Dark Night Of The Scarecrow (1981)

Small Screen Suspense: ‘Dark Night of the Scarecrow’ (1981) At 40 – Retro Review

I grew up in the 1970’s and 80’s. It was the era of “The Big Three” television networks: CBS, NBC, and ABC. This is before FOX. Before satellite and cable were widely available. A time when VCRs were new. Odds are you had one television in your house. This all added up to one thing: weekend movies were events! The family gathered around that lone TV set, usually in the living room, and watched one of the aforementioned big three networks. More often than not, you’d watch some heavily edited, R-Rated theatrical film (try watching Conan The Barbarian (1982) on ABC sliced up for Prime Time. Yikes!). But, on occasion, you got to see a halfway decent network original. Such was the case on October 24, 1981, when CBS released Dark Night of the Scarecrow.

An eight-year-old me was glued to the television set that night. But this wasn’t just a “decent network original.” This was one of the best “Made For TV” horror movies ever seen. The memory stuck with me for decades. Look back with me now, 40 years later, on this groundbreaking, first-of-its-kind killer scarecrow movie!

Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981) Synopsis

In a small Southern town, four vigilantes wrongfully execute a mentally challenged man, but after the court sets them free mysterious “accidents” begin to kill them off one by one.

Frank De Felitta directed the film. It stars Charles Durning (When A Stranger Calls), Larry Drake (Darkman), Lane Smith (Red Dawn), Claude Earl Jones (Bride Of Re-Animator), Robert F. Lyons, and Tonya Crowe.

CBS purchased the feature-length screenplay from screenwriter J.D. Feigelson (Horror High). Feigelson originally intended to produce the film himself, independently, but CBS decided to produce it as a movie of the week.

Dark Night Of The Scarecrow

The Story

In a small, backwater town in the South, a mentally challenged man, Bubba Ritter (Larry Drake), befriends a young girl named Marylee (Tonya Crowe). This friendship isn’t looked upon kindly by the locals, who seem to delight in tormenting Bubba every chance they get. One day while out playing with Bubba, Marylee is attacked and injured in a dog attack. Bubba carries the injured girl back to town where the town rumor mill kicks into overdrive: Bubba killed a helpless little girl!

A rumor is the only excuse the town hillbillies need to gear up and go looking for revenge. This group of vengeful bullies, led by postman Otis P. Hazelrigg (Charles Durning), soon tracks a terrified Bubba back to his mother’s house. With nowhere to run, Bubba disguises himself as a scarecrow in hopes of evading the angry mob.

When the men find Bubba in disguise, they waste no time in gunning him down in cold blood. Soon news from the town reaches the men via C.B. radio: not only is the little girl alive, but Bubba is also the one who saved her! Without missing a beat, Otis grabs a pitchfork and puts it in the executed man’s hands so the group can later claim in court they shot in self-defense. With no witnesses to refute their story, the men are found not guilty.

What follows is a tale of revenge, as one by one, the men are stalked and killed by a mysterious presence. Is it Bubba’s mother? The little girl? Bubba’s ghost? Or something else entirely? When the scarecrow shows up, hanging on your property, you can be sure death isn’t far behind.

Dark Night of the Scarecrow

A Killer Cast

If you can’t already tell, I love this movie. I loved it as a fledgling horror fan, and I still very much enjoy it today. The first thing I’ll say about this film is that the cast is amazing. Charles Durning is a wonderful actor and plays an exceptional villain here. Horror fans will remember Durning from When A Stranger Calls. His impressive active resume includes two Oscar nominations, and a Golden Globe win. Durning’s “Otis” is detestable from the word “go,” and by the end of the film, you’ll be cheering for him to get his comeuppance.

Lane Smith also shines here as the rough and ready redneck Harliss Hocker. Smith has played a number of morally questionable, unlikeable characters over the years. That experience as a character actor serves him well here. Claude Earl Jones (no relation to James) and Robert F. Lyons complete the quadrilogy of bad guys and also deliver solid performances. When these four go out for dinner and drinks to celebrate after their acquittal, you’ll find yourself wanting to punch each and every one of them.

Larry Drake has had quite a few horror roles over the years, playing the title role in Dr. Giggles (1992), a killer Santa in Tales From The Crypt, and the deranged Durant in the Darkman films (read our 30th Anniversary Darkman retro review here). Here among his impressive horror pedigree, Dark Night of the Scarecrow actually marks Drake’s horror debut. Drake delivers a memorable, sensitive performance as the mentally challenged Bubba, years before playing Benny Stulwicz on L.A. Law.

Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981)

Groundbreaking Television Horror

Dark Night of the Scarecrow is notable in the fact that this may very well be the first killer scarecrow movie ever. Killer scarecrows were all the rage in the late 80’s and 90’s, and they’re still churning those films out today. I can’t think of one that exists prior to 1981. Can you? This movie inspired an entire genre. That’s not too shabby for a movie of the week!

Dark Night of the Scarecrow is memorable, not only for its colorful cast of characters but as an exercise in suspense. This isn’t a “body count” slasher film by any means. This is a drama that unfolds into a mystery that is steeped in horror by the time it builds to its memorable finish. If you’re looking for a solid whodunnit full of subtle chills, you’re in luck! If you’re looking for blood and guts and gore, you’ll have to look elsewhere. Much like Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), this film is largely bloodless and relies on tension and implication to deliver the scares.

Adding to the chills here is composer Glenn Paxton’s musical score. We’re not talking about a full orchestra or an epic, John Williams level lift here. We’re talking about good old-fashioned, minimalist horror music that the aforementioned Carpenter and Harry Manfredini (Friday the 13th) would be proud of. It’s simple. Haunting. Effective. It will stick with you long after the credits roll.

Final Thoughts

At the risk of over-hyping it, I can’t say enough good things about this film. Surely sure some of this adulation is driven by nostalgia, but after revisiting the film recently for the purposes of writing this article, I can honestly say it still holds up. If you’re looking for an obscure horror gem to watch this Halloween or any other night of the year, look no further than Dark Night of the Scarecrow.

For years the film was only available on VHS. I had to track down an old, beat-up copy on eBay in 1998 or 1999 just so I could watch it again and re-live my misspent youth. I’m happy to say that for fans, old and new, you won’t have as much trouble tracking down this film to watch it as I did. Dark Night of the Scarecrow made its way to DVD somewhere around 2009 and it has since been released on Blu-ray. The 30th anniversary Blu is pretty sweet, and it’s available on Amazon! It’s also available to rent on Prime for just $0.99.

If streaming is your thing, the folks at Midnight Pulp are planning a 40th Anniversary Screening of the film on 10/24/2021 at 9pm EST. I don’t know about you, but I will definitely be tuning in for that!

What do you think, horror fam? Did you get a chance to see Dark Night of the Scarecrow on television back in 1981? Have you had a chance to revisit it in the 40 years since then? Tell us your thoughts on this underrated gem here in the comments!

TV Guide Ad 1981

About Kenn Hoekstra

PopHorror Writer. Associate Editor. @PopHorrorNews Tweeter. Also... Screenwriter. Blogger. Horror Movie Aficionado. Wisconsin Sports Fan. IT Guy. Father. Smartass. People's Champion. TIME Person of the Year - 2006.

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