Halloween Review: ‘Dark Night of the Scarecrow’

A few nights before Halloween of 1981, the television network CBS decided to cash in on the season with a made for TV movie directed by the novelist Frank De Felitta. No doubt intended for a nice ratings pop at a time when audiences wanted to watch something scary, Dark Night of the Scarecrow not only drew in the ratings but truly made an impact on those who saw it. Genre luminaries like Vincent Price and Ray Bradbury heaped praises onto this production further adding to its cred with the horror crowd. In the years that followed, legend of this movie spread and those who never saw Dark Night of the Scarecrow when it aired on that fall night in 1981 and missed the limited VHS released spent years hearing of the horror masterpiece they supposedly missed out on.

An intellectually disabled man in a Midwest small community known as Bubba is found with a bloodied and injured girl who had a run in with an aggressive dog. But before the facts can get out, a few local hicks who frequently bully Bubba form a lynch mob and hunt him down. They find Bubba hiding in a field disguised as a scarecrow, unfortunately this was not enough as the mob led by the local mail man, Otis savagely murder him. Thanks to some small town politics, Otis and his posse get off scot free, but Bubba’s mother promises them that there is another justice in this world and they will pay for what they did. Sure enough they are slowly and methodically picked off all the while an ominous scarecrow seems to be following them driving the murderers into a fit of paranoia.

Far too often the “made-for-TV-movie” has been associated with lower production quality and small budgets. But every so often one of them would surprise audiences, Dark Night of the Scarecrow proved to be such a movie. Frank De Felitta directed this movie like he was trying to make a top-caliber horror classic, regardless of format and in the end that is exactly what he did. Deep in the era where horror films on the big screen were focused on blade-wielding slashers hacking up teens, De Felitta and screenwriter JD Feigelson decided to go for a more classic chilling tale heavy on atmosphere and suspense over blood and gore. Going back to the old Universal Monsters-model, they gave us a “monster” who we can absolutely sympathize with and we want to see him have his righteous vengeance on the townspeople. But simply hacking them to bits would be too easy, the scarecrow carrying out Bubba’s quest for revenge methodically stalks these irredeemable men striking quickly and without mercy when each of them is vulnerable. Adding to the gloomy atmosphere is the wonderfully bleak setting. De Felitta truly captures a desolate Midwest town filled with fallow fields and old worn buildings. Even with paper skeletons and jack-o-‘lanterns put up for the Halloween festivities do little to bring any sense of warmth or joy to this community. This adds immensely to the eerie unsettling vibe which is threaded throughout.

For years Dark Night of the Scarecrow was a highly sought out flick among the horror faithful. It easily ranks among the greatest of the made for television films. Thankfully we now live in an age where it is available on DVD/Blu-ray for a new generation to discover this creepy masterwork. This is a TV movie that has aged surprisingly well and is ready to creep out new viewers.