Directed By: Frank De Felitta
Running Time: 96 minutes
When I was a child, I was given a book called “The Night the Scarecrow Walked”. It is a short story about two children that every day on their way home from school had to pass by a field that possessed a scarecrow. The scarecrow of course, gave the children the creeps and they would discuss how scary it would be if it ever came off its post and started walking. On Halloween night the children carve a pumpkin and take it with them trick-or-treating when they pass by the field and notice that the scarecrow is in fact, moving and begins to walk towards them. It seemingly follows the children all night until they realize it wasn’t the scarecrow at all, but an old man dressed like the scarecrow out for a stroll. I still have this book and like the children in the story I too, think scarecrows are creep-a-licious. But it is because of that fear that scarecrows are so fascinating. They don’t have to do anything but hang there to be scary and appear like they may start moving at any moment. …and what if one did? Where would it go and what would it do? Would it be jovial like in The Wizard of Oz, or would it have more sinister intentions? These questions can be somewhat answered in the 1981 made-for-TV film called “Dark Night of the Scarecrow” directed by Frank De Felitta. Do not be turned off by the “made-for-TV” part. While made-for-TV horror films are known for being notoriously bad, this one -do I dare say, is actually a decent and intriguing film if not a bit heartbreaking.
Dark Night of the Scarecrow is a supernatural revenge thriller that takes place in a small southern farming community where a 37-year old mentally challenged man named Charles Ritter, whom everyone calls “Bubba” spends most of his time with his best friend, 11-year old Marylee Williams. While Bubba and Marylee’s friendship is completely innocent, some of the people in town particularly the hateful, and ever-watchful Otis Hazelrigg believe Bubba’s relationship with Marylee is not only inappropriate, but downright dangerous. As a result, Otis tries to convince his friends to help him get rid of Bubba using his concern for Marylee to justify his cruel behavior. Otis is rejected on account that Bubba had not committed any crime, certainly not one that involved taking the law into ones own hands however, later that same day when Otis hears that Marylee was killed while out with Bubba, he immediately blames Bubba for her death and gathers his friends, Harliss, Philby, and Skeeter to go hunt Bubba down. Knowing he will be blamed for Marylee, Bubba runs home to his mother who tells him to play the “hiding game” like they had done the last time indicating this is not the first time Otis and his friends have terrorized Bubba.
When Otis and the others arrive, they grab their guns and demand Mrs. Ritter hand her son over to them. When she greets them with a “get the hell off my property” the men refuse and take it upon themselves to scope around the Ritter farm looking for Bubba. Bubba’s hiding place is revealed when Otis takes a closer look at the scarecrow in the field and sees terrified human eyes starring back at him. Bubba quietly cries to himself under the scarecrow mask as Otis and his men aim their weapons and put twenty-one bullets in him.
It is only after they have murdered Bubba that a call comes through over the radio telling them that the search for Bubba had been called off. Not only was Marylee alive with minor injuries, the only reason she survived the attack at all was because Bubba tangled with a dog that wanted to maul her to death. While Otis is shocked, it is only because he thought Bubba would hurt Marylee not help her. Unsympathetic to what he has done to him, Otis merely places a pitchfork in Bubba’s lifeless hands and walks away as a strange, ominous wind picks up. Because there were no witnesses to Bubba’s shooting and his killers claimed self-defense, Otis and his friends are acquitted in court and celebrate their callousness later that evening at a local bar. While the people in town are appalled by what happened to Bubba, little Marylee tells Mrs. Ritter not to worry-that Bubba is only playing the hiding game and isn’t “gone” as she believes he is. Mrs. Ritter writes this off as Marylee’s way of dealing with Bubba’s death however, Marylee is not the only one that has seen Bubba. It is not long before Harliss and the others begin to see him as well, but not the kind and benevolent Bubba everyone knew, but the scarecrow that was left bleeding in the field.
Harliss spots the scarecrow after his wife asks him if he had started planting early and perhaps that was why he had dragged out the scarecrow out but when Harliss takes a closer look at it he notices that the scarecrow in his field looks eerily like Bubba. Believing it to be a prank Harliss finds Philby and Skeeter at a local diner and accuses them of placing the scarecrow in his field. Philby and Skeeter deny the prank and all three turn to Otis suggesting that someone in town knows what they did and perhaps they should turn themselves in. Otis reminds them that they will all spend the rest of their lives in prison if they talk and sends them away. Later that night, Harliss is lured to his barn by strange noises where he falls into a wood chipper.
Philby and Skeeter argue that what happened to Harliss was not an accident and Otis first suspects District Attorney but then turns his attention to Mrs. Ritter believing that she is behind Harliss’ death and the other sightings of the scarecrow. When Otis breaks into Mrs. Ritter’s house with the intention of intimidating her, she suddenly has a heart attack and dies. On Halloween night Philby sees the scarecrow in his field when he goes out to investigate a commotion among his hogs. He runs to the town Halloween party and tells Otis what he saw and the two of them return to Philby’s field only to find that the scarecrow missing…almost like it just got up and walked away. A day or two later Philby sees the scarecrow again and hides from it in a grain silo where he gets trapped and smothered by the filling grain. Otis and Skeeter deduce that Bubba isn’t actually dead and to make sure, the two of them dig up Bubba’s body only to find that he is still in his grave. Knowing Skeeter will run to the police, Otis bashes Skeeter over the head with a shovel killing him as Skeeter attempted to close Bubba’s casket. With no one left to blame for the deaths of his friends, Otis turns his attention to the child, Marylee. After crashing his postal truck Otis chases Marylee into a field where a plow comes to life and sends Otis running for his life. Otis dies when he finally runs into the scarecrow and is impaled in an act of poetic justice on the pitchfork Otis had placed in Bubba’s hands.
Dark Night of the Scarecrow is one of those movies where what we would consider the “boogeyman” is not even the boogeyman at all but rather the hero. If Dark Night of the Scarecrow had a boogeyman it was most definitely Otis Hazelrigg and his intolerable hated for Bubba and the Ritter family in general. Charles Durning however, who played Otis Hazelrigg was no boogeyman. In fact, Durning in life was a badass and let me explain why. Charles Durning joined the U.S Army at age 20 and went off to fight the Nazis in the Second World War. The thing is, it was Tuesday, June 6, 1944 and what do we know about that day? That’s “Operation Overlord” day, ….aka D-Day, ….aka the invasion of Normandy. Our friend Charles Durning- the man who played “Waring Hudsucker” in one of the best movies ever, The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), not only took part in the invasion of France but was in the first wave of American troops to land on Omaha beach. There were 10,000 allied casualties on the first day of the invasion alone and aside from Durning, no one from his unit survived. By December 1944 Durning was fighting in what we call the “Battle of the Bulge” a German surprise attack which resulted in almost 90,000 killed or wounded allied soldiers. Durning, as you can imagine has had several medals pinned on him including the Silver Star, the Bronze Star, and not one but three Purple Hearts.
What do these medals mean? Collectively, they mean Charles Durning fought hard and bravely in ground battle against an enemy during war, that he was wounded in the process, and was heroic as fuck about it probably saving someone’s life. Durning passed-away from natural causes on Christmas Eve 2012 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington D.C.
Walter Lane Smith III also known simply as Lane Smith played Otis Hazelrigg’s partner in crime Harliss Hocker, the first aside from Bubba to die in the film, the one that falls in the wood chopper. Smith has appeared in numerous films and television shows prior to his death in 2005 such as Network (1976), Red Dawn (1984), My Cousin Vinny (1992), and if you’ve ever seen Son in Law (1993) Smith played Rebecca Warner’s Dad, Walter who repeatedly mispronounces Pauly Shore’s character name, “Crawl” on one occasion calling him “crap”. Smith too, has a military career though he only served two years.
Jocelyn Brando played Bubba’s fiery but loving mother Mrs. Ritter and for those that may not be aware, Jocelyn Brando was Marlon Brando’s older sister.She may not have had quite the film career that her brother certainly had but she did star in several film most notably Mommy Dearest (1980). She also appeared in TV shows such as Little House on the Prairie and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. After she quit show business Brando ran a bookstore in Santa Monica, California where she died in 2005.
Last but certainly not least is Larry Drake, our scarecrow in the film, Bubba Ritter. Drake was born in 1950 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, my hometown. Many of us know him as Dr. Evan Rendell in Dr. Giggles (1994) or the villain Robert Durant in Darkman (1990) a role he reprised in Darkman II: The Return of Durant (1995). Drake also appeared in numerous episodes of various television programs such as The Outer Limits, Star Trek: Voyager, Six Feet Under, Firefly, and appeared regularly on L.A Law. For those of us that grew up with Tales from the Crypt Drake can be spotted in two of the show’s earlier episodes “And All Through the House” and “The Secret” both appearing in 1989 and 1990 respectively. In addition to his film and television acting Drake also performed vocally providing the voice of “Pops” in Johnny Bravo. Unfortunately, Drake died of a rare form of blood cancer in 2012 at the age of 66.
I remember the screening of Dark Night of the Scarecrow at Texas Frightmare Weekend in Dallas, Texas in May of 2010 as I was there with a group of my friends though, they would have had to use an old VHS copy as the film was not released on DVD until the following year. In all, Dark Night of the Scarecrow was a well-rounded chiller of a film with an outstanding cast and an intense story line that even manages to rip the heart out. Never is there any confusion as to what is going on in the movie though one might wonder what Otis Hazelrigg’s fascination is with little Marylee Williams. Even though it was a made-for-TV film, this should not deter one from giving it a view especially if you’re a fan of older horror movies. While it may not be a movie everyone talks about, I think you’d be pleasantly surprised with this one, from its music, to the acting, to the atmosphere. Not to mention this is a movie about a vigilante scarecrow, a story line that isn’t far from The Crow (1994) though Larry Drake was no Brandon Lee, and Brandon Lee was no scarecrow.
Managing editor: The Moratorium