Here's a nice little gem that most people probably don't even know about, but it's thankfully developed a cult following in the 32 years since it's release. It's common that many horror films become cult films because they're not usually critically-acclaimed, but so few of the cult horror movies are movies made for television. Premiering on CBS in 1981, “Dark Night of the Scarecrow” is genuine proof that a movie with a low budget can have exceptional acting, a tense atmosphere, and best of all, a spooky, chilling story fraught with mystery, prejudice, and vengeance. And best of all, the idea of a scarecrow being a harbinger of death is firmly established here, and it's the only film that has done it so effectively.
The film's plot centers on a Southern town, focusing on a young girl named Marylee, played by Tonya Crowe, and her best friend, a 36-year-old developmentally disabled man named “Bubba” Ritter, played by Larry Drake of “Darkman” and “Dr. Giggles” fame (both drastically different roles). People in the town are uneasy about the friendship between the two, but none are as filled with rage as the hateful town postman, Otis Hazelrigg, played by the late, and excellent, character actor Charles Durning. When Marylee is attacked by a dog during an afternoon with Bubba, the handicapped man is believed to be her attacker and supposed killer, provoking Hazelrigg to take up arms with his posse consisting of Skeeter Norris, played by Robert F. Lyons, and farmer cousins Philby, played by Claude Earl Jones (humorously enough seen in “Bride of Re-Animator”), and Harless Hocker, played by Lane Smith. The four men venture to the Ritter household, confronting Bubba's mother, played by Jocelyn Brando (sister of actor Marlon Brando), but Bubba's nowhere to be found...until they discover a scarecrow in a nearby field. And upon closer inspection, Hazelrigg sees Bubba's terrified gaze from inside the scarecrow's head, prompting the four men to savagely shoot the poor man to death, an act made even more heinous when they learn over the radio that not only is Marylee alive, but Bubba saved her life. Later, the four men are cleared of murder charges, invoking the despair of Mrs. Ritter and the hatred of the District Attorney, Sam Willock, played by Tom Taylor, who's convinced the men killed Bubba in cold blood. But soon, things begin to go strangely once Harless notices the scarecrow that Bubba was hidden within sitting in his field...only for him to mysteriously die the next night, his death ruled accidental. Hazelrigg and the other murderers soon begin to come unhinged, questioning who's after them...is it Mrs. Ritter, distraught over the death of her only son? Is it D.A. Willock, who believes the men to be killers and will stop at nothing to prove it? Could it be Marylee, who eventually learns the tragic circumstances behind her friend's disappearance? Or could it be the spirit of Bubba himself, out for blood?
For a film released on television, and especially during the early '80s, this movie is surprisingly well-made and very slick for what it sets out to do. It's not heavy-handed in its themes, which most horror films seem to struggle with, and it's in fact very upsetting and tragic in certain respects, while truly creepy in others. The music, which adds to the feel of the film, is genuinely eerie. And though it's not a gore-fest by any means and much of the violence is implied or left to the imagination, this is a dark, very adult film, dealing with prejudice toward the handicapped and even, in a subtle way, the idea of pedophilia. Children could watch it (I did...I saw it as a re-run during the 90's when I was in elementary school), but it may prove a bit too frightening at times.
Thankfully, fans or those curious to see the film can find it on DVD, mainly online, and the copies are legitimate and not bootlegs as had been the case for many, many years. It's even on Blu-Ray now, and that alone is very cool. For a film that fits the Halloween season very well, and one that's very impressive, especially from the time period, then look no further and add this spooky movie to your collection. A recommendation for any horror, mystery, or ghost story fan.