questions can be frustrating but the loose ends at the end of DARK NIGHT OF THE SCARECROW are tantalising and chilling. There are no neat narrative bows to tidy things up; the ending is deliciously ambiguous.
Seeing as it's from 1981, this TV movie is the perfect meeting of two worlds: the brash slasher movie and the ghost story, the intention of which is to unnerve rather than jolt.
It's definitely worth tracking down a copy.
BODYCOUNT 6 female:1 / male:51) Male shot to death